This past weekend, I went to my class reunion at Grinnell College and made time to visit the library. The first draft of this post was written on my phone while I sat at the desk pictured which is located on the 4th floor of Burling Library.
When I walked into the library, it smelled exactly the same as it did 25 years ago. There is a mix of new and old furniture and the card catalogs are gone. The technology has changed and the tables on the first floor now have outlets in them. The posters on the cork boards are for people and events to which I have no connection. These changes speak to the passage of time and yet, the library still smells like old paper and ink and that fact makes me feel as if I'm firmly rooted in both the past and present.
I was not a stellar student by Grinnell standards and was pleased to graduate with a B average. I can't remember if I compared myself to others during my time there but I do it now. I measure my student self against the people I knew (or knew of) and measure my adult self to other alumni even though I know I shouldn't. Still, without a doubt, I know that the greatest lessons I learned at Grinnell were not the ones I learned in classrooms but those I learned beyond them.
I stepped onto campus certain that I knew who I was and left four years later with an understanding that people change, that we grow in different directions, that we can and hopefully will continue to figure out who we are. I walked into my residence hall and knew no one - not in my hall and not on campus - and left with friends who remain a part of my daily life all these years later.
My time at Grinnell taught me to think and I applied that skill more often to life than tests and papers. I learned to build deep relationships with people, to work through conflict, to love and let go. I became independent in every aspect of my life but also figured out that sometimes, you have to lean on others when things are hard. I learned to be alone, to make peace with solitude and quiet. These are still things I work on but it all started there.
So of all the things I did, studying seems the least important, yet I spent more time in the library than almost anywhere else. I went there every day to study, though it often involved more socializing than studying. When I wanted to be found, I settled into one of the tables on the first floor. When I had a particularly hard paper or test coming up, I would go up to the 4th floor where I could focus without distraction.
Many times this weekend, I wondered aloud, "Did I really go here?" The buildings have changed and so many memories have become indistinct over time but sitting here in the library, it feels like I never left. The small desk surrounded by books. The musty smell of paper and the feel of the straight-backed chair against my back. The absolute quiet of the floor while the muffled sounds of campus life drift towards the closed window.
A little over 25 years ago, I sat at this very desk, studying and writing my final papers. I had no idea what was coming next. Now, I sit here as someone who worked in social services for 20 years and is now a writer. I sit here as a married mother of two. I sit here knowing that when I leave tomorrow, I will return to Minneapolis to friends and family, to the place that has become home in every way. But more than anything, I sit here now remembering that I had no idea how life was going to turn out and feeling such gratitude that it all turned out so damn good. Whatever the next 25 years may bring, I'm holding onto that.