It’s weird sometimes to work at the same university where I was once a student. Random, distant memories surface almost daily: The coffee cart where, in 1997, I bought my first latte. The accounting worksheets I struggled through while sitting at long, honey-colored tables in the library. The running trails I crisscrossed on days when I couldn’t sit still.
The classroom where I teach (and where I once studied) is named after Donald Murray, a Pulitzer Prize winner who founded our journalism program and wrote prolifically until his death at the age of 82. In some of his columns for The Boston Globe, Murray calls this phenomenon “double exposure,” the then superimposed on the now. He’s not the only writer to experience this kind of cognitive surprise. Robert M. Pirsig touches on something similar in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when he writes about “lateral truths… knowledge that’s from a wholly unexpected direction.” Sometimes, as I’m walking to my car at the end of a long day, I’ll see something out of the corner of my eye – a student who looks like a friend from my old dorm or a tree I studied under 15 years ago – and, suddenly, I’m displaced. The physical space is the same, but the now is, for a moment, gone.
There was nothing profound or unusual about my undergraduate career. I was a normal kid with average grades, nice friends and typical worries, but it’s still interesting to wade through those memories now. Many of my students are sophomores, so I’ve been thinking especially hard about that time in my own life. Freshman year seems too much like high school, a blur of adolescent anxiety. Sophomore year was different, the borderland between who I was as a kid and the first version of my adult self. I began to find my voice as a writer and a person. It was when I took my first journalism class, started working for the student newspaper, cold called a boy I liked and asked him to dinner.
I was a devoted journal-keeper back then, recording the things happening around me and inside my head. It’s fascinating, as someone who now teaches writing, to read these journals, to see the change in sentence structure, tone and technique. It’s a little like watching a puppy clomp around the yard. The dog is clearly having fun, but it will be a while before she figures out what to do with her feet. In September, I was whining about a roommate in a way that now makes me cringe. In October, I described the campus in fall, mimicking the way my favorite writers crafted scenes. December’s entries are full of dialogue from conversations I overheard in the dorm. Around New Year’s, I started to sound like me, creating narratives of my own instead of tracing the patterns of those I’d read. In March, I tried a little poetry.
By the time summer came around, I was writing a love story — about journalism, about that boy and about the hint of who I might become.