From the transfer kid

“December 2014. It’s the best you’ll be able to do. I’m sorry.” I was sitting in my appointment with my temporary advisor on “Transfer Student” day during 2011 Summer Welcome. There was a thin partition between me and another student, and I could hear the calculator adding up her credit hours, finalizing her verdict of “victory lap” or “four years, just under the wire.” Having come from a small private school on the west coast to a campus of nearly 35,000, I was already feeling like the kid at the reject lunch table.This approach to group together common outcasts was meant to make me feel at ease, but it seemed to me a tactic of extreme “othering.”

And now this. A semester behind, “the best I could do.” It was half a victory lap. A 200-meter dash. Honestly, I had been expecting worse, having come from a university on a quarter system, from which virtually none of my credits applied to a degree at the Missouri School of Journalism. But the advisor’s words reflected a negative note, as if I should have done better, as if the extra 200 meters meant the difference between a successful gold metal future and sweeping the discarded popcorn kernels in the stands.

Like any unrealistically driven writer-type, I set out to prove her wrong. I’d convinced myself that going to school in Seattle for a year had been the right choice, that there was nothing wrong with graduating late. I had grown rather fond of my December graduation date, somehow picturing a long dramatic exit across the quad, my diploma tucked under my arm, snowflakes lightly kissing my cheeks as I bid adieu to Francis and his prominent copper sniffer. A small part of me still felt like the “transfer kid,” used to figuring things out alone.

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I hate myself for not being able to come up with another film to reference being happily sequestered in a winter wonderland.

I hadn’t thought about that day and that advisor until recently, when talk of graduation became prevalent around RJI and Lee Hills Hall. Last Tuesday, in my Advanced Writing class, my professor, Mary Kay Blakely, reminded us that this would be her last lecture before retiring. My friend Claire attempted to sooth the somber mood by saying, ‘But it’s like we’re all retiring with you, MK. We’re all graduating.” I shifted in my seat, remembering my “graduation sentence” on “Transfer” day in 2011. Somewhere during this school year, I had become dependent on the people in and beyond that classroom at Mizzou. Suddenly I imagined my graceful, snowy exit to be a lot colder and lonelier, with a few stumbles through the icy columns.

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This image from The French Lieutenant’s Woman evokes every feeling of loneliness ever.

A few minutes later, MK asked if we had any last questions for her, any last wishes for nuggets of wisdom before she left the world of academia for a life of what we all assumed would be no less than total bad-assness. I managed to ask a question about how to balance my writer and editor selves, who are equally competitive and stubbornly opposed about the necessity of a properly placed comma.

MK answered my question with what I’m sure was brilliant wisdom; when I begin my job search in a few months, I know I’ll wish I had listened closer. But in that moment, a single tear made its way out of my eye. I have no idea why this happens, and it sounds so melodramatic, but it’s always the one tear that starts it all. I reached for my pen and notepad, pretending to take notes, hoping MK wouldn’t notice my shoulders slightly bobbing as the other eye began to follow suit. A few days before, my aunt had shared an NPR video of a 6-year-old boy’s advice to a terrified soon-to-be college grad that harkened back to the “My Favorite Things” approach from The Sound of Music. Except it was cuter and involved more food. He says, “When the scared feeling comes into you, the scared is scared of all things you like. So, when I was scared of monsters I thought of juice. And some meringues and a cookie—a chocolate chip cookie.” Then he says he’s hungry for cookies and pizza and red sauce. Naturally.

While I was scribbling and trying to avoid watery eye contact with MK, I took some advice from this brilliant 6-year-old and wrote down all the things I like and the people I will miss:

  • With Beth Steffens: Meeting Tom Hanks and stuffing our faces with Shake Shack in New York, Skyping from my London flat, making unidentifiable noises in the J-School
  • Nearly getting mauled by crazy royal baby fans at Buckingham Palace with Jennifer Liu
  • With Kari Paul: Staying up until 3 a.m. reading and writing cover letters and eating hot Cheetos. Being ashamed of said hot Cheetos. Buying them again anyway. Knowing she won’t judge about the hot Cheetos or anything ever.
  • Seeing Sapna Khatri, Elle Hoffman, Hannah Schmidt or any of my other London crew on a day when I most need to say a British word or two
  • With Kylee Mattoon: Being unable to open a bottle of wine for a solid 20 minutes. Crying. Contemplating breaking bottle of wine. Screaming with laughter when victorious.
  • Shoving aside to-do lists to make dinner and enjoy the company of a kitten with Shelby Feistner
  • Kaldi’s grammar sessions with Caroline Michler
  • Spontaneously joining Shelby Muff and Kristi Luther for a midnight birthday celebration
  • Hugs from Claire Landsbaum on a random Tuesday
  • MK’s lectures, MK’s stories
  • With Lauren Hill: driving six hours to Bloomington, Indiana, almost throwing up while anxiously awaiting meeting Meryl Streep, musical nights joined by Tori Meador and Mary Elgin
  • Googling cheap flights to anywhere but here, eating pasta imported from Italy and doing general old lady nonsense with Chelsea Bengier
  • Knowing any of these people are in my life

 

After I made this list, not only did I prove that “scared is scared of all the things you like,” but that my transfer advisor had been right. Three and-a-half years was the best I could do at Mizzou. And I’m not sure it could get any better. Here’s to one more semester and a snowy, happy exit. 

