For years my college catalog carried a black and white photo of two people traying down a hill in the winter snow. (Do students still do this – slide down hills on serving trays?) In the picture, snow is flying and you can almost hear the students’ glee as they skid wildly down the slope on their tray.
Every time I saw that picture I felt envy and anger. How could those people be so happy and be having such a good time? My college years were not especially happy. And when did those students find time to get outside? I went traying only once in college.
It’s not that college was so awful; more like bittersweet. There were some good moments, but also a lot of anguish and self-realization. But mostly my college years were a lot of hard work and worry. Campus life was intense, and I did not adapt well to work hard, play hard living. Perhaps it was a lack of self-confidence and uncertainty that I could handle the academic and social challenges that came my way. (Over the years I’ve done okay fielding life’s fouls but I still prefer the predictability of good, clean hits.)
When I walked past the campus common and saw people playing Frisbee, or stared out the library window at a chaotic game of softball in the field below, I felt like an outsider. Why couldn’t I abandon the books and let loose for a while? Why did I find it so hard to balance work and play, and how did these people do it so effortlessly? A phy ed teacher once told us the best thing to do when we felt like a nap was to take a walk. I knew she was right, but I couldn’t bring myself to waste an hour wandering around the campus woods.
By my senior year, pre-examination stress and a painful bout of self-realization were killing me. I had no choice but to take the phy ed teacher’s advice. I started walking and swimming as regularly as I could, and in a fit of anxiety, decided to go for broke on my senior exam, i.e. show evidence of thought rather than regurgitate what I knew. I was scared, but the strategy worked. I got honors on the exam. By spring, when I knew I would graduate, I began to relax a little and even took courses that were out of character for me. One of them became one of my favorite courses.
So despite my self-doubts, college did its job. I learned to respect emotional well-being, honor the balance between body and mind, and enjoy learning for learning’s sake.
As I look back, my biggest regret is that I’m such a slow learner. Several years after graduation while I was digging through some boxes, I came across the college catalog and stared at that picture for the umpteenth time still puzzling over how those people knew what it took me so long to realize. Suddenly I noticed something. One of the jackets looked familiar…and I think I once had mittens like those.
The lead person on the tray was me.
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