The Oberlin Stories Project

On unexpected birthday surprises

Phoebe Hammer ’14

“In that chord, I felt the warmth of belonging—my voice lost in the blend of others around me.”

Phoebe shows off a broken piñata.

I dreaded my 19th birthday. September 25 was just a couple weeks after first-year orientation, and although I had started to make friends, I didn’t feel the closeness I had with my friends back home, the ones I had spent the last several years celebrating with. The only thing I had looked forward to was a Josh Ritter concert in Finney that night, but tickets sold out before I could get one. I just knew the day would be disappointing.

Should I even tell people? Try to casually bring it up in conversation? Maybe birthdays in college weren’t a big deal? I decided it wasn’t worth it; just pretend like it’s another day and if someone happened to say something, I would smile and thank them. No party. No extravagance. I would play it cool. Nineteen isn’t even an exciting age; it’s still two whole years short of 21.

Recruited to play lacrosse, I started Fall Ball the first week of classes. As one of the few first-years, I was intimidated by my upperclassmen teammates, who seemed so close and so confident in their friendships. After practice that afternoon, they asked me to have dinner at Stevenson Hall, a cafeteria affectionately referred to as Stevie.

That’s when my first surprise of the evening came. As I walked into the third section of Stevie, my teammates burst into song. Other diners joined in, and by the end the entire dining hall was singing “Happy Birthday.” They even snuck in a cake with a tiny lacrosse stick painted on with frosting and the letters written out in Scrabble format (thanks to my recent obsession with Words with Friends). They spelled my name wrong, but claimed it was intentional. I didn’t really believe them but it didn’t matter. For the first time, I felt like I belonged to the team. The members weren’t just my teammates but also my friends.

After dinner, I walked the very short distance from Stevie to Kahn Hall, my new home. The building opened three weeks before, and I swear the paint was still drying on the walls in my room. It was a big deal, this new dorm. I had been interviewed about living there by The Oberlin Review and had received fliers about all the energy-saving features, but my own hallmates were a mystery. I was excited to live with students from all over the country, and even world, but, although I liked all of them, I still didn’t feel like I knew them or they knew me.

That’s when the next surprise came. Cheers and the pop of champagne bottles greeted me as I entered the common room. A large “Happy Birthday Phoebe!” sign was draped over the windows and my door was covered with little notes and decorations. My hallmates had made cupcakes and a cake for the celebration.

Then two of my neighbors brought out the piñata. I’d always wanted a piñata at my birthday, but my parents said no over and over again. They didn’t want to watch us fight over the candy, especially when a blindfolded child was swinging a bat above us. According to them, swinging at a paper-mache animal promoted violence.

And there I was, swinging at a green and yellow dinosaur, which, once ruptured, spewed candy, an assortment of supplies that must have been from the Sexual Information Center, and one ticket to the Josh Ritter ’99 concert that night, which I had desperately been trying to find since they sold out the week before.

“There really is no place like Oberlin,” Josh Ritter said near the end of his set that night. “The friends you make here will be some of the most important people in your life.” The day before, I might not have believed him. But looking around at the lacrosse team and hallmates sitting next to me, I realized it might be true.

In the final chord of his last song, Ritter asked us all to pick a note and sing. I’ll never forget the chilling harmony of 1,000 voices, many from students who would become my good friends in the next four years. In that chord, I felt the warmth of belonging—my voice lost in the blend of others around me. I had only been on campus for three weeks, but already I felt the connection and the closeness of Oberlin. Four years later, that chord, the finale of a perfect birthday, still resonates with me.