I knew what those words meant, in the linguistic sense, all the way back in early high school. At the time, I thought it was a bit blasphemous, actually. To say nothing of melodramatic. How could a lousy school deserve such a grand title? How could anyone be so…maudlin? And this is coming from a maudlin fella.
Well, part of it was that Camden High School, at least as I experienced it, didn’t deserve such a grand title. It was a place to escape from on the way to someplace better, no more. And even at that, I can’t avoid the occasional moment of nostalgia.
But St. Lawrence University…I remember the day I arrived there, and I saw that the school colors were scarlet and brown. I expressed my dismay, but my father just smiled.
“You’ll come to love ’em,” he said.
He was right. I still wonder what they were thinking, but he was right. Even so, I still didn’t understand until last summer, when I made my first trip back in thirteen years.
I graduated from St. Lawrence University in May 1999. I returned that Fall for a friend’s wedding, then didn’t go back until July of 2012.
I spent the first four years out of school living in Boston with my college sweetheart, working data entry and secretarial jobs, filling in the gaps by working nights at Blockbuster. Then in 2003, my fiance (the aforementioned college sweetheart) and I moved to New York, where I more or less fell into a career as a paralegal. We were married in 2004, finalized the divorce in 2011.
In all that time, I didn’t take one vacation, as such. I visited family for holidays, I attended weddings (including my own, of course), a funeral, but at no time did I just “get away”. I was just too busy building a life. Besides, for most of that time I was working temp or contractor jobs, and couldn’t afford the lost hours and money involved in taking time off. Not a minute of such time could be spared on non-essentials.
Even if I’d had a bit of downtime, my ex wouldn’t have wanted to go back to visit our college anyway. She didn’t have a good experience there. Looking back, she’d have been better going someplace else – the programs she wanted just weren’t available at St. Lawrence.
Anyway. It wasn’t until last year, when I had a “permanent” position at a law firm (from which I have since been laid off) and more days off available to me than at any other time in my professional life, that I was able to take a week off in the summer to visit my folks at their home on Panther Lake.
This vacation came at a…strange time in my life. The only thing that was going unequivocally right was my relationship with my girlfriend (not that that’s not important). I was still living in that single room in that rough neighborhood. My job was everything I’d hoped to find in three years of desperate temp scrambling, but I was still unhappy. Maybe part of it was that I sensed the subsurface rumblings of approaching layoffs, but I think the largest part was simply asking myself if this was really what I wanted to do with my life. When I’d graduated college, the paper-shuffling jobs had just been day jobs while I worked on my writing. Thirteen years later, the writing hadn’t really gone anywhere in years and the “day job” was my life. How had it come to this?
My summer restlessness didn’t quite reach the heights it had in the lonely summer of 2011, when I had actually started doing research and making tentative plans to set out on that cross-country walk, but I was still leaving the office every day, walking to the edge of the island and looking out over the river as those two songs in that post played again and again.
My first night at my parents’ place, I walked out into the front yard and waded into the lake, the first time I’d had a chance to do so since my brother’s wedding on Fourth of July weekend in 2003.
I don’t know how long I stood there in that warm, shallow water, watching the sun set and the stars come out over the lake that had been the site of so much during my late teens and my college years.
I could feel thirteen years of struggling dissolve into the water. Thirteen years of rat race and frustration.
What had happened to me? What had I allowed myself to become? I was fat and divorced – two things that I had once believed only happened to other people. Worse, I had failed. I had fallen short. Don’t get me wrong: paralegal is an honest and respectable profession. It’s just that I spent the first twenty-two years of my life preparing to live up to my Potential. Salutatorian of my high school. Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude – and I end up in a career that I could have gotten with an Associate’s Degree. It wasn’t just a failure, it was a betrayal – someone with all that Potential shouldn’t be making his living as an assistant to those who were actually doing things with their lives.
Did that mean I wanted to be a lawyer? No, of course not. Even if the market for lawyers didn’t suck (even in NYC), I’d seen the lawyers’ job, and I didn’t want it.
I didn’t know. After a while, I got out of the water and went inside. The mosquitoes were coming out. Still, I felt a bit better, in spite of everything. Emptied out, as if most of what was inside me had dissolved into the lake. Later that night, my father and my siblings and I gathered around a campfire and told stories like people who hadn’t seen each other for years.
