Yesterday was freshmen move-in day. North Professor Street, which until yesterday had still been razed and largely unpaved, was now home to double-parked cars heaped along the two-way road and spilling over into Stevenson parking lot. There were parents with U-Hauls and cargo carriers lugging boxes into dorms, stacks of cardboard piled out in dumpsters for pick-up, and the dozen or so restaurants along Main Street each with a line wrapped around the block during lunchtime. Compared with only a few days ago, it felt like this great accession, a veritable explosion of people arriving all at once.
I finally understood why townies tend to spurn the college, and why students who choose to stay in Oberlin for the summer lament the start of the school year. Oberlin is so refreshingly peaceful with most of its student body away that the transition back to hectic, pedestrian calamity doesn't come without its share of misgivings. Of course, the summer state of utopia wouldn't be sustainable even if the college shut down tomorrow, but it certainly is a romantic notion—to have this sleepy little town all to yourself.
As part of my new job, I was put in charge of working the Resource Fair, a gathering of outreach groups, local businesses and campus organizations that jostle for real estate in the collective mind space of the incoming class. Shansi pulled all the stops—free pens, pencils, books, water bottles, and tote bags—and for three hours, I had my fill of people watching. It was interesting to see the first-years in action—some still stooped behind their parents, others with the leadership reigns clumsily in hand, and still more boundless and free, eager to shirk, at long last, the final remaining vestige of their pre-college lives.
That night there was a buffet dinner in Wilder Bowl for new students and their families. Naturally, I made an appearance, a large take-away Tupperware container at the ready. The green was alive—the tension so thick one could hammer it out with an icepick. Everyone seemed to be waiting, preparing for this one collective exhale, for the moment when all the goodbyes had been said, all the first introductions made, all the wild-eyed probing and propositioning underway, and when all the strange, horrible, shocking, unbelievable theories about college life could finally be put to the test.
I told myself that if I tried hard enough I could fit in here. After all, aside from a BA, what truly separated me from this sea of unknowns—a girl with a shaved head, a guy with biker shorts and a denim jacket, two girls in sun dresses and wedges, a pony-tailed boy with purple nail polish and a “Steak 'n Shake” hat? Sometimes I don't feel my own age, and at other times, it forces itself on me like a creep at a dive bar. Some people looked too old, and others, just about what you'd expect. But for all of them, it was too early to tell: in what ways Oberlin would come to mold their self-image at the end of four years.
That sea of unknowns followed me into the inaugural orientation concert at Finney Chapel. The room was packed, with overflow seating available down the street in Warner Concert Hall. Both President Krislov and Dean Stull made long, meandering speeches, and everything in me wanted to believe that they were talking to me when they spoke—of the limitless opportunities, the expectations of greatness, the proud tradition we would serve to uphold. But they weren't. Like a scorned older child I had been cast aside, neglected at the unwelcome arrival of a new sibling. Now I had only the legacies of other alumni to aspire, their influence so great as to cast a shadow over my very existence.
It was the most engrossing concert I had attended in recent memory. It's not to say that the performances weren't great, but I think it speaks more to the time I had gone without hearing live music, without the sensation of feeling it in every part of my body—back arched, spine tingling. In two hours, I hardly so much as shifted my weight. I found myself immeasurably drawn to each musician on stage—to the way their hands moved, the arch of their fingers, the gape of their mouth. Insisting on going alone, of doing this simply and irrefutably for me, I reveled in music as the great equalizer, in the feeling that we were all one collective audience in the face of its grandeur.
Pretty soon parents and their kids began filing out. On the walk back home, I remembered where I was six years ago, rounding the end of my first day as an Oberlin student. My parents dropped me off at my dorm after the concert and it would be the last time they would know me as a son, a boy on his path to adulthood. It was the first time I ever saw my dad cry, and although I didn't cry then, I felt it now, the tears welling in my eyes like storm water. Suddenly I was that parent, knowing that his time had passed, letting go of what had come before to allow for all the greatness to follow.
Before the concert, I was sitting in the Japanese garden outside of Finney Chapel, where the class of 1996 had dedicated a memorial to those Oberlin students who had given their lives during WWII. Among a long row of plaques listing names and graduation years followed by the letters USAAF and AUS, I saw one, on the far right, with the postscript “AMT '40, Navy, Japan.” And I thought to myself, if in the annals of history, Oberlin could come to accept him, then they'll find a way to accept me too. I didn't need to be someone I wasn't to fit in. Maybe being exactly who I am would have to suffice.