Last week, it struck me that I was leaving Oberlin. It wasn’t a casual realization. It was more of a whiplash-spasm, ice-down-my-shirt surprise.
Leaving Oberlin means leaving home.
Home is a big deal to my family. I was born in Point Reyes, California, and though we left when I was six for the east coast, my family never really got over it. California was their first love. She was their everything. And despite the practical marriage to New York, their hearts were still on Route One, watching the whales from Point Reyes Lighthouse, drinking Strauss Family Milk, and hiking Mount Tam. New York was a house, but not a home. California was Old Country.
Neither of my parents was born in Point Reyes — my Dad from Brooklyn, my mom from Bergen, Norway. Point Reyes was a place they made their own. They made music on porches, home-cooked meals, small businesses; they befriended everyone in town, and created a community who babysat their daughter (even though little-Aries nibbled on furniture). Home was national parkland, organic farms, deer, getting married on a mountain, day trips to San Francisco. When I walk around my parents’ town and introduce myself as "Arthur and Elisa’s daughter," I get huge smiles, hugs, and free cookies from strangers. Even when people leave, it’s still their home.
And Oberlin is my home.
And leaving Oberlin in the summer is like ditching your bride during the honeymoon. Though it’s mocked in musical theater, summer in Ohio is the picture-book definition of bucolic. There are fireflies everywhere at night, blue skies and sun by day. There’s bike-in movies, Feve dance nights, Hash House Harriers running club, family movies at the Apollo, concerts in Cleveland, and endless time. There are no deadlines. No demands.
Oberlin in the summer, lying down on the grass in front of Peters. Mr. Blue Sky in full force.
When I was a high school junior, I took out Colleges That Change Lives from the library and read it cover to cover. Until that point, I’d really thought only about prestige. How someone would look at me differently when they found out where my diploma was from. They’d give me the second interview, the handshake, the inevitable contract. Or they’d just see me as a smart, successful person. When I visited colleges, I was confronted with the reality that I would live there. It would be my home. It would be where I spent my weekend, where I dated, where I made friends. It would be my little world. It would change my life.
Of course, I would change my life at college. But the transformation Oberlin offered seemed to be the best of all possible worlds. At Oberlin, the world was technicolor. There were so many new ideas and so much passion. I felt like Dorothy in Oz: lost but enraptured.
But not initially. My first semester wasn’t graceful. I didn’t really bond with the other folks in my hall, the way everyone else seemed to. I took a lot of long walks. I worked at the George Jones Farm: weeding, harvesting, and exploring. Tried to continue my three-year relationship with the High School Boyfriend over long distance. I sang in three choirs, signed up for too many excos, and flitted from place to place, trying to do everything. I didn’t have many close friends, but I gained a huge pool of acquaintances. Needs for sleep or food didn’t stop me. I was a little moth, drawn by the brightest light.
When you buy a home, you repaint the walls. You tear out ugly carpeting to show off hardwood floors. You buy furniture and put up posters. You bake bread, light fires, wash your clothes with new detergent. The house starts to smell like you.
Halfway through the year, I switched dorms, from my distracting first-year dorm to a more relaxed all-year dorm. My new roommate was incredibly cool: a Neuroscience and Art History Major from Arizona. She told crazy stories, exuded calm, and had a lovely romance with a beautiful Russian major, who was our sort-of third roommate. I started doing improv theater, I joined the circus, I shaved my head. I broke up with my high school boyfriend. I started eating and sleeping regularly, and began to trust my friends. I dropped two choirs, and figured out how to pass my finals with a shred of dignity.
For an explanation for why I shaved my head, go here.
My long walks became longer jogs, letting me see more and more of the little town. It never bored me. I never ate in a co-op formally, but if I stopped into Harkness or Keep for pizza night, I had an endless number of folks to sit beside. I did some of my homework in the Cat in the Cream, so I could absorb some of the jazz combos, even if I didn’t have time for every concert ever. I gobbled up what my professors said, even when it confused me. I saw my friends as my professors: they taught me how to play taiko drums, how to dance, how to analyze a scientific publication, how to clean an industrial kitchen, how to appreciate new music.
I grew up.
In your home, you can find your way to the sink in the dark. You know that the front door will always slam in the wind. You figure out how to work the stove, and which windows to open to make the house stay perfectly cool. When you come home, you wear a sweeter smile.
I feel totally comfortable in Oberlin. I feel safe. I don’t worry about homophobia or sexism. I don’t worry about personal security, the way I had to in New York. I can go running at 2AM here, without fearing for my life. I can smile at strangers. I can ask for help. I can trust my friends. I can be myself.
Leaving is hard.
But college changes you. The ideals of Oberlin have dug into me — values that I’d always quietly respected were suddenly obtainable. I’m a pretty simple person: I want to make the world a better place. I want to fix things. I want to help the underdogs win the day. I want to be constantly learning, working, improving. I’m not as smart as I thought I was (when I was 16), but I’m a lot stronger.
Oberlin gives you a ferocious need: a need to make each day better than the last. Whether that’s by creating new art and music, researching the amount of pharmaceutical products in the reservoir water, fixing muscular aches, repairing spiritual pains, or teaching people how to get out of the worst scrapes with a clownishly-wide grin... we want to make things better. The friends I made — who became my professors and my family — they stay with me, in cities across the world.
Sometimes, you can take pieces of home with you. Sometimes, you can find it everywhere.
Miriam, on the roof of the Kohl building. Photo Credit: Carolyn Michaels.
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