Absence Makes the Smithie Grow Stronger
Published: Friday, September 14, 2012
Updated: Friday, September 14, 2012 15:09
During the spring of 2011, while my classmates were celebrating the end of their first Smith year and beginning preparations for their second, I was signing forms in the Dean’s Office by day and plumbing the terrifying depths of Craigslist for apartments by night. Amid all the highs and lows of my new life at Smith during that first year, I had reached several important conclusions. Among them: (a) going to college just because you think it’s what you’re supposed to do next is not an ideal reason for going, (b) being in college is a lot like being in high school (but, at Smith at least, college has more alcohol and less clothing) and (c) Noodle Bowl is goodness incarnate.
For at least two of those three reasons, I came to the end of my first year feeling very strongly that I needed to take a year away from the academic communities that had perpetually defined my life up to that point. My goal in doing so was not to leave the Smith version of academia in favor of another, but rather to explore a place and activity that would, by virtue of being utterly foreign to me, challenge my mind and help grow my still-adolescent sense of the world in new and exciting ways.
With that goal in mind, I made a big, bizarre leap; seemingly on a whim I moved to Chicago in order to study improv and sketch comedy at the Second City Theatre – where the likes of Jane Lynch had studied – despite the fact that the highlight of my acting career up to that point had been my single, silent walk across the back of the stage during my high school’s freshman class production of To Kill a Mockingbird in 2006. Apparently, I was so enthralled by the prospect of trying something new between years of school that I forgot to be fazed by a vitally important fact: I was less prepared to study comedy in the comedy capital of the world than Rick Perry was for the Republican presidential primary debate in which he was asked to identify the three departments of government he would cut if elected president. Oops.
Fortunately for me, that’s where my and Rick Perry’s respective stories diverge: his campaign tanked shortly after his preparation fail while my year proved to be full of more fun and learning than I could even begin to process on a day-to-day basis. I jumped onto stages and into shows all around Chicago, both at Second City and elsewhere, as often as I could, frequently tallying up multiple shows per week and consistently growing my confidence in the craft. When I wasn’t on stage, I was either in a comedy classroom learning and practicing with other improvisers or refining ideas for new sketches, bits and shows. Completely addicted to the incredible world into which I had stumbled, I realized, at some point, that my time at Smith seemed almost to exist in a different version of my life. I couldn’t imagine returning.
As is often the case with good times, though, the year eventually had to end, and I faced the prospect of what felt like a jarring return to school after almost a year and a half away. Smith, for its part, welcomed me back with a pat on the back and a crisp new tuition bill, but I still had major reservations about reacclimating to its specific highs and lows, especially given that it had come to feel not unlike improv had just a year before: unusual and vaguely menacing. Unfortunately, you can’t determine your academic, extracurricular or social success level in college by listening for audience laughter; instead, that elusive triumph is often nebulous, subjective and hard to locate. Here, it can be measured in late nights or early mornings, shot glasses or coffee cups, haircuts or high-fives. It is different for each person on this campus, and there is no objective judge to laugh at your jokes or let you know whether you’re on the right track. The search for success in college is at once fleeting and perpetual, trivial and vital; sans rubric, it will never be an easy course to navigate.
Smith is much the same as it was when I left in the spring of 2011. The buildings are unchanged, the workload is familiarly, horrifyingly large and Noodle Bowl is still perfect. Despite all its constancy, though, Smith feels wholly different to me now: I am here for the right reasons.
Sometime in your life – maybe not right now, and maybe not for a full year – go out into a new community and experience your life beyond what you have thus far known it to be. Try something new. Take a risk. Push yourself. Be willing to fall on your face. If you commit to the cause in those important ways, you will never again look at yourself or the world you inhabit in quite the same way. It is an endeavor in which you truly cannot fail.
As long as you don’t forget that third department of government. That would be bad.