My niece Maggie is starting college at my alma mater, UNC-CH, this week. She moved into her dorm on Saturday and when a client meeting had me in Chapel Hill on Monday (my first ever client meeting there in 6 years with my company), I couldn’t resist the opportunity to hang out with her for a few minutes. It is a bit uncanny how similar her feelings are to what mine were during those first days. One part of me wanted to just grab her and bring her home and protect her from having to deal with these first few weeks (which are so emotional), but I also know that enduring them is a very important part of her college…and life…. experience. I know her…..she will thrive there. But being there and talking to her I got nostalgic. It got me thinking about my early days at UNC…..
My first few weeks at Carolina were the typical roller coaster of high highs (when I was so glad I was there and love, love, loved it) and low lows (when I felt I had no real friends, missed home, was tired of being a fish out of water, and questioned why I didn’t just keep that McDonald’s job and make it a career.) I was so very ready to go away to college. I just knew that my parents were quite happy to get rid of me, too…I was trying to live an independent life already, which didn’t work well in their household. (It wasn’t until many years later that I actually found out how difficult it was for them.) They did what the college recommended…. saw that all of my stuff got out of the car and moved into my dorm (which took a surprisingly short period of time, since you drove up and a group of upperclassmen volunteers helped unload your car and deliver everything to your room), and then quickly went on their way. That was exactly what I wanted, too…..until I realized I was all alone and had no clue as to what I was supposed to be doing! I can still feel that ache of loneliness and homesickness and helplessness and inadequacy all of these years later. I was from a family of seven….I really hadn’t spent much time by myself and for years I had understood what was expected of me. There I was, a lot of people around but people with whom I didn’t have any love or history. Almost every minute of that first week was difficult.
My first roommate was a fifth year senior, a stranger assigned by lottery, only there for one more semester. She didn’t arrive until I had been there almost a week, so she was no help whatsoever in getting me acclimated to school. The girls across the hall had been high school friends at some exclusive boarding school, so being away from home was nothing new for them. They seemed much older than me, definitely way ahead in sophistication, and we didn’t have a lot in common. In fact, there was only one girl in my suite of eight that I felt that I had any rapport with. She was also a freshman, a journalism major. While we became friends and enjoyed being suite mates that year, our schedules, interests and friends were fairly different.
I had a few friends from high school who went to college with me (I think there were seven total from my graduating class.) All lived in other dorms. I’d see them on occasion, and I saw a lot of two of the girls that freshman year, but still the distance of the dorms meant that we could only share so much.
There was one other girl from my hometown who was in my dorm freshman year. We hadn’t gone to the same high school, but had met during our senior year. When we found out we had been assigned to the same dorm, we were happy we would know someone else there. (She would later become my roommate for a semester when my first roommate graduated.) But her college experience was like that of many kids who had grown up in rigidly sheltered homes. She came to college and felt her first taste of freedom and went a little wild. Back in my college days the drinking age was 18 for beer and wine…..and a large portion of our college activity fees went towards kegs. Wild girl definitely drank her share of her fees……and mine and several others. I believe most of her college years are a blur. I never felt this need to rebel…though I had also been somewhat sheltered, because of my own obstinance I had felt in control of my own life for some time. Plus I had already learned the lesson that there are consequences for all of your actions (from parents who were very persistent at pointing this out whenever I did anything that brought consequences)….and peer pressure never has been a big driver in my actions. I admit I sometimes wondered about the intelligence of some of my classmates who never seemed to grasp the principle of cause and effect. I laugh sometimes when I see them in successful careers.
This “girl gone wild” not only was the source of some entertainment for me, but I met one of my best college friends (who has become one of my lifelong best friends) when she ended up on his doorstep late at night with a couple of freshmen boys she had met at a mixer. Evidently she had not eaten and had been subsisting on diet pills. My soon-to-be friend Al was an Orientation Counselor that year and these guys brought her to him when they realized she was in pretty bad shape…..and got scared after she told them she was mixing diet pills and way too much alcohol. So Al, who was maybe 20 himself, had to figure out how to deal with the situation. He called the student infirmary and they walked him through the process of trying to figure out what kind of diet pills she was on. When they established they were just over-the-counter caffeine pills, they told him she would just need to sleep off the alcohol. I think perhaps Al was disappointed there was not a stomach pumping in her future since she was so aggravating. But they got her to bed and she slept it off. I think she introduced me to Al (her savior) the next day. There was absolutely no embarrassment as she told me all that happened….she rather enjoyed being the center of the drama. Al may have been a bit more traumatized….though his version was equally, if not more, entertaining. While he has not had contact with her since college, he still has nightmares she may show up on his doorstep in the middle of the night. (And I don’t rule that possibility out either…..last contact I had with her she still lived a life of drama, almost 20 years after college. One of her problems we discussed that day….a convicted serial killer kept calling her from prison and she was wondering if she should continue to take his collect calls. I voted no. My guess is that they still talk regularly.)
This friend was dramatic, but is also responsible for me getting to know at least two of my other friends from college that I still have contact with to this day. It’s good to know crazy people sometimes. They bond you to others and give you stories to tell for a lifetime.
It’s one thing to share a bathroom with your siblings (and with four siblings I had plenty of experience with that), but another when it is one bathroom and 8 girls. Our bathroom had one toilet, one shower and two sinks. I was strongly instructed by an upperclassman during week one that the only possible time the bathroom door could be locked was one week a month for each girl (and in reality that was actually frowned upon.) Shocking for me….raised by the modest British woman…but the reality of it was that open access was a necessity. And to think I had thought showers after high school PE were traumatic (they were)! But funny how that bathroom openness quickly became a part of life. Any modesty I had going into college was pretty much left behind.
Those years were a time for freedom, for exploring, for learning (the best stuff not in the classroom!), for growing, for stretching, for bonding, for learning about myself, for caring for others, for building community, for making mistakes, for doing foolish things, for doing brilliant things, for being silly, for being part of the crowd and also and for realizing that unique is not a bad thing to be. During my years I got to experience the electricity of Carmichael Auditorium, Dean Smith and the Four Corners offense, found out that the basketball players were real people who you could actually get to know and not just characters on TV, felt the thrill of winning a national championship, and the disappointment of a loss or two. I gave blood for free food (I would have given it anyway, but free food probably made it happen more often), sat beside a Secret Service agent who really did talk into his watch, learned that waitresses work hard for their money (and that you can’t judge a tipper by appearance or income), got to know people who had made significant contributions to our world and others who would make them in the future.
I am sad that Maggie will never get to experience a basketball game in Carmichael, or a meal at the Porthole, or a Greek Grilled Cheese from Hector’s (famous since 1969). I am sad that she doesn’t have to stand in lines at the bookstore for 4 or 5 hours to buy her books and meet people there who would be longtime friends. I am sad that she will never sleep on the sidewalk to camp out for basketball tickets. I hate that she will not ever get to take a military history class by Dr. Leutze (who entranced me ever time he spoke) or a political science class from the former head of UNESCO Jack Fobes (who was history himself) or writing course from Walter Cronkite’s head writer Ed Bliss. Yeah….I hate that she doesn’t get to have the years I had there.
But though Maggie won’t get to have my experiences, she will get to create her own memories, at a different point in history. If she does it well, as I suspect she will, she will not leave Chapel Hill with just a diploma. She will leave Chapel Hill with a wonderful, rich history of her own and a special place in her heart that will always make her smile and feel peace. And a whole lot of stories to tell for the rest of her life. Hopefully one about a national championship.