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Letter to a Stranger

letter-to-a-stranger

Recently I went back to the community college I graduated from in the spring to talk about a project called “Ban the Bottle” that I had helped lead and to visit my old professors and friends. On my way out of the building I stopped in the first floor bathroom where my entire ethnic studies class had once waited out a tornado drill. The only other person in the bathroom was a girl standing in front of the mirror. I thought maybe she was doing her makeup, but when I emerged from the stall she was still there. I washed my hands, fiddled around in my backpack for my car keys and wondered if she was okay. We were facing different directions but our eyes met in the bathroom mirrors and she smiled. I turned around to throw out my paper towel. She asked me how old I was.

“Twenty. How about you?”

“Eighteen.”

“Is this your first year here?”

“Yes. What about you?”

“No, I don’t go here anymore. I’m just visiting.”

Pause.

“Do you like it here?”

She shrugs, “Not really.”

I had known something was wrong the minute I stepped out of the bathroom stall and she was still there. I knew in the way she stood in front of the mirror, one hand on her hip, her arm across her stomach, like you do when you feel sick. If I hadn’t come into the bathroom she could have been alone a few more minutes. She could have left before I came back out and I wouldn’t have thought about her again, but she had stayed, so maybe she wanted to talk.

“It gets better,” I said, aware of the inadequacy of that statement, “It was really hard my first couple of months too, but it gets better.”

“I hope so,” she said.

I asked her what she was taking: mostly math classes. I said I couldn’t be much help with that since I had taken mostly English classes. She said she had to write a paper for English and she didn’t know what to say. I asked her what the paper was supposed to be about. The prompt was vague. I told her that sometimes, when I had been a student here, I went to the tutoring center for help. She said she had an appointment there. I said that was good, that it would help. She thanked me. And not knowing what else to say I smiled at her and said good luck.

And then I left.

On the way home I thought about the ghosts of other car rides down these same streets. I thought about driving to school in my friend’s white truck we had named Pearl, her Dad’s snowplow attached to the front bumper in winter. I thought about coming home in the dark with a different friend after staying at school late to watch Thelma and Louise. I thought about my dad taking me to school on the first spring morning, when we rolled the windows down and listened to The National.

I had almost written my college essay about a moment like this. It had been the last day of school last year and my friend and I had been stuck at a stoplight in the rain. It was a poignant moment: the type you can only really have in cars, where the song on the radio turns to something old you know by heart and it feels like the whole world is in that moment. In the essay I never used I called it “the silent stringing heartbeat that could never exist in language, like the flutter of a thousand tiny hearts beating back to you through the moon.”

That essay had been about half formed memory, about nostalgia that was not yet real. But it was now. The things I had been writing about then had ended. I had graduated. I was driving home.

I thought about the girl in the bathroom, whose name I did not know. I wished I had said more to her. I knew exactly how she felt. I knew the feeling of standing in a bathroom praying no one else walks in. But I had walked in. And I should have said more.

I wanted to tell her to join the Honors Program, to go to club meetings, get a job on campus, to take the professors I had taken and the classes I had loved. But I hadn’t said those things because she wasn’t me and I wasn’t her. I had told her it would get better, but not how it would get better, because I did not know. No matter what I might have said I could not make the words anything more than words. I could not make her feel the way I had felt about these things.

During my first semester I had been so sad without having a specific reason as to why. When I had finally managed, slowly and without ease, through all the things I had not said to her, to be happy, the two years I stayed at my community college became the best two of my life. Sometimes I have trouble putting my finger on exactly why. I spent a lot of that time tentatively happy, worried that the despair I felt my first semester would come back if I didn’t keep busy. But I also got to go to school with a friend from high school and I met another friend in a class that literally did change my life. I was introduced, in a way I never had been before, to activism. I met teachers who are some of the smartest people I know. I met kids from all different walks of life. I learned how to become a leader.

I owe a lot of who I am to that school. I hope someday the girl in the bathroom will too.

My friend and I spent a good portion of the year-end Honors Banquet crying in the bathroom. We were going to give speeches at the end of the night and she hated public speaking, despite being quite good at it (something that she would never believe). She was worried she was going to start crying when she had to talk (she didn’t, but I did). I had been totally calm until she said, as we stood in the bathroom of Barnes and Noble, in our heels and black dresses, laughing at ourselves for being ridiculous, “I can’t believe we only have two weeks left.”

She meant two weeks left of school, two weeks before we were done with community college. In that moment, I could not imagine any other school but this one. I could not imagine going to school without the girl who stood next to me in the bathroom, who had once been a stranger, but was now one of my best friends.

In the months of transition that have followed, I have often thought that it would have been easier to leave if I hadn’t loved it so much. But I wouldn’t have traded my community college for the world. If I had to do it all over again I would not have gone to a university freshman year even if it had been free. I don’t know how to put into words the appreciation community college gave me for education, how much it taught me, how differently it made me think.

I wrote my final college essay about a trip I took in my first year of community college to Alabama. I went with my school’s Black Student Union for the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery lead by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis in support of voting rights. I wrote about hearing President Obama give his speech on the bridge they had marched over as we stood in the Selma Curb Market and listened over the static of an old car radio. I wrote about how standing in the middle of the Edmund Pettus Bridge that night felt like watching ghosts appear in front of me from behind a breaking veil. I said it was John Lewis’ bridge. I said being there was like listening to a mockingbird sing. I said that in that moment I realized that all the world needs is justice and language.

Later that night we got back on the bus to go home. It was warm, a welcome contrast to how freezing it had been on the way to Alabama when the heater broke down. The whole bus seemed to be blanketed in something heavy, but not painful. It glowed in a yellow light. It felt otherworldly, maybe because I was almost asleep. We had been given notebooks to write in before we left. They had said this trip would change us. I hadn’t thought to pull mine out, but Daniel, who sat behind my friend and I on the bus was writing in his. I knew this because, just before I was really asleep, I heard him ask no one in particular, “How do you spell indescribable?”

So: To the girl in the bathroom,

This is what I would have said to you if I wouldn’t have sounded crazy for saying it. Everyone at some point, is you. Life is really just a cycle of standing in front of bathroom mirrors trying to figure out what the hell you’re doing. But that’s okay because later, when you’ve walked back into the hall and are standing in front of another mirror you can think back on all the things that happened between now and then. All the incredible, indescribable things. All the good you didn’t know existed.

It is true. It gets better.

  • Sarah Adams
    September 22, 2016 at 8:31 am

    I can say, even after 51 years, sometimes you still stand before the bathroom mirror, looking into your own eyes and wonder what’s next? Whatever it is, it will be welcomed.