A recent tweet from a friend of mine got me to thinking about the year I was 19. That was possibly the most wonderful, horrible, exciting and traumatic year of my life. There are certain moments that define our lives. They are the hard returns - the line drawn between before and after. My dad’s aneurysm, getting my job at WKSU, my cat dying, and my freshman year of college - I think the latter is still my personal parting of the Red Sea.
Up until I left for school, my entire life had been focused on getting into college. I don’t think I spent more than a few minutes considering what I wanted to do as an actual career. The only thing I had ever wanted to be was an art teacher - but mostly because I loved crafts. Long story short, I don’t really have any artistic talent (I’m competent and clever, but that’s not the same), and no one is going to hire an art teacher because she makes funny little paper doll tableaux in shoe boxes.
I arrived in Michigan alone and completely bewildered. It was in the days before cell phones and cheap long distance plans (young ‘uns, ask your parents), so I would go weeks without calling home. I am very close to my family and I had not spent that much time away from them. Thankfully, I lived in a dorm and had to eat at the cafeteria or I probably would have stopped eating because I wouldn’t have known what to eat. Before leaving for school, my mother would just feed me (I still can’t cook like my mom). I didn’t know anyone in Kalamazoo. The college was extremely competitive, unlike my high school, and I had developed exactly zero good study skill techniques before getting there. I spent most of the year sick with a serious of colds and then, famously, bronchitis, when I maintained a high fever for nearly a week and missed reading Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato.
I made friends. Good friends that, thank god, accepted me for who I was (crazy, funny, erradic, loyal). I placed myself in the Theatre Dept, because I defined myself as a theatre geek. One day, I randomly wandered into the costume shop to burn off some lab hours, and that became the focal point of my new life (and eventually, like a much too young first marriage, how I made my living right out of college). I gave up the Math major later. At 19, it was important for me to prove to people that, despite my entrenchment in Theatre, I could be brainy (but I was never truly successful at that - mid-terms and tech week coincided way too often).
Honestly, I wish that I could say that by the end of my freshman year that I was completely focused and together. Not so fast. Sophomore year was one long experiment in sleep deprivation and me being a little nuts (ask any of my roommates). But, who I was when I turned 19 and who I was when I turn 20 a year later was really two different people. And it’s all kind of remarkable (remember this, those of you who are about to send your children off for the first time next fall - even if they sound brave, I’ll bet they’re freaked out deep down inside).