Back to school 1986-1989 meant the return to the Ohio hamlet of Wooster and the college that shares its name. By its very nature, the start of a school year is cyclic. An upperclassman’s confident return is mirrored by first year students’ fearful leap forward into the unknown. A casual observer would witness that awakened moment when the new student is all unpacked and all that is left is goodbye. The family vehicle is soon a speck merging into the horizon, followed by the realization that you’re on your own.
Sometimes I can parse the different years I returned, but I spent my first two and the final year in the same dorm. That coupled with the built in social rituals make it seems more holistic then disjointed. It is all a sensory snap shot now. The dorm still has that antiseptic smell that will soon be given up to stale smoke. My footsteps echo as I transverse a dormitory hallway, the only other sound is Cat Stevens’ greatest hits coming from a distant room. The freshmen will soon have parties, crowding sweaty bodies in numbers that would make a fire marshal apoplectic into their all-too-small rooms, “Black Dog” will spin on a turntable, reverberating at a volume much too loud, grain punch will be served from a fishbowl, and the next morning bare feet will squish on beer-soaked carpets.
This independent partying soon gives way to more organized revelry. There will be fraternity parties — one in particular always ended exuberantly with a singalong to Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Clad in flannel and Timberland boots, I partook of Bacchanalia, an event held outside of town in a field complete with a beer truck and hours of music by Grateful Dead cover bands. There was also the slightly more staid party on the green, which featured quirky acts like Buckwheat Zydeco. House parties were the norm, and I can picture myself in madras and khaki crossing the threshold as I hear the band strike up a familiar riff of Peace Frog and the lyrics, “There’s blood in the streets, it’s up to my ankles.”
Wednesday nights saw students swarm the local watering hole Leroy’s. I suspected that we were an inconvenience to the regulars, but we were tolerated en masse once a week, providing a bit of a windfall to the owner, who supplied what seemed like a nonstop stream of pitchers. I also adored Coccia House pizza, and swore it carried the psychic imprint of a previous generations of student employees in their big-buckled belts and cheesy mustaches working to the driving beat of Foghat.
Age dictates that I put out the disclaimer that it was not all about the parties. Yet the college community seemed to be a living organism. Dorms, dining halls, library and athletic fields — there was not a corner in which one’s social acumen was not tested. A place so small you greeted the president and his golden retrievers on the brick walk, dishelved clubby offices where you earnestly expressed an interest in one of your professor’s more esoteric ideas or vice versa, and peers who seemed forever coming up with madcap schemes you were sure would land them in jail. The cloistered time when one worked and studied was a balancing respite.
Back to school is to return physically and mentally. To reunite, readjusted, and embrace a routine. For myself, after routine came recognition. To be a part of something bigger then yourself is to be not all that big yourself. There were nights I found myself alone in Kauke Arch staring at the names on the wall. Students that came back to school 45 or more years before, not knowing they would graduate to glory in the forests of Belgium and on the atolls of the Pacific.
Return to campus? I cannot because I am already there. I left a part of myself at the school and carry a disproportional share of the place with me to this day. I would say I got the better of the deal, which would reaffirm the hopes of my educators. — CHRISTOPHER SHARP