Why Going Back to College Isn’t Always What It’s Cracked Up to Be

Not many people know this, but long ago I promised myself I would never go back to Blacksburg. Friends would always ask me to come down to Virginia Tech—mostly to attend football games—and when they did I often said yes. But the time would approach and I’d start to get nervous. “Well, I’m really that busy that week,” I’d say or “I don’t know, I’ve been spending too much money lately,” before backing out. Lately, once I knew I never wanted to see the place again, I became dismissive.

“Why would I ever want to go down there?”

It wasn’t that I hated it; I just didn’t want to experience it ever again. I arrived under less than ideal circumstances and only tolerated my first two years. My senior year was the worst, and by the time I packed up my van and drove south down Main Street toward 81, I was finished with the place.

No, that’s a lie. When I left, I loved Virginia Tech. The circumstances that occurred at the end brought me closer than I’d ever been to the actual school. But as the years progressed and I stayed away, the light coming off the town started to refract differently and all I could think about was how miserable it made me. I knew if I ever returned, those feelings would rush back and I’d spend any trip bawling, desperate to leave.

But when one of your best friends has her wedding there, you can’t check “Fear of Venue” on the RSVP and bail. So Friday morning around 11:30 I got in my car. It was six years since I’d been back. As I pulled out on I-66, I sparked the same cigarettes I always smoked on the drive down (which I did 30 times my last two years there), and pressed play on the same album I always listened to. But I wasn’t more than five miles in when anxiety hit.

This is a terrible idea. How can you go back and walk down all those same paths and not have it overwhelm you in the worst possible way? It will.

.       .       .

It’s hard to explain what happened to me my senior year without breaking some promises I made long ago, ones that are pretty much the only words I’ve still kept in my life. But they’re too integral to gloss over here. I was obsessed with my girlfriend when the year started. She was the first real love I’d had since my senior year of high school and I was desperate to make it work. Which caused me to blow off every sign she was feeding me that it wouldn’t.

I justified a lot of them away. But I also think there’s something about me that is okay with being inextricably linked to something destined to bring me down. Like sadness is where I should reside, and if bad things aren’t happening, life’s lacking meaning.

What was going on? Imagine being 22 and begging someone you love to come spend the night because it was the only way you could be certain they’d still be there in the morning. Extrapolate that feeling over six months during your last year of college (November to April) and you get the idea of what I was going through. Afraid to leave. Scared to stay.

That’s what I think about now when I think of Virginia Tech. The screaming, the fighting, the pleading, the crying. I don’t have happy memories from my days there.

She decided to move to Europe somewhere in that time period. I thought it would be good for her, even though I didn't think it was particularly fair—that everything could happen and she could dust her hands and start a new chapter in her life. I held on to her for years after, in large part because I didn’t think she deserved to turn that page.

.       .       .

Everyone knows what happened April 16th, 26 days before I graduated. I say that like it matters. Like the event somehow occurring to me right before I left college gave it a greater significance than if it happened to someone who had to return for their senior year. Maybe it does. I think it’s pretty hard to be facing decisions about your life and then having all meaning shot to shit 300 yards from your apartment.

.       .       .

I went to her house on the 16th because I wanted to be with her. Because even through all that mess, there were undercurrents of true compassion and real caring. We were happy we had each other in the moment, even though we weren’t in the immediacy before and not in the aftermath after. But that night we laid together under her sherbet-bright comforter, until at some point she told me she didn’t want to be held anymore.

.      .       .

Pulling into town after my four-hour drive, I scurried through it, refusing to slow down. Just quickly acknowledging shit as I went down the main drag. But when I pulled into the parking lot of my hotel, an inn on campus, I was overtaken by a smile. It was beautiful out. Eighty-five and sunny, with low white clouds hovering right above the lips of the mountains. People love Tech for a good reason. It’s perfect. Seeing that, only just for a minute, erased the bad thoughts I had.

Short-lived, albeit somewhat intentionally so. There was no place I could go first other than the memorial. I still hadn’t seen it, and even though I didn’t know anyone that died that day, I became close to one girl’s father, doing a profile of him that wound up in a book. The month after, when I was writing it, it showed me what I wanted to do with my life. It did give me meaning. I don’t talk to him anymore, but I still wanted to go by his daughter’s stone and say something. A weird, uncomfortable thanks.

I walked along the 32 markers. They were placed there in an impromptu manner the day after the shooting and morphed from a temporary tribute to a permanent dedication. I read all the names I forgot, ones I knew but had since frayed from my mind as time went on. When I finished passing through, I walked away, not stopping until I was entirely off campus.

.       .       .

That Friday, everyone went to a bar downtown. It was one I frequented all the time on Tuesdays, where I’d get drunk with friends then call my girlfriend, even after she’d explicitly told me not to. She would always have to be awake at 6:00 a.m., and even though it was typically around two, I couldn’t help myself. I liked sharing a bed with her. She made me feel more comfortable and happy, and I guess I did the same, because she always said yes when I rang.

As people started filtering out, heading to bed before the ceremony Saturday, I decided I wanted to walk by her house. I’d already planned on doing this, I just wasn’t sure when during the weekend I would. Being drunk, being as drunk as I often was, it felt like the appropriate time.

I staggered up the hill on Main Street, right foot crossing too far to the left, left coming back to compensate turned right on Giles Road. It was all downhill to her house from there. It was dark when I got there. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but I was only able to make out the edges of the building. Regardless, this was it and there had to be something there. After a minute, I plopped down on the curb. Knees out, ankles crossed, wrists in the space in between. Staring with my mouth agape.

I look at that house as though it could give me my wasted life back. I’ve blamed her for so much. All told it was four years of shit. And now, three years after that, it’s not like she’s gone. I don’t talk to her, I don’t see her, but she’s still a parameter in my life, one that shapes everything I do.

I didn’t cry. But by the time I walked away, I was screaming.

“Fuck you. Oh fuck you so much. Fuck you so much.”

Livid. About what? Bad things that happened? A person being who they were? Was I really pissed that I met her when she was going through a difficult time in her life?

Like it was her fault I still fell in love despite her repeatedly telling me to stay away?

.       .       .

Returning to my hotel on Friday, I cut back through the campus. At the center of Tech is a large grassy field, like any college quad except many times more massive. My path took me on the far side of it, away from the memorial, which sits basically at the heart of campus. And it looked different from another vantage point. The small semicircle of stones, each only a foot high, seemed so miniscule from afar. Easy to miss. If you didn’t know what it was, you wouldn’t grasp the significance.

Which might be the point. Things may be big, but only in relation to others. And this memorial sat right in front of the largest building at Tech, the school’s admissions office, its gateway to the world. Completely dwarfed by it.

But what I can’t get over is how much more beautiful it made the building behind it look. Somehow the half-circle of the small memorial framed it perfectly. It actually, I thought, made it look better. And I was utterly amazed at how this bad could make the good look so much better.

I guess you just have to see it to believe it.

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[Foggy night on VT campus image via Shutterstock]