‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
-from The Velveteen Rabbit
What happens when you end up living in a college town that’s almost a carbon copy of the town where you spent your own undergraduate years?
I went to Williams College, a small liberal arts school of about 2,000 students in Massachusetts’ Berkshire Mountains. I now live near where my husband teaches: Middlebury College, a small liberals arts school of about 2,000 students in Vermont’s Green Mountains. When he was interviewing for his job, Erick knew that I had some concerns about the deja vu aspect of this move, so he specifically asked his future colleagues how Middlebury differed from Williams. “Oh,” they scoffed, “Williams is out in the middle of nowhere. It’s tiny. Middlebury is much more of a town.”
I found — and still find — this comparison hilarious. It’s like arguing the relative difference between a flea and a gnat. In fact, as of the 2000 census Middlebury’s population was 8,183; Williamstown’s was 8,424. (And please note that those numbers include the 2,000 undergrads who descend on each town for nine months of the year). Both towns are centered around a single main street. It may be true that Middlebury’s main street is slightly longer, with slightly more offerings that Williamstown’s. But I’m living in essentially the same town where I went to college.
So far, it’s been interesting how little I’m aware of living in a college town. Sure, my husband goes off to work at the college every morning. Sure, I’ll occasionally notice students walking around downtown. Roads and restaurants are busier during special weekends when the students’ families come to town. Many of our friends work for the college in some capacity — but by no means all of them. There’s an unofficial “college pew” at our church where all the students sit together. Our daughters take swim lessons taught by members of the college swim team at the college pool. We’ve even had students from Erick’s senior seminar over to our house.
That sounds like a lot of interaction with the college, but it’s such a vastly different experience from when I actually attended college that I seldom feel any deja vu. As a mother of three, more than a decade out of college myself, I’m in a different world. We’re a 15-minute drive away from campus, and — what with the three young kids — we don’t attend many campus events. Shockingly, the undergraduate population tends not to breakfast at 7 AM, hang out in the children’s room of the public library, frequent the local playgrounds, or eat dinner at 5:30 PM. So we don’t see much of them.
When I do see groups of undergrads going about their college lives, they seem very young, and very loud. Their confidence and energy make me a little nervous. They appear to float on their own potential; most of them haven’t yet felt life’s hard blows that cultivate humility and empathy.
I look and them and think, NOT FOR ANYTHING WOULD I WANT TO BE BACK WHERE YOU ARE.
College was not a particularly happy time for me. As I understand it, many people look back on college as the best years of their lives: years when they forged lasting friendships, joyfully experimented in both the academic and personal arenas, and emerged after four years having found themselves.
For me, college was when I lost myself.
This may come as a shock to some people who knew me during college — perhaps even to most people who knew me then. I put up a very good front, as I’ve done for most of my life, because that’s what good girls do.
When I arrived at Williams, many of my peers seemed to already know who they were and where they were headed. They’d survived the proving ground of high school, and now they were ready to soar off on their talent. Sure, some edges needed to be smoothed, but at a basic level they were who they would be. Maybe it only seemed that way, but over a decade later these college friends and acquaintances still appear to be fundamentally who they were back then.
I was not that undergrad. I came to college looking like I had it all together, having spent the first 18 years of my life being perfect: working hard, getting good grades, going to church, and trying to make everybody happy. High school wasn’t much of a proving ground for me; I more or less breezed through it with a group of like-minded peers.
Problem is, trying to be perfect and make everybody happy for 18 years doesn’t leave much room for becoming a real person. I was 18 years old and I didn’t have a single opinion of my own. Going to church didn’t help me with identity formation, frankly, because if you’re perfect then you completely miss the point of grace. How can you receive forgiveness and love despite your failings if you’ve never actually failed?
No, when I arrived at college, I was more like the description of a crab cake I once saw on a menu: “Just enough binding to hold it together.”
If this were a novel or a movie, what would happen to a protagonist like that? Clearly, they’d have to fail. Something would have to rip apart the binding of their fragile self so that the pieces could be put back together more securely. It’s an old story. It’s The Velveteen Rabbit: the toy bunny needs to be discarded on the trash heap with a broken heart in order to become Real.
And, thankfully, that did happen to me: I made mistakes. The specifics aren’t important. These weren’t major crimes against humanity; they were the kind of mistakes that happen when you wander through four years of college without knowing who you are. But they were major to me, because I wasn’t supposed to make mistakes. And it wasn’t pretty; the ripping apart of my binding that began in college resulted in a three-year post-college morass of depression and anorexia, during which time I distanced myself from friends and family. It wasn’t until I found grace and Erick — almost simultaneously — that my pieces started to come together again.
I missed my college reunion this year (because our California family was visiting) and I’m very sorry that I did. None of this was college’s fault; I still have fun memories, and I made some friends whom I hope to know forever (and whom I wish I saw more often!). I wanted to be at that reunion, because I think that most people who knew me in college didn’t really know me. I’d like to have a chance to get re-introduced.
So, these are the thoughts that enter my mind when I come into contact with undergrads these days. I’m glad for those moments, for living in a town that allows me periodic flashbacks to the lost-est time of my life. I wonder how many of these students — underneath their pulled-together, confident exteriors — are just as much of a mess as I was back then. (For that matter, I wonder how many of my own college peers were just as much of a mess as I was back then? Probably a fair amount).
NOT FOR ANYTHING WOULD I WANT TO BE BACK WHERE YOU ARE, I’d like to tell these undergrads, BUT NOT FOR ANYTHING WOULD I HAVE SKIPPED IT.
Here’s what I would have skipped: My panic and shame at having my perfect front deconstructed. It was that panic and shame that I took out on my body, my family, my friends. And for that, I’ll always be deeply sorry.
So if I were to give advice to any undergrad who, like me, arrives at college as a hollow shell of “perfection,” it would be this: DO NOT PANIC when you discover that you’re not perfect after all. Welcome it as the thing that will make you who you are, as radiation therapy for your soul. But don’t wallow. Show yourself some grace. Gently pick up your pieces and start looking for the tools to put yourself back together again.
In a recent segment on the NPR program This American Life called “The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar,” a woman from a family that had suffered tragedy, deceit, and mistaken identity concluded, “If you hate that it happened, then you hate that you are.”
If you hate that it happened, then you hate that YOU ARE.
You should never, EVER, hate that you are.