Going back to my old stomping grounds was something I liked to do from time to time, when the past whispered my name, calling me back to relive the good times and the bad.
I parked on the west end of the A Street shopping center, tempted by the smell of sugar cones and Szechuan Chicken. The arboretum was my destination, a well hidden exhibition behind the university I strolled through the way we did between study sessions, or on Sunday afternoons when the campus was quiet, reading silver plaques that introduced each plant, tree, shrub. It was the three of us (Francesca, Loralee, and me), always searching for spaces safe for introverts, the arboretum our favorite. We sat for hours on wooden benches, talked about the future, how we’d go on to graduate school, get our Ph.D.’s, build successful careers in medicine, engineering, academia. Driven by hopefulness and innocence, we kept to ourselves, befriended professors who recommended us for internships and research opportunities, arrived early to counseling appointments, determined to manage coursework, stress.
We had it all together, a professor’s dream, asking all the right questions, studying for the right amount of time, exuding confidence and motivation in the front rows of large lecture halls. But as life would have it, this level of excellence was short lived. By the start of year three, even after a restful summer, we started to see signs of burnout. Office hours were inconvenient, interrupting our nap schedules, Maury. We wondered why we needed to study formulas for Stats when we could write them on our forearms. And emails from counselors collected in our inboxes, their guidance ignored. Loralee was first to find her way onto academic probation. I was next. Parents called, threatened, and we found our way back inside heavy textbooks, the ones we spent hundreds of dollars on and sold for not even a third of the cost. Our enthusiasm was gone though. And, ultimately, rather than flunk out, we took a break, moved back home, and got jobs in customer service centers, book stores, supermarkets.
I returned a year later; Francesca and Loralee did not, opting to continue working and attend schools closer to home. I had new roommates, ones who were studious but knew how to have a good time too. They pulled me into their Saturday night shenanigans and we slept most of Sunday, waking up in time to write eight-page research papers and make flashcards for Chemistry that we’d study before class started.
We talked about these days, how much fun we had, how many lessons we learned. When they visited we all returned to the arboretum, the campus, reflecting on life then.
“Some lessons you can only learn through experience,” Loralee said. “Degree or no degree, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
I made my way back to my car and headed home. A girl leaving campus, wearing a blue and white backpack stood on the corner of A Street. She adjusted the heavy pack, placing her fingers under the straps to keep them from digging into her skin until the light turned green and she darted across the street, slowing her pace as she moved further into the neighborhood, past a fraternity house, a fire station. I watched until she disappeared, thinking for a moment that she reminded me of an old friend, and then dismissed her from my mind.
It wasn’t until I was on the freeway that I realized she didn’t actually remind me of anyone; she encapsulated everything I remembered about university life: how freeing it was and how it also weighed me down.