Room 3227. That was my assignment. It was 1982 and the letter from Cornell had just arrived. I opened it and found not my first, second or even third choice of dorm. I had not ever wanted to live in Balch Hall, the only all-female dorm on the campus. But, there in black and white, on that crisp piece of university stationery, I found that I would be spending the next year of my life in the most boring dorm I could imagine.
Balch Hall, built in the 1920s was constructed to meet the needs of the growing numbers of women attending the university. Its stone walls are covered in ivy and many of the rooms look down on a stone courtyard and walkway that leads to the main campus.
It epitomizes what one thinks of when envisioning The Ivy League. I was fortunate enough to score what I called a two-room double, giving me both a roommate and the privacy of my own room. Our separate but connected rooms shared a sink, mirror and an old-style wall telephone. Even given those perks, I was thoroughly disappointed because I felt segregated from the other coeds who were lucky enough to set out on adulthood by learning how to live with the opposite sex.
And to make matters worse, back in the 1980s when Cornell still boasted freshman dorms — referred to as U-Halls — the bulk of my classmates lived cramped like sardines on the west side of campus, while I found myself tucked away up on North Campus. I felt like I had been assigned to a nunnery.
As I settled in though, I grew to enjoy the spaciousness of my room. I was raised with two siblings but never had to bunk up. I am also an introvert and crave my alone time. And as the first semester progressed and my new friends began to tire of their messy, loud or fast roommates, I discovered myself feeling fortunate for my privacy.
We, the Balch girls, discovered that parties were never too far away and it was easy to find fun just outside our doors. The nice thing was that we could always slip back home whenever peace and quiet were in order. Our dorm also boasted its own dining hall, so when the weather was fierce, as is often the case in western New York, we could walk downstairs to enjoy a meal on floral china.
The semesters passed quickly, and soon I found myself making plans to live off-campus the following year. I chose a four-bedroom apartment and lived with girls I had met in Balch Hall. We would have our own rooms and share a living room, kitchen and bathroom. As a matter of fact, each of the next three years I chose to live with girls I met while a freshman in Balch Hall.
Years sped by. We, the girls of Balch, graduated, began working, met our husbands and started families of our own. Life happened. I tucked away my memories of that first year at Cornell. It wasn’t until I began having children that I began dreaming once again of my college experience.
My son was accepted to Cornell, class of 2020. His dorm assignment arrived in July, via email. He was only slightly disappointed for not being granted his first choice or even second choice but for him, that feeling quickly passed. He already had friends at the school and through sleep away camp and Facebook, he was going off to school with an entire circle of friends.
On move-in day we arrived at his dorm on North Campus where all freshmen now live. Pull up, offload, move your car and let student volunteers help move the new students in. Everything went so smoothly. The process was quick and efficient and I soon found myself in the way of my son and husband while they began setting up his creature comforts like television and Xbox. With time to spare, I went outside and began walking. Soon I found myself standing outside Balch Hall. The doors were unlocked and I went upstairs to my old room. Standing outside of the closed door, I wondered, would I knock? I felt my heart pounding in my chest. Why was I so nervous?
As someone who moved around a lot as a child, former homes were something I learned to file away in my past, never to be revisited in person. I have flashes of images from these various homes — a rose from a certain wallpaper, shadows cast from a huge oak tree, or how a lightning storm looked from a living room window. I never had the chance to go back and lay my memories over the reality to see how they align.
I knocked and held my breath. The door opened and I was confronted by a wave of emotions that almost buckled my knees. In the room is a mother, father and their daughter who was moving in for freshman year. I experienced flashes of myself 34 years ago, doing the same thing. I introduce myself and ask if I may look around. This girl and I share a bond — we are both forever tethered to Cornell by this one chord, Room 3227.
Though I did not realize it then, this room was my safe haven when everything in my world was changing. I grew to love the quiet of this room. It offered me a place to reflect on all the growth I would experience that first year of college. I bid goodbye to my room and I wished its new occupant well.
I wonder if many years from now she, too, may knock on the door for a peek at her past and the girl she once was.
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