This all probably makes me sound incredibly arrogant, and maybe I am. But all that Potential can be a burden. I’ll talk about it in another post.
I spent the next several days just hanging out: going on walks through the woods, reading a book on the front lawn, taking a dip whenever I felt like it. Letting more and more of the tension dissolve and drift away.
Still, it wasn’t enough. As the song says, home was calling me. Even as I was visiting my family, I still felt the need to go home. My other home – my alma mater.
Beautiful, isn’t it? Most people only think of the City when they think of New York, and that is indeed where most of the state lives, if you count the Metro-New York Area (i.e., Westchester county and Long Island). But there’s more to the state, much more. If more people knew about the Adirondacks, this state might get even more tourist traffic than it does.
I drove up to St. Lawrence on Wednesday of my vacation week. I used the GPS, but only really needed it to be sure I took the right exit off I-81. The rest of the trip was both straight and familiar. I listened to Big Frog 104, the Syracuse Country station, until I got out of range. Just another way to get back into the mindset of when I used to travel from Camden to St. Lawrence regularly. It was during that trip that I first heard Carrie Underwood’s Blown Away, a dark and powerful song about abuse and revenge. Not the kind of thing you’d expect from a pop-country starlet, but then, you’d hardly expect songs like “Fancy” or “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia” from someone like Reba McEntire, either. I immediately liked it, but more importantly, it shook something loose in the back of my mind. I remembered people I’d known when I was a teenager, and started to remember why I’d originally started writing Hometown…
(Other than that, I was actually glad when the station faded out. Did Country always have so many songs about how awesome it is to be Country and how pathetic and unmanly city folk are? Did I just not notice, or did Country actually change in the time I’ve been away?)
Anyway. I arrived in Canton and stopped for lunch at Jreck Subs, a regional outfit that I hadn’t had in ten years or more. Then I drove on to St. Lawrence, drove down that familiar long drive at the entrance, parked, and started walking.
The first place I went was Gaines College:
Yup. There it is. The dorm that was my home away from home for three years. The first of those years, I was an official resident; Gaines was the appointed residence for my First Year Program. This is where I met the abovementioned college sweetheart. The next two years, it didn’t matter where I was officially placed. College Sweetheart was serving as a CA (an RA for the freshman dorms) in Gaines, and she had a sweet double-single room. We pushed the beds together and Lived In Sin for two years. Senior year, the situation got more complicated.
I wanted to go in and look around, see how much had changed, but Gaines was locked up as tight as Ebenezer Scrooge’s purse-strings (which was as it should be, I suppose). What I could see from the windows looked pretty much the same, especially the lounge where so much had happened almost twenty years before.
But that’s for another time.
With nothing more to be done there, I set out to see the rest of the campus.
There had been a lot of changes in thirteen years, of course. And I didn’t like any of them, even the ones that were unequivocally improvements. New bookstore, three times bigger and many times better? Didn’t like it. Theme cottages have been moved around, and the Java House’s performance space has been moved across campus? Didn’t like it. Senior townhouses? Didn’t like ’em. Old student union that shared the Arts building gone, replaced by a big student union building? Didn’t like it.
(Though to be fair, I actually had a reason for not liking that one: it was right across the path from the Dining Hall, which meant all food services on campus were right next to each other, rather than being more evenly distributed across campus.)
I was particularly broken-hearted by the changes to Owen D. Young Library.
When I attended SLU, this is what the interior looked like:
Garish? I know. But it had character. And I loved those purple couches, never mind that they’d put you to sleep almost instantly upon sitting down.
Now look at it!
Bleak. Fortunately, there was a “retro room” still done in the old style, where I could at least sit on the remaining Purple Couches and reminisce.
I was starting to think that I shouldn’t have come, that I had wasted a perfectly good vacation day on the trip. But I kept walking. I visited the athletic complex, not that I’d spent much time there. In fact, that was one of my only two real regrets from St. Lawrence. More on that later.
I kept walking.
As I did, I started to get in tune with the place. The retro room at the library helped. Maybe I’d made it hard on myself at first; in seeking out all the things that had changed, I’d all-but-actively avoided the places where I’d spent the most time.
