Looking back, I could count on one hand the number of friends I had in school growing up.
But I promised myself that would change in college.
Although I grew up in a large town, the people in it only made me feel smaller by belittling me. A bigger school district meant more bullies for a lonely first-grader like myself.
I thought I would finally be rid of my hometown’s oppressive influence when I left for college. This town was done with me from the start, and now I was finally able to be done with it.
Still, secretly, I knew I wasn’t ready. The memories of a little girl being picked on for trying to be herself still haunted me into adulthood.
Then the pandemic hit, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to be on Temple University’s campus for my first semester, washing away my dream of moving away. Being immunosuppressed, it was too unsafe for me to live on a college campus while COVID-19 was still a threat.
I’ve been fantasizing about my first semester of college since my older sister’s move-in day. I couldn’t wait to have a new start, explore new places and make lifelong friends, just like my sister did.
I can still feel the bitter cold disappointment of realizing I couldn’t have the initial experience I’d dreamt of because of COVID-19.
It was devastating being home in the middle of New Jersey when I watched videos of my peers settling into their dorms on Instagram, not only because I couldn’t do the same, but because I put all of my emotional stake into my college experience.
But in retrospect, I realize how unexpectedly good it was for me to stay home.
I realized I had to find peace in my memories and the courage to make new ones, and I began that long and difficult journey last October.
I remember walking out of my house, coatless, my phone clutched in one freezing hand.
I ran a route I knew well, right to my old middle school. I sat in the soccer goal staring at the empty parking lot and started crying.
I cried, not for the situation I was in now, but for the child I was then. I cried for the friendless girl inside me, for all the times she was laughed at in those halls and all the afternoons she spent sitting in the soccer goal waiting to be picked up when no one was coming.
I don’t know how long I sat there. It could have been minutes or hours. My knees were drawn to my chest as I prayed no one would see me.
I remembered the friends I lost in sixth grade, the kick to my ribs behind the school and the bruise that refused to fade for weeks.
Suddenly, my shoulders relaxed.
I recalled the isolation of seventh grade, the hours spent in the nurse’s office as she tried to figure out why I was in pain all the time.
I stretched my legs out.
I remembered eighth grade, falling in love with my only friend and transferring to a different district for high school to avoid the disgust in her eyes.
But somehow, I felt okay.
When I went to wipe my face and realized I couldn’t feel my fingers, I laughed. I finally finished crying, stood like I weighed nothing and wondered, not for the last time, if I would have ever found such peace if I hadn’t been forced to stay in my hometown.
I spent the next day driving, watching the streets blur into the corner store I visited daily, the curb I crashed into when I was learning to ride my bike and the roadside with “Prom?” scrawled in chalk, which I would trace with my steps. I always avoided that spot, afraid the chalk had faded, but that day, I didn’t. I knew it wouldn’t matter if the chalk was there or not because nothing could wash away the memories, good and bad, that I’d had here.
I found peace in that. I knew that the power my memories had over me was the power I gave them, and by allowing myself to feel them and revel in them during the semester, I was able to stop giving them that power.
I accepted the fact that I may resent where I’m from, but my hometown made me the person I am today.
With college comes a feeling of evanescence. Every moment feels fleeting, fostering fear and instability.
I’ll never know what it would have been like to have a normal freshman year, but I do know I wasn’t ready to leave my hometown and the memories I’d made here.
Because I lived at home during the pandemic, I’m ready now. I am less cynical about the future and more open to the experiences to come this August.
I view my college experience as a chance to make new memories, not to replace the memories I made during my childhood. Although the growing pains felt endless, I can see that I’ve grown because of my hometown, and that makes the pain worth it.