|There were kitty posters before Facebook:
My first college roommate had several
of this variety hanging on our walls.
The posters didn’t inspire.
As classes started at George Fox University this week, I celebrate the beginning of my twentieth year as a teacher. First days of class always make me nervous; those teacher dreams, in which I arrive late to a classroom full of loose cannons, seem a little too real to me. But I’m never so nervous as I was on that first first day, when I arrived at my classroom way too early, wearing my new grown-up outfit, complete with an attaché case I’d just gotten for my birthday, an attempt to be professorial. After drawing all my material from said case, I grew increasingly panicked and flustered as students filed into the room, so that by the time I started teaching (minutes before class was supposed to begin), my voice was quavering with nervous tears, my hands were shaking, and I had an intense longing to flee. Thank goodness I stayed put: the last twenty years have been wonderful, a great learning experience to be sure.
But at the beginning of each fall semester, I am reminded more vividly of the time, now 26 years ago, when my parents drove with me to what was George Fox College, so that I could begin my first year of college. Times were different then: George Fox only had about 500 students, and the most valuable item I brought with me was my clock radio, a technological marvel that allowed me to play cassette tapes as well as wake me for my first class. We packed my clock radio, my new extra-long purple sheets, and my meager selection of clothes into the Ford pick-up my dad owned, and made the hour-long drive to Newberg, my sense of fear intensifying exponentially once we hit St. Paul, about six miles south of my college town.
I was wearing a very hot purple jumper, hand-made by my mom, cinched around the waist with a faux leather belt; platter-sized plastic earrings; and white ked shoes: a quintessential 80s girl, or at least the best 80s outfit my parents’ money could afford. I was dressed to impress: my roommate, certainly, but also everyone else, a school full of scary strangers with whom I’d be spending my year. Much as I wanted that purple jumper to give me confidence, it failed, and by the time we hit the Pennington parking lot, my heart was thrumming mightily in my throat, and I wanted my mommy and daddy more than anything. Heaven forbid I tell them that, though. Had to keep my college cool.
Using all the courage I had, I carried my clock radio up to my dorm room, and when I stepped inside, my rapidly beating heart sank. I knew immediately that my roommate and I would not be fast friends. She was from Newberg, and had already unpacked all her stuff on one side of the room, which was now plastered in pink. With kitty posters pinned everywhere (Yes! There were kitty posters before Facebook, if you can believe it!). I also remember rainbows. Lots of rainbows and kitties. My roommate was wearing a shirt with a heart on it, and a Keith Green cassette was playing on her boom box, a much better machine than my own. It was clear what kind of music would dominate in our room.
We said our awkward helloes, and I said my awkward goodbyes to my family, trying hard not to cry or to cling to my mom, begging her to take me home. My roommate sat on her bed, watching me unpack my own boxes filled with posters of athletes, pictures of my friends and sports teams, several of the medals I’d won for running. She was no doubt thinking the same thing as me, which was, essentially, Oh Crap. And also, I thought the college tried to pair us with people who shared our interests. And, this is not going to be okay.
It wasn’t. My first impressions of my roommate proved correct, and by the semester’s end, I had moved to another dorm entirely. The fault of our discord was not entirely hers, though she had a tendency to sing loud and off tuned to her Christian soft rock, and left dirty clothes everywhere, and put her feet on my bed when she was tying her shoes. I was too grumpy and cold, unwilling to communicate or be friendly. The room’s silence, I’m sure, was really hard for her.
In the four years that followed, I would change roommates several more times before finding ones I could live with—and who could live with me. I would change majors several times, too. I met life-long friends, one who would someday introduce me to my husband. I would have my life rocked, and then transformed, by two English professors who I would one day call my close friends and colleagues. I would become a conservative Christian, only for a little while, trying on the language and the beliefs of my more evangelical peers before abandoning the same for something I found more life-giving. I would discover a feminist identity, reject that identity out of fear and judgment, and finally accept that I probably was a feminist, even if I couldn’t call myself such for another two decades. I would not meet a spouse, and would graduate feeling a little abandoned by God.
All in all, I would have an incredible four years of college.
But didn’t know all this on that very first day, unpacking my room in my purple jumpsuit with the faux black belt while my incompatible roommate looked on, nor two days later, when I sat in my first college class and a crazed English professor talked incessantly about God’s will, irony, and the notion of truth. Because I remember so clearly the fear that accompanied my first day—rather than the amazing four years that followed—when I open my classes each year, I look with some tenderness on the first-year students, well aware of their complex feelings, as well as the journey they are about to begin.