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Because every snow scene should look like this one from Meet Me in St. Louis.

The perpetual “we”

It’s standard protocol; we’re used to it now. The car pulls up to the airport or the bus terminal or the train station. We sit there for a while and avoid eye contact. We contemplate crying if we’re not already. We wonder how long it will be after we part that the tears will start or how many people will be around when it happens (this mostly applies to me and my tear ducts’ apparent requirement of an audience to perform properly). We are professionals at “parting is such sweet sorrow,” and yet this well-honed skill has not aided in the process.

I met Jessica on the first night of my freshman year of college. I had just moved 2,000 miles from home in an attempt to escape the grief that followed my mentor and friend’s suicide. I had friends at home who loved and cared for me, or the little damaged pieces of me, and that was more than I could have hoped when I started high school. But now, after a year of funerals and  “let me know what I can dos,” I just wanted to hold fast to the assumption I’d made in middle school that in college, one didn’t have to make friends.

When I was 13, I subscribed to the idea that I now know most everyone had in some capacity—that I wasn’t normal enough to have a posse of friends who thought I was just the coolest. I didn’t have enough of the charismatic, sparkly energy that so many of my female peers seemed to possess. This is so John Hughes ’80s cliche, but I have a distinct memory of sitting at a lunch table in seventh grade in total angst. I was quiet and never a bother, so I was could easily slip in anywhere but never talked. As I recall on this occasion, I was trying desperately to drum up some idea of pre-teen conversational fodder, and thinking, “When I’m in college, I don’t have to try to make friends. I can just  go to class and do my homework and graduate and talk to absolutely no one. It will be great.”

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This is the photo I use to prove how much different one looks at 22 than 18. Babies.

But on my first night of college, there was Jessica, sitting next to me on the bus on the annual freshmen trip to Fred Meyer. A blond, energetic high school cheerleader, she had that familiar sparkly energy and as we crossed the Ballard Bridge she turned to me, bouncing,  and said, “Hilary! We’re in the city! Look at us. We’re city girls now!” We.  We’d only just met an hour before and we were already a “we.” That was the night I threw out my seventh grade wish. I had a friend in college—a peppy, charismatic friend who wanted to talk to quiet, bookish me.

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Our shenanigans are never complete without the third member of our third floor Moyer Hall trio, Marisa, who always adds a little spunk to a photo…

Jess and I talked again later that night, when I posted for some unknown, completely nerdy reason that I was “sleepless in Seattle.” I guess you have to say it once, right? She responded, “Me too! I’m in the lounge. Come talk to me!” I told her everything I promised I would leave at home in Missouri—how my teacher had killed himself, how pissed I still was. How no one understood why I would go to Seattle for school and how I was tired of trying to explain it. How I didn’t know if I could. The spunky girl from the bus suddenly understood her seat partner as someone who came to college as a bunch of broken little bits, and she listened to me anyway. We talked into the early morning, and we’ve kept up the conversation ever since.

Maybe I was right in seventh grade. I didn’t have to make “friends” in college, not the kind who surrounded me in the cafeteria, at least. The kind of friend I made in Jessica was someone who helped me figure out where all the little bits could fit back together or if maybe some of them are better left discarded. She’s the kind of friend that the phrase “I’m transferring back home,” doesn’t apply to because you don’t ever really leave a friend like that.

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Discovery Park is one our our favorite places to visit when I come “home” to Seattle. A trip there is never complete without a proper photo sesh.

When I was 5 and my parents and I first moved from St. Louis, my grandmother starting singing a song to me over and over: “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other’s gold…” She sang it to sort of pacify me in my first period of real change in life, but it remains a constant for me with each goodbye I encounter.

Just as it has in the past three years, the car pulls up to the curb at the airport, and we avoid eye contact. We contemplate crying and I know I will as soon as I hit security. This time, the wait will be longer. We’ll have to exercise our “be seeing you” muscles for the next 27 months, after Jess leaves for Nicaragua and the Peace Corps.

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In those moments when I don’t have the strength, this photo on my dresser always gets me through. Both Jess and Marisa have shown me the kind of love and support I needed during my college journey.

We’re still in the car and neither of us move. I look over at Jess and think about the last four years. I think about this trip and all the ones before it. I think about how each time, I leave with new insight from my friend. Three days ago, she looked at me during lunch and said in a casual tone, “So, do you think you’ll stop worrying after graduation?”

Jess always knows how to make her point without saying so directly. She’s bossy in the best way; she accesses my thoughts without  having to poke and prod her way in.

Finally, we get out of the car and participate in the traditional hug. We go through the steps of the goodbyes, but we both know this time is different. We know when we see each other again, our “we” will have changed dimensions. We will be older, 24. I will have graduated, and she will have been for more than three years. The college stage of our friendship will have ended.

“Will you write about us?” Jess says, as she gives me a final squeeze.

“Of course,” I say. I’d already started this blog post in my head.

I turn, “ripping off the Band-Aid”—the clichéd comparison I’d used to describe this particular departure—and walk toward my terminal. The pacifying tune starts in my head.

“The circle’s round; it never ends…”

“See you, Jess!”

“See you!”

“That’s how long you’re going to be my friend.”

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