Move In Day
I’ve been thinking about college, what it’s like to move in for the first time, and what it must be like for kids now, in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of civil unrest. How many of them might be the first of their families, or afraid of bringing home a germ to vulnerable parents or grandparents.
I was the first person in my family to go to college. Neither of my parents finished high school. My sister graduated high school, and should have gone to college, but there was a huge family fight about it that in all honesty, deserves its own blog post. Tl;dr she should have gone. She was robbed. My brother graduated, though no one expected or encouraged him to. My oldest brother waited until I graduated high school to get his GED, when he was forty, and showed up at my graduation party to announce that he too had graduated, and that he was going to college in the fall as well. A better college than mine. A Syracuse University to a Le Moyne College.
I picked Le Moyne because they gave me the best financial aid package, and it was the right choice, because I ultimately fell in love with the school, and I’m forever grateful for a Jesuit education. But it was the money. The package they offered required my parents to pay zero: nothing by loan, nothing by payment plan. Nothing. I got a lot of grants and scholarships, and I took out loans to make up the rest. I’m still paying them back.
There was an enormous pressure not to go to college. College was the last thing my parents wanted for me. I don’t know what the first thing they wanted was. Maybe nursing school. Something brief and non committal that would get me an ok job and a husband. Better still, a job right out of high school that I could walk to, like a bank or maybe a store. I didn’t have a car, and although I had a license, I wasn’t allowed to drive the car. I have no idea what kind of life they thought this would be for me.
But I was headstrong and dead set on going. I applied to four schools and got into all of them, but didn’t know I would. I thought I’d be soundly rejected, because I had no example to follow except my sister’s failed attempt before I was even born. College seemed impossible.
I didn’t know what I needed. I opened a checking account so I could pay my semester bill. I got a credit card so I could buy text books. I relied on a roommate from a family who knew better to bring a mini fridge and a TV. My parents had bought really cheap, scratchy sheets for my dorm room that were twin, but not twin XL, so my mother cut the fitted sheet and sewed in a strip of solid black polyester. Everyone who saw them asked what it was. I didn’t know I needed flip flops for the shower, and I never wore them. I didn’t know anyone who took a shower every day. It never occurred to me that a shower could be dirty. Kids brought power strip and phone cords, computers and word processors. I had a mid century alarm clock that glowed a mild mint green in the dark and made a buzz like a dying bird in the morning. The cord was yellowed and brittle. I had a hot pot so I could make tea, but no snacks. The kids on my floor came with boxes and boxes of chips and cereal and cases of glass bottles of Snapple. I had the biggest meal plan you could get, because it was being offered to me for free. But nothing in my room to eat. I had gone to college a vegetarian, but in 1991, college dining halls didn’t offer a lot of meat free options that weren’t salad or cereal, so I broke down. I’d compromised before. My parents loved to get 3/$1.00 hamburgers from A&W. It was the cheapest dinner out the three of us could have.
Every time I see the Discover Student Loans commercial — which to be honest is several times each night — I cringe. Or I shut down. I can’t take the joy the parents offer their children. You got in! You did it! It didn’t feel joyful to me. The first months of college were tight with anxiety, staggering headaches, and shakiness. I went home most weekends because my parents expected me to and because it was easier than fighting. I think they thought nothing good was happening on the weekend in college, but everything good was happening. People were becoming friends. Ordering pizzas. Sitting outside on the first cool nights in flannels, smoking cigarettes. Maybe they expected it to break me. That the anxiety would be too much, that I’d be homesick beyond repair.
I was desperate to get out. I’d been forged in a fire of anxiety, a witness to unspeakable conflict and violence. As a little kid, I knew I could break up a fight by vomiting. Literally. If I started throwing up, everything calmed down for a minute. People stopped and paid attention to me and my face that was wracked with broken blood vessels from the force. For a minute.
We were taught to quit. Didn’t like school? Quit. Or don’t bother to start. I had never taken a dance class, played a sport, or been allowed to be in a school play. But I was goddamned if I was going to give up on college. It felt like the one step I had control over. The one thing that was going to get me closer to a life I wanted.
So now, when I see those kids on move-in day, with their parents in minivans and SUVs, unloading big bins of snacks and drinks, with their winter clothes already with them, laptops and extra cords, some with their own cars, I always kind of scan for the kid who looks like me. Hollow and desperate, with sheets that are sewn together, with a look that says my foot is almost out of this trap. I want to tell her to keep going.