I spent the first few minutes of my trip home the day before Thanksgiving counting silently on my fingers.
I hadn’t been home in 71 days?!?
I’m not an international student. I don’t hail from Romania or Zimbabwe, or even from California. I’m from Manhattan, Noo Yawk, a mere four-hour, $15 bus ride (and it used to be less before those Chinatown buses outrageously raised their prices) away.
This was the first year I haven’t taken advantage of that enviable proximity. Freshman year, I took the traffic-laden journey down I-95 practically once a month. Last year, much the same was true. Despite the work, the stress and the misery of the long, cramped rides, the lure of home—with its promises of friends and family, shopping and coffee shops open past 10 p.m.—were always enough to get me down to Chinatown (or South Station, after I finally gave up on the madhouse) and onto a bus.
I commiserated with my travel buddy, a classmate and another born and bred New Yorker. Like me, she used to travel home a lot. She reported that with the exception of a quick trip home for the Jewish holidays, way back in September, she hadn’t been home yet this year either.
Had our beloved New York City lost its draw? Impossible. Could never happen.
So there must be something different about this year, so different that it took the words “break” in conjunction with turkey day to tear me away from my Harvard bubble.
We fought off our sleepiness (it was 9 a.m., practically the crack of dawn) by musing over the possible reasons we’d stayed away so long.
What was it? We are juniors, upperclassmen now—maybe that’s it. Having at long last burrowed into depths of extracurricular entrenchment in recent months, maybe we’re running too many sports teams, homeless shelters, clubs and publications to feel good about tearing ourselves away. When we were but tadpoles among full-grown frogs, it was generally no big deal if we had to miss a meeting. But suddenly, we’re running those meetings, and getting away is no longer a simple thing.
Or maybe it has more to do with our academic loads. As we tick off requirements on our plans of study, some courses are not only getting harder, but less mandatory—and so in many cases, we like our classes more. Or we realize we’ve been slacking off for the last two years and decide that we simply want to be students again. Or at the very least, we’ve probably chosen these classes ourselves, and so have no one but ourselves to blame if they’re abysmal.
Either way, I and many of my nearest and dearest have found that this year has translated into more problem sets, more essays, more books. I have a literature concentrator friend taking three languages because she thinks it’s cool, and it is. But coolness comes with a price: doing homework and functioning in three languages. I’m taking a class whose reading list is 12 novels. That is, with some adjusting for Penguin vs. Norton editions, approximately 3,426 pages, or War and Peace times two and a half. I have enjoyed every single one of them—but getting them read before Tuesday lecture is often one of the hardest parts of my week. And I don’t know about people with so-called willpower, but whenever I say I’m going to get reading done on the bus, it’s a recipe for somnolent disast…zzzzzzz.
Of course, I’d rather think it’s any one of these things rather than what the niggling voice in the back of my brain is softly whispering: that the reason we’re not going home as often is that we’re unconsciously preparing for various mommy and daddy birds to give us the proverbial shove out of the nest. That we know that in a year and a half, we will be expected to build viable lives, complete with—gasp—jobs, families and responsibility.
I can’t count the number of times I have had the “I can’t believe how fast the last month/semester/year/two years/half of our college experience has gone” conversation. It seems like everyone I know has had that moment of realization and found it more than a little frightening.
Maybe it’s the strange way the year here times itself—when job applications for the summer are due the previous October and November, it’s inevitable that the year feels as though it’s hurrying itself along. Then the summers fly by, always twice as fast as you had expected, and suddenly you’re a junior with the reality that at some point in the near future, you’re expected to know what you want to do with your life. It almost makes me wish I’d grown up on a farm in Nebraska, that I could and would be expected to return to it afterward. Not really—but you know what I mean.
So perhaps there is a sort of vestigial umbilical cord-cutting feeling that quietly permeates these last years of college.
I didn’t really understand this until recently, when I suddenly realized that I missed home. A lot. I usually don’t think about missing it too much—it’s so close, the sense of its availability usually blunts that sadness. And at any rate, the year is passing so fast that it’s always almost Thanksgiving or winter break.
All I know is that when I went home, the four days I spent relaxing with my family and visiting my old haunts were some of the best I’ve had in a long time. They meant more to me than many other quick weekends in the past have meant, and when I headed back to the Port Authority to catch a Boston-bound bus—arm in arm with the same friend with whom I had traveled the opposite way—I felt considerably more unwilling to get on board than I typically do.
It wasn’t because Harvard and my life here had lost anything since I’d gone home. But because somehow, in the last few weeks, I’ve discovered something about the preciousness of my home and my family that I should have always known, but that I had never thought too much about before. Whatever it was, the realization made me understand that I will always love New York, my Chambers Street apartment, my family and my old friends and favorite places too much to leave it for long again.
Hurrah for sleeping on the bus. Sleeping in bed is overrated anyway.