I opened an e newsletter from my college in my inbox. These come frequently and are filled with announcements about student athletes, the completion of construction projects or 19 year olds who win fellowships for being impossibly smarter and more accomplished than I was at that age. I usually skim the headlines and discard. Depending on how masochistic I am feeling that day, I might check the list of birth announcements for news of any ex boyfriends’ spawn (it used to be the wedding section, now it’s the births, which seems a weird indicator that we’re all getting older).
But this news burst was different. It announced the death of a favorite professor of mine in the English Department. He had introduced me to some of my most loved authors: John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Auden, Woolf. I became very still.
This professor had taught me twice in senior level seminars. He was a fixture of Root Hall, the building that housed the English Department and quickly came to feel like a second home to me during my time at college. He had been older, but he was not old. He was a tall man, who I always remember wearing dark suits. He seemed perpetually amused by his students, and the expressions he cast toward different kids as they scrambled around the hall outside his office was truly comical. He noticed and commented on small details – a friend’s argyle socks or my red umbrella. He bought me my first martini – gin, he said, was the only way to make a real martini. He had us students to his house for dinner parties and to discuss poetry. He was warm, and funny and fun. He ushered me and my classmates into new worlds in books I never would have thought to open on my own.
Since I graduated, my time at college has taken on a kind of mythic status in my mind. It feels untouchable, encapsulated, preserved. My memories are extremely vivid, and the emotions from those four years feel stronger and sharper than much of what has followed them. It was a defining time in my life, and for the most part I was very happy. Somehow I expected everything there to remain the same. As with most colleges, I suspect, Hamilton is both exactly the same and completely different now.
I returned for a brief visit last summer with two friends of mine (and fellow Hamilton grads) who had married and were living not far from campus. At my request we took a drive on a pretty August afternoon. The campus was set up to greet the incoming Freshman class. The trees were green and lush, the sound of mowers buzzed in the distance, and the atmosphere of summer hung warmly in the air. I felt elated to be back.
The most obvious changes, the refurbished buildings and new development, seemed like a major upgrade. I dutifully marveled at the presence of a climbing wall and “state of the art” (what does that mean, anyway?) fitness center. But more than checking out the new goods, I wanted to visit my favorite places – namely, the History Department in the Kirner-Johnson building, and Root Hall. What I really wanted was to throw open the doors and run up the stairs, combing the halls to see if any of my former professors happened to be around.
But the History Department turned out to be a bust. KJ, as we called it, had been a squat cement building accented with primary colors – undeniably 60s, and rumored to have been bought from the architectural plans of a college in the southwest that never quite got off the ground. Now, it had been annexed, built over, and adjoined a new glass atrium with a running fountain, indoor trees and a coffee shop. Win for KJ. I strolled admiringly through the labryntine halls, looking closely at the names outside the doors to find the offices of my former professors. I didn’t recognize any of them. Not a one. I started asking for directions – a maintenance man, his giant key chain clanking, an assistant in the new Asian Studies wing, a student who looked absurdly young – they all pointed me in different directions, and I wandered and wandered until I came face to face with a display announcing the History Department and listing the names of the professors beneath it. At last.
But none of the names I sought were on the list. I stared, a little shaken. I’d minored in History, and had spent so many hours in this building, with those people. I couldn’t believe that they, that we, had all moved on. It was a naive expectation, but I thought that they would always be here to greet me. Instead I had returned a stranger.
A little numb and sad, I rejoined my friends and we walked to the other side of campus, towards Root Hall. I felt nervous energy, as though Root needed to right the weirdness I’d felt in KJ. Root would be different – even if no one was there, I could walk in, breathe the familiar scents, revel in the echoing clop of my shoes as I climbed the inner stairwell. I bounded up the steps, steps I first traversed when I was 17 years old, wearing giant black goth-inspired boots. I reached for the door, sensed the heave and give in my muscle memory before I clasped the handle. I pulled. It was locked.
No way. In ape-like denial, I pulled again. I shook hard. I banged on the door. Nothing. Impossible. In all my time at Hamilton, I never remembered Root having been locked. My friends looked on amused as I circled the building, seeking an open window. I’m not sure what I had in mind. I felt like I’d been locked out of my own house. I did the only thing I could think of – I phoned my former thesis advisor at his home and left a rambling message about my impromptu visit and being locked out of Root and was he around and if so could he visit and could he please let me inside. When I take a step back and rethink this, it’s completely ridiculous that this was my course of action nearly ten years after graduation, but there it is. I ended up leaving, feeling wistful and disappointed, throwing longing glances over my shoulder at the bold white columns. Lesson learned. Next time, I’d plan my visit in advance.
What the experience confirmed for me, and what has been a running lesson in my life, is that it’s always the people who make a place special. Everything else is just a shell that houses us and holds us together. I could only be so happy looking at the buildings from the outside. What I really wanted was to see the people inside them who had made this place feel like a home to me, my professors who had become my friends.
Learning of my professor’s death in that email was very sad. I felt that another little piece of my magical time at college had faded away. Worse, I couldn’t stand to think that future students would be deprived of knowing him. His classes had meant a lot to me, and his presence in the department, in Root Hall, felt sacred. I am so happy to have known him. He made my life a more wondrous place, and I can’t think of anything better that one person can do for another.