Memories started to seep back in. Little things at first. I don’t know if this is still the case, but when I went to St. Lawrence, it was possible to get cable TV through the school for about $130 a semester or so. The first dozen channels or so were used by professors to show class-related programs. “Okay, folks,” the professor would say. “The BBC version of Hamlet is showing on channel 3 tonight and tomorrow. Check the directory for times. Be sure to see it by Wednesday.” I didn’t realize how awesome that was at the time, but having seen the college-student scramble for Assigned Viewing at video stores in the years since, it’s a bloody miracle.
Anyway, when there was no Assigned Viewing, the campus network would show movies. My college years were pretty much an endless loop of The Crow and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Both movies still take me back to nights spent in the dorm room, sitting on beds and beanbags and papa-san chairs.
The theme cottages were still as I remembered them, if a bit shuffled around. The Artist’s Guild and La Casa Latina seemed to have switched places. The Women’s Resource Center was one door down, with a comfy couch on the front porch and a box of condoms and literature by the front door. The Outing Club…seeing the Outing Club, like visiting the athletic complex, reminded me of my only two regrets about St. Lawrence: never going to an athletic event even once in four years, and never climbing a mountain on Peak Weekend (which is organized by the Outing Club). If I had it to do again, I would attend at least one hockey game, at least one football game, at least one lacrosse game, and at least one women’s rugby game. I would also take part in Peak Weekend at least once, but maybe every time. Like I said earlier, the Adirondacks are too beautiful to neglect.
And maybe I would do a semester abroad. It really is a chance that never has come again, but for some reason, it doesn’t bother me like those other two omissions do. Don’t know why.
Fraternity row was maybe the strangest part of the whole experience. To come back to St. Lawrence after thirteen years and discover that all of the fraternities were gone – that Phi Kappa Sigma house of all places was now home to the Gender Studies offices? It was like returning after a long time away and discovering that someone you’d thought would be a lifelong enemy had died of a heart attack.
Finally, I circled back to the center – my center – the three buildings that meant the most to me. Appropriately enough, they were the buildings that crown the hill that is mentioned over and over in St. Lawrence-related poetry and song.
They hadn’t changed. They’re on the historic register, so I don’t think they can.
The first was Gunnison Memorial Chapel:
The spiritual center of campus. I never actually attended services here, but it was a good place to retreat for a bit of peace and contemplation.
Four out of four years I sang in the Candlelight Service here before Winter Break. And even if none of that was the case, Gunnison is the most visible landmark on campus. It looms over all else, serving as background scenery to anything else you may do at St. Lawrence. And at 5 PM every day, the chapel bells ring.
From there, I moved on to Herring-Cole Hall.
I spent a lot more time here than I did in Gunnison.
There was the time in the fall of Freshman year when College Sweetheart and I came in here, walked around that upper level, and sat for hours in front of that beautiful roseate window, talking.
(I was rather bummed to find that by 2012, those cases, which had held memorabilia of St. Lawrence past in my time, were now mostly empty and neglected.)
There were awards ceremonies, parties, small theatrical productions, classes, and many, many sessions of tabletop role-playing. So much time was spent here with my friends.
Even the Herring-Cole ghost was reputed to be friendlier than the norm. It (he?) was certainly friendlier than the ghost in the Piskor science building, who was reported to be downright murderous.
It was here, immersed in those memories, that I had the first revelation from my little pilgrimage: I’d been happy here. Really happy.
I’m sure it sounds simple. Romantic. Silly. Not worth commenting on, whatever adjective you use. But…
It wasn’t perfect. In fact, I’ve discovered things about certain of my friends from back then that have poisoned the memories a little. But…
In that time, in that place, I’d been happy. Truly happy. I’d forgotten what that kind of happy felt like. And now I was remembering.
It was an…emotional experience. Grief and sorrow get all the press, but happiness – or the memory of happiness – can knock you on your ass, too.
Still a bit shaky, I made my way over to Richardson Hall, St. Lawrence’s English and Religious Studies building, where I had taken almost all of my classes. As I circulated through that building – reading poems on doors, seeing which of my professors were still there and which had retired – I finally understood why I’d come back.
