Growing up in a small Vermont town was in many ways a blessing. I learned the importance of community and small food co-ops and independent bookstores and quirky movie theaters that never projected a Hollywood Blockbuster. If I wanted a bagel after school I walked into the bagel café and they gladly put in on my family’s tab. The art supply store did the same for glossy reams of paper and charcoal paints, and the librarians always tucked away the latest bestseller for me.
Growing up in a small Vermont town sheltered me. I had arrived fresh-faced at Tufts in Boston ready to embrace academia. What I wasn’t ready for was the social challenges of navigating a sophisticated social scene filled with college students from all over the world, often fiercely independent and used to travelling to Europe over vacation and who already had summer internships on Wall Street and were studying International Relations and going to fraternity parties in underwear for a Pimps’n Hoes party.
As for me, I had volunteered at a few farms in rural Vermont during my summers and wanted to be a novelist. I hadn’t left the United States and had dated only one sweet boy who was off to the West Coast to study environmentalism.My first college roommate was a petite student from Manhattan who wore designer jeans and skinny heels and thought all Vermonters sold weed and were unexciting. She went to a lot of parties at other colleges on the weekend and stumbled in our room between 3 and 4 a.m., often with an unnamed guy wearing a collared shirt and her mascara running down her check. When everyone on our floor went in search of parties the first night of orientation, I was in bed by 10 p.m. wearing the same stripped pajamas I had worn throughout high school.I lasted in that room about a month and was then moved into an empty double in a “clean living” floor. I was fine with that label. What I wasn’t fine with was the constant noise in the dorm, the hallway lights that were so bright, and the sense of feeling lost and unsure of myself in my new surroundings.
I buried myself in school books and enjoyed long afternoons in the quiet room in the back of library. The books comforted me.I hunted around for a few interesting clubs to join, but mustering up the courage to go alone to a meeting felt impossible. And weekends were particularly painful. The days seemed long without homework. I spent a lot of the weekends doing extra reading and writing. Sometimes I read poetry and walked around the hilly campus, watching the other students play football and carry their books and laptops and move about their busy days. I called my parents a lot and thought about home constantly. How sweet it seemed. How comforting it was to be able to know the librarian and chef at the local diner. And how beautiful the foliage must be and how perfect a hike would have been followed by warm apple cider.
When I went home for my first long weekend I remember bursting into tears. My childhood house looked exactly the same. My bedroom remained untouched, except for a fresh pair of flannel sheets welcoming me home. It ached to notice that my sweet town had continued, despite my absence My life had changed so much, and yet my sweet hometown remained the same in a way that seemed brutally unfair to me. I longed for the days of hanging out at friend’s houses on the weekends with candy and a movie and walking into my father’s office and sitting on his floor next to my Science book and cooking dinner with my mom. In only a few months, my hometown, a place that I loved without ever understanding it’s true beauty, meant more to me than ever.
It was hard to explain college life back at home. Instead, I slept a lot and took walks with my mom, but felt a sinking sensation inside, a feeling that caused my breath to shorten.“How’s college?” the diner owner inquired as he brought me a peppermint tea, knowing it’s my favorite. “Great,” I exclaimed, not being able to disappoint him.Over the weekend, I walked to the Winooski River with my mom. It’s a beautiful river that skirts the outside of town and welcomes kayakers and then quietly disappears under thick ice in the winter. I watched a group of high school kids picnicking by the river. They were laughing and I longed to join them. Their voices echoed off the river, rising and falling.Just as I turned away from them, I heard a loud shriek followed by a crash and then more laughter. Two girls had jumped in the river as her friends cheered her on. It looked so freeing.
In all my years of living by a river, I had never jumped in. I usually waded in, taking careful steps not to fall. In fact, I had never jumped into anything. Not even a pool. I walked away, feeling small, and wondering if I would ever have the courage to jump off something or find a group of friends to sit with.
After Winter break, I returned to campus optimistically. I had discovered a theatre troupe filled with other quirky students who liked to spend their weekends making crafts and watching foreign films and volunteering. I made a few other friends who ignored the party scene and even found a yoga class. My therapist readjusted her diagnosis to social anxiety and together we explored ways for me to find connections at College, beyond the classroom.I thought of my hometown most days, but not with the same longing. I knew it was there, living and breathing, and that it always be there ready to catch me.
I slowly began to understand that it was up to me to grow a little. To move beyond the comfort of rural Vermont. To trust that it helped me and shaped me, but I needed to continue to move on.While I never did make it to a fraternity party, I secured housing with new friends for Sophomore year and invited them to Vermont that summer. I took them to the Winooski River and even though we didn’t jump off the side, we watched an eagle rise and fall above the river backing in the summer sun. It soared and jumped above the trees for us as it opened its wing span, wide and broad. And on that summer afternoon, as I sat with a group of new friends by a river in my hometown, that was enough jumping for me.