My freshman year dorm room overlooked the front lawn from the third floor of Winch. O-week was unusually gorgeous, with the sun beaming, and from my perch I watched the hacky sack and frisbee circles that I was barred from being part of. The doxycycline confined me from sunlight (see last week’s “Ben There” at reedthegrail.com) so I either paced my room or took solo walks through the canyon. The roommate of my divided double was a junior who, being abroad, had missed out on the housing lottery. When he arrived after O-week he vetoed democratic process and usurped the mutually desired inner room. “I didn’t want a roommate but they were out of singles,” he told me.
Memories of this time are foggy, mostly I think, because of how foggy my year off had left me. I read the Iliad in a daze, able to absorb the book’s effect, but losing track of its events. That’s how my mind seemed to operate at the time, flitting through images in a sense more poetic than academic.
I kept to the shade and roamed my way around Commons and the quad. Not generally the type to cling to one group I floated through social circles. The multitude of interactions was pleasant, but I failed to make friends out of acquaintances and got lost in the collage of faces. The transition to Reed doesn’t seem to be particularly easy for anyone, but I think one of my main obstacles was how recently I’d reinvented myself. I was a steady high schooler who’d kept his head down and ran cross-country and track. My friends were mostly skateboarders and musicians. Reed got me twisted. After a mellow high school experience I had spent a year following a Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassidy fantasy around the states. Disease had attacked the connections between my brain and body.
As the year started and classmates formed or fell into cliques I was still wandering in search of a base. I found fellow students to be friendly with but our times together were too fleeting for them to be full friends. An antsy Sunday that again saw me stuck away from the sun sent me to the Reed gym. I had never been a gym goer, but I bridled from being cooped up and I needed some sort of movement. As it happens, the coach of the basketball team befriended me in the gym, and that is the day that I started playing basketball. I was to continue playing on the team for my four years at Reed. It was a random day to determine my main extracurricular at Reed. I hadn’t played a lick of basketball in high school, but I was fast enough that the team wanted me. Most importantly, basketball gave me a center, something substantial to work towards.
The funny thing about the way that Lyme wracked my body was that the whole time I thought I was becoming more spiritually connected. Lyme messes with your central nervous system. When I would practice the kata forms that a sensei had taught me it was as if I was newly aware of each discrete tendon in my body. This left me hyper-aware of my physicality and body, fixated on my movements. Basketball spoke to me as a full experience, in a way that the books I should’ve been focusing on could not.
As far as academics at Reed, I thought that writing would come easily to me. I expected to be challenged by the social sphere or new concepts in classes, but before I came to Reed I had made over a $1000 writing $50/500 words in freelancing for my local newspaper. I expected this to translate into virtuoso essays. My Hum conference leader, Pancho Savery (English 1995–), quickly disabused me of this notion. My first Hum paper tanked. It didn’t have a thesis. I had become so self-assured in style that I had none of the substance that academic writing relies on. I remember Pancho telling me, “You use a lot of adjectives.”
My foreign language was even worse. I needed a language to be an English major, so they sent me to Spanish 110. All you need to do in that class is turn in the assignments and listen. I couldn’t seem to do either. I had no ear for the language, and dug myself a deeper and deeper hole. The saving grace was a love affair I was having with a classmate. She was a psych major, and seemed to take pity on how impossible I was making things for myself. She coached me through the workbook and we spent many late hours pouring over conjugations. When our dalliance boiled over and we stopped speaking with each other the class became painful and I lost the will to study. My Reed career seemed to be falling apart before it ever really began.
I felt locked in a sensual sphere somewhere deep inside my own head. Unable to rise to the challenge of the academics I managed to do barely enough. Luckily I found a strong group of friends. The Yerp Crew was a loose amalgamation of ODBers. I met them at Freestyle Friday, a weekly freestyle circle that Madison Stewart ran in Sally Port. Madison is one of the most adept emcees I’ve ever met but he always encouraged amateurs to spout their improvised poetry over the beat. If you’ve never heard Madison’s music go Google Madison LST. “Who Knows” is incredible, and to this day I brag about having heard it in poem form before the video.
The Yerp Crew was united by an out-of-placeness at Reed and we channeled this into late night hooliganism, hailing each other with cries of “YERRRRRP!” that echoed across the quad. We picked up scores of AODs between the dozen or so people who defined the friend group. I think only 4 of us would go on to graduate in 4 years. But we gave each other family. My inability to succeed academically had left me in rough straits emotionally and otherwise. A group of commiserators was exactly what I needed.
Poetry was my turning point. Freshman Tristan Nieto started the Deadbeat Poet Society, a weekly open mic in the SU. Legends such as Lizzy Martin spewed balls and brimstone on the mic. She inspired me to follow suit. The Deadbeats gave harsh and open criticism, which meant that if you could rouse them to drunken cheers the feeling was all the sweeter. The spinning milieu inside my head finally had an outlet. For the first time all year I was beginning to be able to express the way I had been feeling. Without poetry and freestyling I never would’ve found my feet at Reed. My academic writing had done nothing but discourage me, but poetry reminded me how much I love the written word. I dug in and dealt.
The year reached an end. Hum got better. Spanish didn’t. My Poli Sci professor liked me in class but loathed my final. Jorge, my Spanish prof, left me a comment, “There is no way he can complete the language requirement in Spanish with this kind of work and discipline.” He was right. My academics sputtered on for two more years. I was on academic probation more semesters than I was off it. I retook the second semester of Spanish 110, and it hardly went any better. After my junior year I took a year away from Reed to study Spanish abroad, and the immersion saved my English degree. I battled back into Reed, and fought my way through my thesis. On Tuesday I had my orals. They went better than I ever could have hoped. My thesis advisor beamed, told me he was proud of me. I don’t know how to describe how that feels. I just want to say, Reed has a way of tearing you to pieces. Persevering through it has been the largest accomplishment of my life. It hasn’t been pretty and it hasn’t been smooth. But its easily the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. It’s like Sage Francis says at the end of “The Best of Times,” “When you think you’ve got it all figured out and then everything collapses/trust me, kid, it’s not the end of the world.”