TTLG: Home, Here

by Anna Staropoli | 5/15/19 2:05am

Courtesy of Anna Staropoli

My phone categorizes every photo I’ve taken by its location. I have photos tagged Hackettstown, NJ that feature my dogs in my kitchen, photos tagged Rome and Florence from my study abroad and off terms, photos tagged Norwich from all those Gile sunrikes and a whole album of Lake Morey for the countless laps I skated last term.

But then I have the photos tagged home. Home. When I click on the tag, I get to see pictures of a snow-saturated Sanborn Library at 7:55 a.m. and a just-beginning-to-blossom Occom Pond on my rollerblading route. I see the wild forsythias I pass outside the Fays, the masterpieces my friends create on the Molly’s tablecloths, my roommates watching Jane the Virgin in our living room. Four years of taking photos in Hanover have deluded my phone into believing that Dartmouth is, in fact, more of a home than my actual home. 

With graduation less than a month away, I’ve thought about home a lot lately. It’s impossible not to when it feels like there’s this constantly ticking clock telling me my time is almost up; the future is almost the now. But it’s difficult to imagine starting over when Dartmouth is my everyday, and all I know about next year is in the abstract. I’ve set in motion plans to live in a new city — Palermo, Sicily — but imagining my life there goes no further than visions of cobblestoned streets and intimate cafes. I know postgrad life will broaden my horizons far more than I can currently predict, but in these last, nostalgia-ridden weeks, it’s hard to envision anything more than what I know and experience right now. 

Before college, I saw Dartmouth in a similar way; it was less of a place that could become mine and more of a space defined by the moments and milestones I knew in theory. Like most freshmen, I had clear expectations for my Dartmouth experiences. I wanted to run 19 laps around the bonfire, do the polar plunge, learn how to ski and wear flair. Back then, college was simply college and Dartmouth simply a space — an institution from which I’d graduate in four years, figure out where I was heading in life and hopefully make some lifelong friends.

“Unlike space, place is defined on a smaller scale. It represents an accumulation of subjective experiences, specific qualities and individualized memories that distinguish one setting from the next.”

But there’s a difference between place and space. Geographers define space as the idea of a tangible location, a yet-to-be specified place. Space is college as a whole, a generalized Dartmouth. Space is the Dartmouth I knew before I found my home here.

Unlike space, place is defined on a smaller scale. It represents an accumulation of subjective experiences, specific qualities and individualized memories that distinguish one setting from the next. Jumping into a frozen lake or singing the alma mater are not why I no longer see Dartmouth as the school advertised online and in brochures. Those experiences are certainly not why I now see this school as so much more than I could have imagined. 

Take the Green, for example — a hallmark symbol of Dartmouth that made freshman fall Anna feel as though she was stepping into a storybook or playing before a green screen. During orientation, I never could have predicted how my own memories could and would overwrite the space to become more than a stock photo. But the Green has become sophomore summer picnics after days spent in the river, scavenger hunts with a team I’ve now had the chance to lead, a waiting grounds for the only time I’ve ever done the Lou’s Challenge, snow angels in the middle of finals, a gelato date with a one-term fling. The Green is walking a lap with my friends Carly, Isabelle and Katharina this past Homecoming, staring at Baker and wondering how everybody else around us still had so many more memories to make.  

You see, contrary to what the label on my phone tells me, the moments I’ve documented that are so quintessentially Dartmouth are not the ones that have made me feel most at home. They are not the moments that have widened my worldview nor are they the moments that have taught me how to understand both Dartmouth and myself. Rather, the memories that have transitioned my Dartmouth from space to place are the ones I couldn’t have predicted when I thought about college in the abstract, the ones my phone can’t even begin to categorize under just one heading. 

Photos don’t capture the Green I’ve come to know, nor do they consider stargazing outside McLaughlin with Carly after a late night in the library or skating to the Jonas Brothers with my teammates. I don’t have documentation of all the times I’ve gotten KAF at 8 a.m. and did more chatting than studying; the moments I’ve scanned Sherman for a table and happened to run into seemingly everyone I know; the times I’ve overstayed office hours by talking about Jane Austen for far too long; or all the nights I’ve spent laughing instead of sleeping, catching up with my best friends, entirely too giddy to let the night pass. 

No home is perfect and mine is no exception. At times, Dartmouth has not only felt like a place I have no reason to inhabit but also a place I resent, a place that doesn’t let me breathe. I remember the countless times I’ve hurried across the Green during midterms, keeping my head down as I passed, but could not avoid, somebody from my past. I remember feeling confused after rush, like my Greek House should not define my identity, and heartbroken sophomore winter, as though Dartmouth was closing in on me. I remember the burn-out after sophomore summer and the anxiety attacks of last spring and all the times I’ve felt sleepy, stressed, lonely, lost. 

But I’ve found a silver lining within all the imperfections that have made my home a little harder to love. In the hour before we left for our last figure skating competition, my co-captain took me on a spontaneous Ice Cream 4 U trip because she knew my emotions had gotten the best of me. When I had a breakdown in the library a few weeks ago, my boyfriend sent me a comforting text and stayed with me long after I finished crying. Just this week, when I talked myself into a tizzy before my thesis presentation, terrified of letting my friends, family and professors heard my fiction for the first time, all the people who have made Dartmouth home promised they didn’t even notice my legs begin to shake. They promised they loved my project simply because it came from me. 

When difficult moments happen in real time, it’s hard to think of them as products of finding a home here. But the moments that have made me feel my lowest are also the moments when the people I’ve come to associate with home have reminded me how lucky I am that Dartmouth is no longer just a space. Imperfections and anxieties have made my Dartmouth stressful, frustrating and disheartening at times but have also reminded me that it is just that — mine. 

Soon Dartmouth will no longer be my physical home. But regardless of where I go and who I meet next year, I’d like to think it will remain my place long after my phone decides to tag a new one.