roots and wings

graduation cute 2017

“Why so fancy today, Miss York?” my students ask as we wrap up our Friday tests. I laugh and shake my head. The sun is shining through the partly closed blinds, sending dusty rays of light across our 2016/17 academic year calendar pinner neatly to the board.

“I’m going to commencement,” I say, absentmindedly wiping my chalk-dusted hands across my freshly ironed graduation dress. “I have an art final, an athletics banquet, and a graduation today, so you have no excuses not to get your homework finished this afternoon.”

They chuckle because they know I won’t be assigning them any homework. The school year is wrapping up. Things are coming to an end. And when I think about how long ago everything started, I marvel at how I ended up here. Here specifically, in this classroom, inside this body, heading into this future that seems so different from what I had expected it would be so many years ago.

***

I was eighteen when I took my first class at Southwestern College. Dad dropped me off at the base of stairs in the bottom parking lot, wished me good luck with an endearing smile, and then left me there to figure out adult life on my own. That was a long time ago.

Homeschooled my entire life, stepping onto a community college campus was like walking into a strange new world. For starters, I’d never really been to school before. I literally asked a professor if I was allowed to chew gum in class. I found a tree on campus and sat under it every day for hours doing homework and journaling until one day someone asked me for a cigarette…then I started using the library because I didn’t want people to think I did drugs. My obsession with hot pockets may have directly coincided with this particular semester.

But I was unused to the culture and customs of the general public. Everything I knew about people outside my community of conservative Christian homeschoolers I learned from TV and talk radio, and the former was pretty limited. People amazed me, disgusted me, surprised me. Stereotypes were fortified and broken down at equal paces and I spent much of that first semester feeling like fly on a very big wall, silently observing, unnoticed by humanity, an outside observer who didn’t quite belong in the fluid chaos of existence on campus, awkward in my own skin.

In some ways, it’s precious to think of how ardently principled and idealistic I was then, my convictions untested, untampered, untouched by the world and its realities, my direction unclear, the person I was not yet fully-formed.

***

I skid onto campus and park in the lot beside the tennis courts, across from the newsroom. I find this fitting, seeing as I spent the better part of four years in this corner of campus.

First stop: Athletic Banquet.

It’s been weeks since I’ve worn heels — months, even? Whenever the shin splints started… Trodding across the pavement in my tan pumps now feels alien. I miss my running shoes.

Chewy is waiting outside the banquet room in the athletic building. He’s wearing a tie.

I remember when they built this building. I remember writing story after story about the Corner Lot, the public bond money, the fraud and embezzlement, the District Attorney’s investigation. And then the debate about football favoritism on campus, abuse of the baseball team’s self-raised funding, illegally recruited basketball players from the Bronx. My year as the news editor of our student paper in 2011/12 was quite the adventure, and the bleed-over into the world of athletics provided a pivotal introduction to something that would become an obsession.

And now, after all that fuss, here stands the multi-million dollar project — the Home of the Jaguars field house. For the briefest second, I hear chuckle of irony waft on the breeze blowing by as I am welcomed by a structure whose creation I was once so adamantly against.

Chewy sees me and smiles, bus bag schlopped over his shoulder.

“There you are,” he says.

Inside, Melissa is sitting with her boyfriend and family. Ed shows up with an entourage, looking sharply pressed and suave. I almost don’t recognize Dae — the sprinter is polished up like a new penny. And Coach is there, all smiles. In fact, the whole room is filled with people I recognize. Athletes from the women’s soccer team, men’s basketball, football, volleyball. Coaches, trainers, administrators. And I feel like I owe everyone something, because I can pinpoint specific moments this year where each one of them has done something for me — offered athletic advice, supplied important encouragement at game-changing moments, extended the hand of friendship. Without even knowing it, these people have shaped my whole year.

The coaches call us up by teams and present each of us with a golden stole that says, “Student Athlete,” and my heart swells with pride. I earned this.

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***

Those first two years at school…What an education in life. I learned how to use the bus, how to find the best snacks on campus, how to make friends in class…

Ah, friends. The real gem of my college experience. I have met the most amazing, talented, kind, interesting, loyal people at Southwestern College. I am proud to say I have made friends of students, professors, coaches, faculty and governing board members alike. I almost made friends with some of the campus police as well…They ticket me often enough…

In fact, after three semesters as an editor for the student paper and a year as president of the paralegal club, when I graduated with my Associate’s in 2012, I felt oddly nostalgic. Southwestern felt like a second home. I felt like it had developed my passion for writing, tested my independence, and challenged my beliefs and perspectives enough to reaffirm what I knew to be true and sand the sharp edges off the rest. And for the first time ever, I had started doing something unexpected — I was learning about sports.

