There are many special places in Oberlin. Cozy lounges, tucked away from the hustle and bustle; the bench swings scattered across campus; the peaceful comfort of the womb chairs in Mudd Library, where I’m sitting as I write this. But there is only one Burton Basement.
You probably think I sound crazy. The basement beneath Burton isn’t beautiful like the lobby of Peters, with its curving staircases and beautiful carved balustrades. It doesn’t have the rustic charm of Wilder, or the airy sophistication of the science lounge. But looking back on my first year at Oberlin, one feature in common across all my fondest memories is the backdrop: the purple carpet and beige walls and sliding windows. Whether it was studying, hanging out with friends, composing at the piano, or even napping on the couch to avoid the unpleasant roommate who had been foisted on me, my path always seemed to carry me there.
Soon, the eccentricities of the basement were no longer strange and intimidating to my shy, first-year self. The clanging radiators in winter, the strange smells in the side rooms, the carpet with its strange stains and the mismatched furniture. I stopped trying to use the drinking fountain with the lesbian flag sticker because I knew it never worked, and celebrated when stands finally appeared in the practice rooms because their acoustics are the best of any on campus.
I was very fortunate to have a PAL (Peer Advising Leader) group full of wonderful people; without that nudge towards what are now my closest friends here, I don’t know if I would have found a supportive social group as quickly as I did. Before coming to Oberlin I had worried endlessly about whether—separated by hundreds of miles from everyone I knew—I would be able to put down roots. But sitting on the haggard armchairs in the Burton Basement for the first session of a new D&D campaign with people I had first met barely a week ago, I already felt at home with them.
When the summer heat finally departed and autumn began to paint its colors on the trees in Tappan Square, I celebrated my first birthday away from home in the closest substitute I could find—around a table in the Burton Basement with my friends.
Come winter and the end of the semester, my friends and I gathered for one last session before we all went our separate ways for the holidays. We agreed to meet and play on Zoom over break, but we all knew it wouldn’t have quite the same magic to it as eight people squeezing into the side room every Sunday morning to tell stories together.
Through the holidays and Winter Term, the basement lay cold and empty without us. And when the last snow melted and the new semester began, we returned to our longtime haunt by reflex, picking up our stories and our friendships right where we had left off. Summer no longer seemed quite so long or so empty; not when we all knew where our paths would converge once more.
Eventually, the leaves began to turn again, and one of my first stops when I arrived back on campus, now a veteran second-year, was the basement. I had a new room, a different building, a different schedule and a new set of goals for the semester. But the Burton Basement was a comforting anchor, solid and dependable as ever. Times change, yes—the doors are now a cheery red and yellow; a new set of furniture has replaced the old; one of the trash cans is now full of water from when it flooded at some point—but these things are ephemeral. What matters are the laughs, the jokes, the shared memories that have been made and remade and soaked up into the walls and carpets.
Tonight, I will be back there again, sitting around the table with my friends, telling stories.
There are many special places in Oberlin. There is only one Burton Basement.