One room: two beds, two desks, two closets, two large squares of cork board covered with colorful squares and smiles, tacked in place by plastic push pins. By the window, the ultimate convenience invention: the microfridge.
Plastic crates are stacked under the desk and by the microfridge, holding notebooks, pens, pencils, textbooks, and Hot Pockets.
Somehow, within a few square feet, I have squeezed my high school bedroom into this new shared space.
I’m looking out the window, overlooking the quad, seeing the families unloading their minivans; daughters and sons carrying their laundry bags and Doc Martens.
East Halls, Penn State University, my new dorm.
My parents drive away and I walk to the dining hall with my roommate and friend across the hall, and it begins to sink in.
I’m here. I made it.
I was the first class of the Musical Theatre BFA at Penn State University. They called us the “guinea pigs” because every semester they were trying out curriculum on us, and our feedback was the deciding factor on keeping the course as it was, or adjusting it to better serve the program and the following year’s students.
This made for a very adventurous experience, and also our input was deeply appreciated. Our successes and challenges were not only important for our personal artistic growth and craft, but for the development of the program as a whole. We were the sounding boards.
My time at Penn State was rich and full. I graduated with top-notch skills in my dance, acting, and singing. I had a book full of audition songs, a well written resume, and professional headshots. I had choreographed extensively during my time on campus, both locally and professionally, and enjoyed football games, deep friendships, and love.
I had the tee-shirt, the hat, and the Nittany Lion Roar, “We are PENN STATE!”
I was blue and white proud, and ready for my career, marriage, and post-collegiate life to begin.
Look out NYC…..
I returned to Happy Valley in 2001, three years after I graduated, to choreograph Pennsylvania Centre Stage’s summer production of Little Shop of Horrors, and loved being back in the theatre building, and a part of the arts scene there. Campus hadn’t changed much since my graduation, and I knew a lot of the cast members.
And then a long time passed, a lifetime.
I didn’t return until the fall of 2013 and the surroundings had deeply shifted.
The HUB, or center building on campus had expanded out immensely, undergoing renovation and add-ons. The building was new, enormous, and offered tons of dining choices, more space for students, and a larger main bookstore.
Streets that used to go though the middle of campus were now just walk-ways to accommodate the growing student body, and I lost track of all the new buildings rising from the once barren grasses. The actual scope of the campus had enlarged, taking over a golf course, and fields.
I had rented a car to visit the campus, and drove on new roads.
There was so much that had been added, and as I drove all I felt was loss.
I was driving alone now, where for 15 years I had navigated from the passenger side of my marriage, changing the radio and enjoying companionship.
That companionship had begun here, within the blue and white cheers, and theatre parties. Here I had fallen in love.
I had come into town to see my mentor’s one-woman show and dreamt that night of a massive flood, the waters washing me away. I was held by a guardian angel and friend who wiped my tears, but I wondered when or if I would ever return.
There was so much change to process. Everything was so new.
Last week, I was camping with my parents and brother’s family at Little Pine State Park, over an hour outside of Penn State. My brother and sister in law also grabbed their cap and gown in Happy Valley, so we planned a day trip to re-visit.
The morning of, I could feel the memory of my last visit forming a knot in my heart, so over breakfast, I looked at my mother and said,
“I’m scared to go back to campus today, and may need your support.”
She grabbed my hand and we both began to cry, as she reassured me she was there for me and always has been.
Just saying the words out loud released the tight ball, and in giving permission to feel it all, I exhaled and scooped a forkful of homemade quiche into my mouth.
Maybe I was going to be ok.
Maybe this visit would be different.
There had been heavy downpour that morning, and as we drove to campus, my parents windshield wipers worked feverishly back and forth to clear my father’s sight. In the back seat, my mother and I laughed over emails and Facebook posts.
We parked in the Creamery Parking garage, and made our way in under umbrellas to partake in a college tradition:
Celebrating it’s 150th anniversary this year, the Penn State Berkey Creamery housed our family as we licked our spoons around the white circular table. I didn’t even consider another choice, and eagerly asked the server to scoop my favorite into the cup, Bittersweet Mint.
Outside, new students were moving into East Halls. Families were helping their sons and daughters carry their belongings and laundry bags into the stone and brick buildings. Convocation was in two days, and the parking lots were full with suitcases and bins.
Much like years ago.
East Halls stood exactly the same, the same square lines and buildings. What changed was who was entering them.
I savored each mouthful, remembering countless times I would buy ice cream after tap class or after rehearsal, and always the same flavor: Bittersweet.
We left and the skies cleared, as our feet stepped through puddles on the concrete. We closed our umbrellas and began to see blue peeking through the dark clouds above.
In the clearing we took fun pictures on the Nittany Lion statue.
In the clearing we reminisced stories looking at our classroom buildings.
In the clearing I was able to visit with a friend who is now a professor, and hug that guardian angel who held me so tight two years ago.
In the clearing we went to the bookstore and I bought a new hat and long sleeve tee.
The clouds returned again, and rain poured down the slanted sidewalks towards the traffic lights on College Avenue.
I looked around at the students, the teachers, all preparing for a new school year and all the lessons ahead, and I felt the rain soak my skin.
I’m here. I made it.
Back to School.