Between the Lines / Breaking out with a broken foot
With a bad case of homesickness and a recently broken foot, I found myself stranded in a new world at the University of Hartford. There was nothing more to do but tough it out and explore it.
Whatever emotional shortcomings I brought with me to my first year of college were further complicated by the fact that I was now clomping around on crutches. The buildings were all spread out and there was no on-campus transportation, so I hobbled from place to place that first semester. I was young and strong and came out of the ordeal looking like a body builder. But it wasn't the easiest way to get around, especially in the ice and snow. It was slow and laborious and made me more sensitive to what people in wheelchairs and with other disabilities face every day.
Without a basketball to bounce around, I gave myself completely over to the books. I stayed in the academic quad, ate an early dinner in the dining hall and then crutched over to the library. Although the library was just converted space in an academic building, all those books in the dimly lit room lent it a certain aura of knowledge and dignity. Before I'd sit down, I'd walk through the stacks and look over the many, many hundreds of volumes. Sometimes I just read the titles on the spines; other times I'd take one in hand and flip through the pages. The prospect of entering this vast world of learning interested me but seemed overwhelming at the same time. Could I ever possibly read all those books?
I remember selecting a book of literary criticism about "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," a long poem we had read in high school. It was about an old sailor who tells a story about shooting a sea bird and taking a hellish voyage to the South Pole. The writer's essay explained the poem in a very comprehensive and intelligent way. It amazed me that someone could have so much authority and insight about a subject. If I had once been fascinated, obsessed even, with shooting a basketball, I was now gradually transferring this enthusiasm to the idea of reading and studying. What better place than college for such an endeavor?
Sometimes I'd find an empty classroom after I checked out some books. I would flip on the lights, sit at the professor's desk and pretend to give a spellbinding lecture. I may have been a comical sight sitting there pretending but I was beginning to grow in my own way. I was developing a new identity for myself even in the midst of turmoil. I have always had to approach everything through my imagination before I could actually do it. My mind was in overdrive processing all that I saw and heard.
I discovered that if I latched onto an idea it would stay in my head and bounce around from many different directions. Whatever I learned would lead to other questions and more learning. I was teaching myself how to think in a mature way, a habit of mind I have kept and developed over a lifetime. Yet there were limitations; there were things I simply didn't know and didn't want to know. I had no interest in math and somehow it was never able to penetrate my brain. There was a dead zone in me when it came to numbers. Everything was about words for me. I visualized the world through language, not images. If I could think about something, it would eventually become mine.
I went to a film series and saw classics like Three Penny Opera and Last Year at Marienbad. These movies fascinated me with their exploration of the human psyche, but my experience was limited and I couldn't seem to "get" European surrealism. In the ambience of such films two puzzling things happened to me. After the movie one night an older man asked if I wanted to go out for drinks; on other night an older woman made a similar proposition. I was still too naive to understand that I was being hit on. These odd episodes didn't upset me but they did leave me wondering. There was so much about adult life I had yet to learn.
At the same time I was starting to feel energized by being alone and free. Being one of seven children and an identical twin, this was an entirely new sensation for me. It was very unnerving at first and then strangely exciting as time went on. I wasn't miserable any more as long as I didn't allow myself to think about home. Now that I was on crutches, I was forced to immerse myself more in campus life. I wasn't going anywhere for a long time.
There were evenings when I crossed campus in the dark and had a sudden feeling of exhilaration, the way I once felt before basketball games. Yes, I was half dragging myself around, but the yellow lights of campus and the silhouettes of the giant beech trees against the velvet sky gave me a new sense of liberation. Being alone wasn't all that bad, and I was starting to make a few friends in class. Yet my heart remained uneasy. As I caught my reflection in the windows, I was surprised to see a young man on crutches who didn't look much like the old me at all.
Barry Wallace writes a weekly column for the Fairfield Citizen.