It started as baseball game briefs and quickly turned into photography and season coverage. And to everyone’s surprise, including my own, I loved every second of it. It was empowering to discover something I enjoyed doing — and was slowly becoming good at — that fell so far outside what people, especially myself, expected I would be interested in.

But, as a writer, I respect the closing of chapters. And life is full of so, so many chapters. So I turned the last page of my college story with the tassel on my graduation cap, vowing to never look back.

 

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***

My heels click over the sidewalk as I race from the banquet to my art final. I still have to show off my portfolio.

When I walk in, the class is halfway through presentations, but they stop to cheer as I swoop in, breathless and still wearing my student athlete sash.

“You look so nice!” they say, cooing over my graduation dress and commenting on the cap and gown I have tucked under my arm. No one fully expected me to show up today. They all know I have graduation this afternoon. They’re also used to me flying in halfway through class, still dressed in my practice uniform, or hobbling in late with my boot or ice bags. And yet, their patience never seems to run out.

They go back to the portfolios on display and I sneak over to the potluck table. I ate almost nothing at the banquet and it’s going to be a long afternoon. Unable to find any forks, I pick unceremoniously through the remnants of the feast with my fingers and I watch my classmates on the other side of the room. They have been so fun to learn with, the perfect mesh of ragtags and misfits.

Seven years ago, I might have felt uncomfortable among such openly awkward human beings who aren’t sure how to wear their opinions, backgrounds and social make-up — honestly, people in the same stage of development I was in when I first came to school. I wouldn’t have understood. I wouldn’t have known how to cultivate friendships with people so different from myself. Some of them are that way with each other, not knowing when to forgive, or overlook, or rise above. As it is, we all get along splendidly now. I love them to pieces. And some of them really need some lovin’, so I’m only too happy to give it. What a small gift to offer in return for the wealth of joy and friendship they’ve given back.

One hand in the chow mein, the other holding a piece of chocolate cake, I wonder where I learned how to be a good friend. I wonder if it is perhaps because, so long ago, people here were a friend to me.

***

I worked for a year in San Diego after graduating with my A.A., covering college baseball as a freelance writer in my spare time for a local paper, and then, in the summer of 2013, I moved to Prague. A lot of life happened in Prague, most of which I’ve already blogged about extensively. All I will say here is that, moving back to San Diego was the hardest thing I have ever done. It literally broke my heart. And, upon discovering how little it felt like I belonged back in my old stomping grounds, and how much I missed Prague, I returned to the only place I knew would welcome me back without question — Southwestern College.

But instead of the bright-eyed idealist who first walked onto campus on a muggy morning in late-August, 2010, it was just me, complete with broken heart and battle scars. I was struggling, cynical and more than a little lost. The person I was in August 2015 felt more like someone who’d been put through a blender and then asked to walk home, dripping anxiety and dragging the shreds of hope and purpose gracelessly behind.

And yet, there was Southwestern, waiting for me with open arms. It didn’t matter that my friends from high school had all moved on and moved away. There were new people here — people who have become some of my dearest treasures.

And it didn’t matter that I didn’t know where I was going next, because neither did anyone else. And we all just sort of took our time and let the doors open one at a time. It was humbling and empowering and beautiful.

***

The heels come off. I left art class after presenting my portfolio and washing down the cake with a dixie cup full of Dr. Pepper. Everyone sent me off with waves and well-wishes, and it was actually a little difficult to turn my back and walk away from my raggamuffin art friends.

But I have somewhere to be.

Running across the deserted campus barefoot in my dress feels oddly appropriate. I’ve been here long enough to feel comfortable getting comfortable.

The newsroom bursts into view and my heart flutters a little. I may have forsaken its walls this last year in my pursuit of athletics, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t all start here. For three years, I worked in these walls. This is where I fell in love with languages, where I discovered a passion for sports, where I broke out of the shell I grew up in.

