Paleozoic-era, biting insects were the first unanticipated surprise I got at Oberlin. The second, more pleasant, was nailing Til Eulenspiegel’s Lustigestreiche. A standard audition excerpt for French horn, the piece has a stretch of beastly syncopation that I invariably screwed up. I auditioned for the experience and the practice, but I had no expectation of making it. Playing with a devil-may-care attitude worked out. I nailed the syncopation and played with the Oberlin Orchestra that fall.
However, since I was 12, I have struggled with recurrent injuries and chronic joint pain. Explaining this was a maddening mystery until I was 18 and got a diagnosis of Myfascial Pain Syndrome. It was sometimes debilitating; flare-ups in my hip or ankles could keep me at home from school. Even with a lot of time spent managing pain in my shoulders, I was able to play horn as much as I wanted. However, I also came to Oberlin loving to study. I had diverse interests and a great deal of curiosity. On the flip side, confusion was quotidian for everyone; uncertainty and indecision were virtually palpable in the freshman class. For me, neither academics nor music was a done deal. At the time, since I loved music, I clung to it, hoping to audition for the conservatory and pursue a double-degree.
With more intensive playing, my arms and shoulders flared up almost immediately. Playing became increasingly painful. By October, I was in almost constant pain again, but this time it severely affected my ability to play. I gritted my teeth while opening Oberlin’s snow-resistant and fortress-like doors. Other students in my dorm even “borrowed” my ice packs from the dorm’s freezer. Eventually I received the worst-case scenario dictum from a doctor: stop playing.
College had other perks—I had what most people would facetiously call a “healthy social circle.” Yet, during the first months of school I felt fairly alone dealing with my pain. Personal angst that didn’t pertain to the communal life (angst about love, lives, papers, bad courses, your roommates’ bad smelling feet, etc.)—there weren’t many who could relate. Although many musicians and athletes could sympathize, eight years of struggling with it had ground me down. My mood sank to zero.
However, there was humor to be found in how bad things were. Typing my final papers that December, I had to use a computer dictation program that frustrated me endlessly. I said “hysterically” and it typed “hysterectomy.” Thankfully, my teacher was kind about these solecisms.
In fact, my professors were almost universally kind and empathetic. My current honors advisor found an sympathetic listener when she complained about arthritis. Others were quietly tolerant of my swinging moods and the accommodations I needed. Oberlin’s motley student body gave me many friends in different circles as welcome distractions. Most useful, though, was throwing myself into school. I dorked out shamelessly to my uninterested friends about the authors and topics that grabbed me, but I also found others who were as curious as I.
Going to London with the Oberlin Danenberg-in-London Program was a last-minute decision, spurred by glowing praise from my advisor about Anu Needham and Steve Volk, two Oberlin professors going to teach with the program. Going abroad to a fantastic city and having two tough and wickedly smart professors kick my butt was a phenomenal tonic. We held seminars in our professors’ flats and occasionally in pubs, and, luckily, my pain was manageable at this point and I could explore the city as I liked.
The joint-taught class that semester focused on the history, as well as literary and political theory, of the British Empire. I remember a moment when a particular author we read struck a bell in my head and gave me a focus for my studies. I began to feel a stronger connection to what I was studying—authors that we read during the London course combined political theory with historiography. This approach married history, my first love, with the intellectual challenge of political theory. I took a six-student seminar, allowing me to dive into the work of political theorists like Hannah Arendt and Jurgen Habermas. A few of us designed a private reading about a specific branch in political theory, giving us the chance to babble about philosophy to our hearts’ content. Having drinks and intense intellectual debates at Oberlin’s local (and only) bar, the Feve, may be a stereotype of Oberlin life, but a highly enjoyable one.
Upon my return, I declared a history major and found myself with even more professors who thought like I did, taught fascinating topics, and pushed me. I found myself fascinated with the line between history and political theory; as a result, I am about to dive into an honors thesis on Hannah Arendt focusing on her theories of citizenship.
Amazingly, the close relationships I had with professors and my studies have only increased. Their investment in me came as a shock. Coming from a high school the size of Oberlin, I was amazed when staff actually cajoled me into applying for fellowships and scholarships. I grabbed these opportunities and found that they would ante up to the efforts I put into the work. The work did pay off, and I was honored to receive the Truman Scholarship during my junior year.
Colleges market in their pamphlets in order to convince you that you will arrive in a utopia. Recruitment literature does not do justice to the real pleasures and strengths of the school, which come along with the unanticipated struggles. My bouts of pain while at school were some of the most difficult, but these periods of change and loss were also inherently creative. Oberlin propelled me; the faculty and my professors have shown more interest and support than a girl from a huge public high school could have fathomed. Pedantic pamphlets not withstanding, Oberlin is a rare time when opportunities (and funding) are there to help get you to where you want to go. It is true that college is tough; it can sometimes be morose, lonely, and difficult. Losing the chance to study horn intensively was a blow, but more time at Oberlin allowed me to keep searching for other things that I love.