When you aren’t, and then you are
A year ago, sitting in the constant emptiness of my dorm room, I finally started to feel like I was on my path. I could feel myself headed in the cardinal direction I’d wanted to follow when I went to college. I was taking math classes, and writing, and working on some cool things in education. And at the time, I wrote,
“I never really saw myself as someone who ‘goes with the flow.’ More so, I saw myself as someone who can follow a sequence of steps. In this way, the steps become much less apparent in university, as everyone is on their own little path. Here’s the thing that I failed to realize until this year: sure making the path can be scary, but once it’s there? You just take the next step.”
One foot in front of the other.
On this path — this road — I’ve been noticing exit signs pass by. Small ones, mostly. But some signs have me looking over my shoulder to make sure I didn’t miss my offramp. Realizing I should’ve stressed a little less when I was on freshman fall P/NR. Noticing a job application open at my favorite coffee shop. Seeing friend groups form that I could’ve been a part of. And I look in the rearview mirror and painfully read “Beware: Objects in mirror are bigger than they appear.”
And these paths could’ve led to completely different lives.
It’s not as if choosing to change directions would’ve been easy. It almost certainly wouldn’t have been. It would’ve been bumpy and messy and I would’ve cartoonishly rolled for a quarter of a mile before coming to a stop. But I would stand up, dust it off, and hopefully hopefully be somewhere I’m happy.
As more signs pass by, the further I can see the road stretching out before me. A cardinal direction is no longer good enough; there is no longer one clear step laying before me, but ten. And I come to realize how naive I had been. Then, my brain does what it always does and time shifts from a time frame of semesters to decades.
I feel like I’ve been running. There’s a sharp pain below my ribs as I see the finish line just a few feet ahead. Then a few feet further. Just finish this week. Then the next. And I wonder,
“How long have I been running? How long until I feel comfortable catching my breath?”
The answer to the first question is simple: ever since I noticed the track beneath my feet. Growing up in a poor neighborhood, I wonder if I heard the starting pistol go off and simply hoped it was a firework. But sooner or later I figured it out. I figured out I wanted to teach in second grade, and a year later I wanted to teach math. And I’ve been running.
Naturally, the second question is harder to answer. The role models in my life walked so I could run. And though I don’t quite know where I want to ultimately end up, I just keep thinking about this line:
“The further you go, the prouder I’ll be.”
So I just keep going. I’ll get a Bachelor’s here in two years. Go to graduate school. Get a PhD. Get tenure. And teach.
At what point do I stop? When do I return to California, grab a cup of coffee, and sit there, feeling the sharp pain dull?
How long until I feel comfortable catching my breath?
Part of me hopes that one day, shifting gears will be easier. I hope that taking an off-ramp won’t feel so dramatic. But I guess in hindsight any moment can feel life changing.
Playing an online game of chess with a ’24. Sitting down with a café au lait. The slow transition to being an upperclassman.
Life changing, yet subtly, gently, pushing you toward the next big moment in your life.
Some moments guide us a bit further along. They either make the transition easier or signify that something is changing. Orientation turns high schoolers into freshmen and Ring Delivery turns underclassmen to upperclassmen. Delivery arguably didn’t feel like a necessary transition, but I could feel myself changing.
I’ve been trying to figure out how I want to spend my last two years here.
“Do I keep running? What does that look like?”
I can’t just keep adding extra classes to my workload; I won’t let myself. When do classes turn into research? When does learning turn into teaching? Advising into mentoring? I see these qualities in a lot of my friends who are graduating, and I don’t know how they got to that point. I hope this is a smooth transition, but I can’t even picture how it happens.
I always found it interesting that we break life into discrete numbers. You don’t become older on your birthday. The day before you turn twenty you certainly aren’t twenty. The day of, you aren’t either. Despite whatever celebrations may be going on, this day is just like all the ones before it, when you were nineteen.
Until one day, further along, it isn’t. And time engulfs you. It happens slowly but surely. Our life isn’t broken up into discrete numbers, but it isn’t as if you remember the days when the transitions actually happened. You remember the birthdays.
The summer after my freshman year, I checked Atlas, which plainly stated that I was a sophomore. I was a math major. One day I wasn’t. The next day I was. Ring Delivery unofficially does the same thing, in my opinion. One day you’re an underclassman. The next day you aren’t.
In the same way I checked the admissions page everyday for a week to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, I’ve been wearing my Brass Rat every day. Some of my friends said they only planned to wear it on extremely special occasions, but I can’t bring myself to do that.
I wear my ring and think about the problem sets I did back-to-back in an empty pod lounge. The lonely walks back from Toscis in the rain. The days I let myself catch my breath, and the days I should’ve.
And I’m not regretful.
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