April 16, 2020 | Narrative
elegy for a lost semester
on leaving home to go home
Where is home for you?
I still remember how I felt when I was first asked that question during orientation week my first year at Brown: strangely confused. Where was home for me? My family lives in a small town in Georgia—a far cry from diverse, metropolitan Atlanta. Though I called that little town “home,” it never really felt that way to me. It was the place I had always been determined to leave. The place that was always squeezing me out.
Brown, too, was far from feeling like home at first. I felt like it got dark too early. People raised their hands and said smart things I’d never considered. Every assignment felt insurmountable until, somehow, it got done. But I had friends, and I had a job, and I had interesting classes—and after a while, I found myself saying, “Oh, I’m going home” when I meant “I’m going back to that cramped room with bad lighting in New Pembroke 4.”
Home. It wasn’t until the university closed down last month that I realized just how much Brown had become home to me over the last three years. When the news broke, I walked through the campus with tears threatening to well up in my eyes. I knew I was lucky to have a house and a family to return to, and that was a relief. Even so, I felt suffocated by the thought of that small town down south. Maybe I’d never get out after all. Maybe, no matter what I did, I’d always find myself forced back.
They were telling me to go home, but Brown was the only place that had ever really felt like home.
After a fall semester abroad, I had been so glad to be back on campus for the spring. It felt like a homecoming. But, in reality, I ended up only spending roughly two months at Brown during my entire junior year. How could this be happening? Just the other day I’d bought toothpaste because I was running out. I’d made plans to see friends in the week to come. But no—we were going home. I was leaving home to go “home.”
I stood on the Main Green, mourning the fact that I didn’t get to see the campus sleeping under the quiet hush of snow. I mourned the fact that I would not be here to see it bursting with springtime blooms. I mourned the late-night conversations that might have happened, the movies we might have watched, the budding relationships nipped short, the in-class discussions we would have had. I thought of the seniors. I thought of the couple I’d seen, holding on tightly to one another under Faunce Arch. I wanted to open my arms wide and gather this whole place in and hold it, right against my heart.
But in that sense of loss was the understanding that I mourned only because there was something real, something good, that was being lost. Brown had given me so much and, in those last few days, it seemed like everyone mattered more—everything mattered more—but really, I was seeing just how much everyone and everything had really mattered all along. My friends and I went to Meeting Street Cafe, where I had eggs Benedict for the first time. We walked to India Point Park and sat on the rocks by the water for a long while. We talked about where we wanted to be and where we wanted to go in the years to come. We sang, quietly, “When peace like a river attendeth my soul…”
Were we really leaving? Was it possible for the world to be so lovely even on the cusp of everything changing? The earth was green and growing, the trees stretching after a winter’s sleep. It was like a poem, the kind where you cannot say what it means but you feel it stirring in you nonetheless, like soil being tilled. Were we really leaving? Were we? Were we?
But we were, of course. The motions I went through in preparation to leave felt too normal, too familiar, given the circumstances we were in. I packed my clothes away. I took out the trash. I did the laundry. I taped up the boxes. I could almost pretend that it was the school year’s end, and we were just moving out, the way we did every year. After all, college life is a cycle of moving in and moving out, of leaving and coming back and leaving once again. We only stay in any given dorm building from September to May. We’re only in college for four years. And yet we learn to call our temporary dorm rooms “home.” We learn to put down roots in a place we’ll inevitably have to leave—though none of us dreamed we’d have to leave it like this.
I am home now—home in south Georgia. The headlines that once were full of primaries and presidential debates are now grim with news of death tolls and photographs of bedraggled medical professionals. This country has been cracked open, all of its ugly inequities exposed so sharply that none of us can look away. I know, more than ever, that I am lucky. I am lucky twice over. Lucky for home here in Georgia, and lucky that Brown was—is—so much a home that I can feel homesick for it.
I think of Brown, and I think of everything we lost this semester. Of everything we’ll carry in our hearts. I think of long conversations and inside jokes, of confessions and laughter. I think of that explosive “you too?” moment when you meet someone who loves what you love or wonders about what you wonder about. I think of heartbreak. Of healing. I think of spontaneous boba runs and late nights at Jo’s, of Blue Room muffins and Andrews granola bowls. I think of Blueno lit up at night, and Soldiers Arch where tour groups gather, and Dickinson poems beginning to open up. I dwell in Possibility, she wrote.
I think of Brown. I think of home.