I’d returned to my beginning. That day – that week – had peeled away the intervening years and reminded me what I used to be. When I’d been at St. Lawrence, I had been a person of hope, ambition and drive. But I’d lost all of that somewhere along the way. I’d let the last thirteen years just happen to me.
A lot of people talk about what would happen if their past self met their present self. In that moment, I came as close to such a thing happening as is possible outside of a time-travel movie. And I realized that St. Lawrence University Matthew Keville would have been terrified to learn that he would someday become Matthew Keville 2012.
But those thirteen years were over.
Rebirth is always portrayed as a beautiful, joyous thing. Lots of sunlight breaking through clouds and epic music playing. But all birth hurts.
I looked around at the poems and the pictures on the walls again. These were people who had done something meaningful with their lives. What had those people done that I had not?
Focus. Those people hadn’t wasted their time on a dozen different side-projects that seemed interesting at the time. There and then, I had to decide what I really mattered to me. What I really wanted to write about.
After I left, I stopped by the pizza place that I had always ordered wings from back in the day for dinner. I was disappointed. Either they had a new cook (in thirteen years! Imagine it!) or I had magnified those wings in my memory.
On the way home, I heard “Blown Away” again, and I once again started thinking about Hometown.
A year later, and I go back.
Big Frog 104 is chattering too much, so I switch to the folk music my parents have saved in their van’s hard drive, and listen to that all the way there.
I go to No. A-1 Oriental Kitchen, Canton’s only Chinese food restaurant (the one I called so often while I was at SLU that they knew where to find us when I accidentally told them to go to College Sweetheart’s room instead of my own), for lunch. Turns out that their beef & broccoli really is as good as I remember it. Turns out they use nice, big chunks of beef instead of the fried strips you usually get down here in the City. The wings at the pizza place disappoint me once again.
They were making more “improvements” when I went back. Half of the quad was a torn-up construction site where they were putting in a new residence hall.
It troubles me, all these new buildings they’re putting in. They’re eating all the lawns.
It looks like the Beta Theta Pi fraternity will be returning to St. Lawrence. That bums me a little bit, but not as much as it might if certain other frats did. Beta was never one of the ones I really hated. I have fond memories of the spring afternoon when hip hop from the Beta house and Pachelbel’s Canon in D from the Senior Suites blended together into a surprisingly pleasing whole.
I’m not really surprised, now that I’ve learned a few things. The Beta Theta Pi Temple – I always wondered what that building was – is one of SLU’s buildings on the historic register, not to mention one of only two such temples in the country, so it would seem that Beta has an integral part in SLU’s history.
It didn’t hurt as much this time. Maybe because I was doing something real and concrete, in the form of this blog, to move my old dreams forward. Maybe it was because I only had one year to strip away.
Which isn’t to say that it didn’t hurt at all. Circumstances had conspired to remind me of some of the dreams and plans of my best days at SLU, and being taken back to those times had made me yearn – yearn and long and wish so hard that it ached – that everything had worked out like I thought it would back then.
Also, when I returned to Richardson, I saw an article taped up on someone’s door announcing that a young professor would be coming to St. Lawrence to give a lecture at such-and-such date. Young Professor was someone I’d known during undergrad.
I broke down a little when I saw that. I remembered a lot of people asking me, when I told them that I was an English major, if I was going to be a teacher. I’d always said no, but maybe that was a mistake. I think I would have been happy as an English Professor. Happier than I’ve been as a paralegal, certainly: spending my days in the groves of academe that I love so much, life broken into distinct chapters by summers instead of grinding on in an endless cycle of everything-the-same…yes, I think I might have been happy as a professor. May yet be, once I’ve paid off my student loan for undergrad. But it would have been so much easier if I’d done it back when I was still in practice as an academic, and hadn’t become dependent on the money that my skilled-labor paper-pushing job brings in.
Was that what I learned this year? My big revelation? Maybe. Maybe it was something about leaving those aching old dreams behind. These things are less dramatic when it’s been one year instead of thirteen. Maybe it’ll be clearer when I go back next year, as I intend to go back every year from now on. Back to remember who I once was and renew my spirit.
Back to my alma mater.