Reflecting by the River
On my last day on campus at the end of freshman year, the air was heavy with impending rain and the sky was the color of slate. I was sitting on the Ledyard boathouse dock with my roommate waiting for the sunset that never pushed through the clouds. Quarter-sized raindrops started tumbling out of the sky, but we stayed, uselessly tying sweatshirts around our heads. Branches and leaves flew by as the river swelled and its banks turned to thick mud. For two hours, we talked in the rain.
I was terrified at the thought of leaving Dartmouth for the summer. Even three months away seemed like a time span that would never end. No part of me wanted to move out of the River Cluster and to leave French Hall behind. And then, sitting huddled on the dirt-splattered dock, rocking with the current, my roommate told me she wasn’t coming back. Everything inside me constricted in shock. I had not picked up on a thing that would lead me to think she might transfer, but as she explained I saw it all suddenly. I told her I understood, and that while I loved Dartmouth and that she had been one of my favorite parts of it over the previous year, I knew that didn’t have to mean it was the right place for her.
That night by the river was the first time I let myself accept that my college experience would come with imperfections. From the day I sent in my application, I felt ready to leave high school, ready to go somewhere else on my own. I could not get there fast enough. I felt like I had outgrown high school. Days into orientation, looking back, I had decided I had to be happy and love every part of my experience — I had wanted to be here for so long. I wanted go back home and gush about perfect, beautiful Dartmouth. My birthday was on the first day of classes in the fall and naturally I was homesick, but I choked it down and decided it was my best birthday yet.
Then, at the end of the summer after my freshman year, which had been going far better than I had hoped on the docks in early June, my uncle died. He was young, though his health was not in good shape. But it was sudden, and it was my first experience with loss. My family all told me how happy they were that I would be back at Dartmouth — a place I loved with friends to support me, so I decided I would be happy about it.
I spent my sophomore fall feeling entirely out of place. I would wake up in the morning feeling worried about how my grandparents were doing after losing their son, wanting to go spend time talking with them, but feeling like I had too much work to make time for a call each day. I wanted to hug my mom every morning and spend time talking about my uncle with people who understood how close to him I felt, but how complicated his life had been, a constant struggle with severe mental illness. Still, I tried to push those feelings out of Hanover and separate them.
But slowly, I began to learn deciding to be happy is useless. I loved Dartmouth, but it didn’t have to mean I always felt I was in the right place. My relationship with Dartmouth has become ever-changing in a way that is is far better and far healthier than my freshman year blind love. In high school I assumed that every impulse to leave my suburb was because I had outgrown it. But no place and no experience will always feel right, whether for a day or for a few months.
In early February, about six months after I lost my uncle, my grandfather died. I had just finished the second round of rush when I got a missed call and a text from my Dad to call him immediately. A friend was with me when I called him back, standing in front of Baker-Berry as fluffy snow fell sporadically, and she held me up and guided me to the closest room of one of our friends, where I laid in her bed for hours dealing with the loss. I went home for the funeral. My most vivid memory from the funeral was at the graveyard. There was a golden-purple sunset lighting up the sky and I could see it out of the corner of my eye as I shook in my cousin’s arms, hearing the pounding thud of dirt hitting the coffin.
I came back and dove back into Dartmouth. But this time, it was therapeutic. I felt sure every day that, as much as I felt like I was grieving, I was glad it was in snowy zero-degree Hanover. That term was difficult. I took hard classes, struggled with loss. Not to mention, it was sophomore winter, a cold term when many of my friends were off. But I look back on it positively because coping with the loss I felt was inevitable, but then, Dartmouth was the right place for me to be doing it.
That last day of freshman year during the torrent, sitting covered in grass and my hair dripping, realizing that the College just wasn’t right for someone I cared about so much, my relationship to Dartmouth changed.
Since that spring I have convinced numerous friends to trek down to the river with me, in the icy middle of winter, at 2 a.m. and during a mosquito-infested day of sophomore summer, often at times of highs or lows. People often find places that, inexplicably, hold a lot of meaning for them; for me, that place is the river docks. As I sit here now, I feel the same sense of attachment that I did at the end of freshman year. But having let go of the forced and blind ideal that I felt then, I know that graduating will be just a necessary shift.