Departing the whirlwind of Princeton on school breaks never fails to provide a return to childhood. At the same time, it provides a poignant reminder that, as a college student, I'm caught between two worlds — childhood and adulthood — often without a firm foot in either. At school, scrolling through Facebook memes about exams, sleeping at odd hours of the day, and receiving emails from professors reminding me about item 937 on my list of things to do, I can't help but daydream about entering my house, smelling my favorite home-cooked meal wafting in from the kitchen, and feeling that — in a world of seeming chaos — at least some things never change.
Driving back to the state of Massachusetts from Princeton, I hungrily soak up the sight of old Victorian houses and large run-down tobacco barns perched next to corn fields, a sight for sore eyes after a long drive through suburban New Jersey. After arriving and fielding initial flurries of questions from my parents about how my life away from home is, I quickly settle into my old high school routine, which, admittedly, is just like college minus all of the “real-life obligations” of my college career (i.e. a lot of naps, midnight snacks, and Netflix marathons). Home offers a peaceful break to recharge from the fast-paced college scene. It is everything I anticipate it to be and yet something manages to break the antique serenity every time: tall, creatively designed collegiate towers looming over the otherwise unobstructed skyline.
Amherst, Mass., is known for one thing: being a college town (unless you’re particularly fond of Emily Dickinson, and find it notable that she, too, lived in Amherst). With five colleges located nearby (Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and UMass Amherst), university students and activities have an undeniably big presence in town. Returning to a college existence away from college has made the return home a little more confusing than I imagined it would be.
On one hand, this town is so viscerally linked to untouched childhood memories like spending hours sitting in the reading nook of the library at five years old, surrounded by piles of picture books, taking shelter in the basement after running through the rain. On the other hand, I strongly identify with the flocks of backpack-carrying, sleep-deprived students that I see every time I step outside my house.
I used to speed through the UMass campus on my bike, exhilarated by the idea of zooming past all of the permanently stressed, book-laden adults. I don’t know if I’ve become one of those adults yet, but now reminders of my newfound college life face me at every corner. Though we live in separate parts of the country, I am drawn to the idea of our parallel lives spent bracing the cold on the way to class, embracing the lure of independence, and feeling overwhelmed by the constant unknown phase of becoming an adult.
As I walk through the swarm of students, I smile at them, trying to make eye contact as if to say, “Hey, I get you, I’m one of you,” despite my mom hovering just to the left of me. As I watch a group of boys pick up a case of beer, discussing how best to mix tequila, and then overhear two girls chatting about their economics professor, I am tempted to join in. I realize that I’m not the same person I was before I left, and though my role at home has changed, I am not fully a child or a student. I no longer know all the secret hiding spots in the library, and I no longer run through the rain.
I sit in my bed, listening to partygoers call through the neighborhood streets and to my parents provide running commentary, “Don’t those kids know that they are going to get cold staying out with so little clothing on?” It occurs to me that returning to my hometown after leaving for college feels like being in the middle of two divorced parents: attached to both, not fully belonging to either, and anxiously awaiting a time when the two can happily coexist.