I have lived through four generations of writers who graced this building. That’s the nice thing about The Sun. It’s a family. Everyone is welcome back, and most of us never really leave for good. So the editors who taught me how to be a journalist back in 2011 are still spoken of in hallowed whispers by this year’s staff who were trained by people I once trained.

So flying through the doors now, cap and gown in tow, feels like landing a biplane on the same little island airstrip that I’ve always used to refuel before long trips. I know these palm trees.

“Ooh, pretty dress,” says Ella from her computer as I walk through the sliding glass doors.

One second I’m standing and saying, “thank you,” and the next I am sliding on the floor, lying on my back looking up. It’s ritualistic at this point.

“Aw, is this your last official Marydown here?” Ella asks me. Alyssa comes out of her office with her phone.

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“We have to Snapchat this,” she says.

 

So, here I am. Lying on the floor while my phone buzzes — Melissa and Chewy want to know why I’m not in the graduation line at the football stadium.

Maybe I’m not quite ready to go down there yet. Maybe I’d like to soak in the memories of late-night production week madness, the feeling of being surrounded by people who love and appreciate me even when I don’t really deserve it, and the thrill of knowing what is waiting right around the corner of tomorrow, even if it’s just another story to tell.

“Better get your cap on,” Ella says. “You don’t want to miss your own commencement.”

She helps me pin the cap on and waves me out the door before turning dutifully back to her own work at the computer. And so I leave the newsroom one more time, knowing somehow that it won’t be the last.

marydown

***

I think I was surprised by how unchanged Southwestern was when I returned. Sure, the new stadium was finally up, and what a beauty! The faces on campus were new, for the most part. But the feel was the same. The trees still flower in purples, pinks and creams every semester. The sun still sets over the buildings with breathtaking drama. The parking is still only barely tolerable.

The sameness of the college highlighted the changes in me. When I stepped foot on campus again for the first time in three years back in 2015, I felt changed, different from who I had been when I graduated in 2012, or took my first class in 2010. And I the feeling strikes me again as I wind my way towards the back of the football stadium, into a sea of black caps.

***

“We were worried you wouldn’t make it!” says Melissa. My cap and gown were eskew from running down the back end of the stadium to where the graduates were being held. Chewy let me use the reflection in his sunglasses to fix everything. I have an extra tassel for graduating with honors, and a medal to show that I’m a transfer student. I’m proud of that too.

There we all were, suited up and looking sharp.

 

Ernesto was in and out, taking pictures of everyone. He works for the school now. To think he used to be my assistant at the newsroom, and now look at the two of us. Time flies in weird directions.

The ceremony takes forever, and we’re pretty much in the last row. After nearly two hours, it’s our turn to stand up and move down to the stage at the end of the football field. Coach is all gussied up and ready to give us our diplomas. I hear several people call out my name from the crowd of graduates. People I’ve met over the years.

Under the corner of the stage, sunlight bending in ribbons over the field, I realize how much time I have spent here. Nearly every day of the last year, I have walked down the steps onto this field for practice or to go to the locker rooms or the trainers. In the process of becoming an athlete, I have developed immense affection for this place and the chorus of life that resonates in echoes of possibility through the stadium.

More than that, I watched football games here in 2010 during my first semester. I didn’t know how football worked back then, and I didn’t have anyone to watch with. But I wanted to belong to this school so much. Isn’t that what we do? Go out and support the home team?

The home team.

The thought brings tears to my eyes, because this really is my home team. This is my school and these are my people.

I get lost in the twists and turns of life so frequently, battered and beaten by a world too rough for bright-eyed idealists, and Southwestern has been the safehaven. Not for my ideals — those have been challenged and tested. But it’s been a safe place for them to be put under inspection, a place where the voices raised in opposition are raised in friendship.

In fact, as I mount the steps to shake coach’s hand and take my certificate of completion, I realize that I haven’t really changed at all, as much as I feel like I have. I’ve developed, grown, broadened my horizons. But the core of who I am on this stage, in these awful heels with cap slipping off, is really the same as girl who walked onto campus alone one morning in August. The journalist, the athlete, the idealist, the friend, all culminating in this person I have become.

I have memories in the very fabric of this campus. Reminders that what I am and what I believe are holding steadfastly. But from the roots I have cultivated here have sprouted wings. The metamorphosis has taken place. I can see it from where I’m standing and I can feel it in my heart, held together by the healing bonds of home.

graduation diploma 2017

 

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