(Part 1 of 2)
This is a collection of stories about a friend I made during college. I can count on one hand the number of friends I’ve made in my life- it has never been an easy thing- so experiences like this stand out in my mind.
After high school ended- for reasons obscure even to me- I found myself attending a seminary.
Most everyone there was earnest, had clear objectives in terms of their religious careers and life paths. I was a fledgling depressive and painfully skeptical…I wasn’t even sure I believed in myself. I had a strong suspicion that some sort of cosmic error had left me vaguely superimposed on this world; I was life-like…a person-shaped smudge…but not really here.
Meaning: I didn’t fit in with the other students. I didn’t get them; they seemed confused by me. I spent most of my time just walking around the campus, avoiding people, trying to wait out all of the strange undercurrents in my head that I didn’t understand.
One day I was in the cafeteria, sitting at a corner table, my back to the room. Students and teachers were having lunch. Even here, they were mostly discussing religious texts, quietly debating translations and interpretations. Teachers frequently sat with students at lunch and carried over discussions from class.
Then I heard something unusual: someone yelled the f-word. Loudly, clearly and repeatedly. Everyone else stopped talking as a stream of f-bombs rapid-fired away.
I looked around to find the student. She was digging furiously through her backpack, obviously frustrated by a missing item. I noticed that the other students and teachers were frowning, glaring at her.
The glares were annoying because it was pretty clear what was going on: her English was heavily accented…she was not from the states…there was at least some chance that she didn’t know her words were clashing with the context. It bothered me that people were judging instead of helping.
I went over, said, “I just wanted to point out- the word you’re using, it can be offensive to some people here. You know, it’s a religious school, and…if you did know, that’s okay too, I just wanted to mention it.”
She looked around…saw the glaring. She looked mortified. She whispered, “I don’t understand! The American students I live with, they use it all the time!”
To the room she said, “Sorry everyone. Sorry. I lost my book.” She paused…shook her head in frustration, rushed out of the room.
A few days later she walked up to me in student center and introduced herself: Jen-ling. She was from Malaysia, had only moved to the United States a few weeks before the semester began.
She said the seminary had accepted her because it was looking to increase foreign student attendance and had offered a variety of perks and accommodations. Example: for two years, foreign students could attend and not have to take the religious courses. They could instead focus on the basic classes that every college student needs for early credits. After the two year period, only seminary courses are available, so it would then be necessary to switch to one of the nearby state colleges.
Jen-ling was paying her own way through college. This place had the best deal. So, she learned English, moved to the states and began classes at the seminary. She was not familiar with American culture…she felt homesick, out of place and was deeply confused by the customs.
In my own way, I had similar reactions- I felt constantly out of place, alone in groups and so on. And we were both confused by all of the intense, garrulous religious scholars that filled the campus…so a kind of aloof, utilitarian friendship developed.
I say utilitarian because a lot of it had to do with use-value, at least early on. For instance, sitting alone in a crowded room is no fun…you feel weirdly conspicuous…so we developed a habit of sharing tables or booths just for the human camouflage it provided. If she saw me at a table (or vice versa), she would nod, say “Hello. May I sit here?” We would quietly sit, avoid others, study our books, then go our separate ways.
We didn’t talk a lot or get to know one another. We just seemed to enjoy having a chance to more easily weather the surrounding social inclemencies.
When I came back for the second year, Jen-ling was gone. I asked around, no one knew the story. I assumed I would not be seeing her again. The year went by, I went back to the solitary walks and avoiding people.
In my third year of college, I switched schools, began attending a state college. During the first few days there, I ran into Jen-ling…this is where she had gone the year before.
She was still uncomfortable in the states. She couldn’t wait to finish school and return home.
We resumed our table-sharing habits. We talked a little more. Sometimes we passed time between classes by walking around campus, people-watching. We were baffled by other students. She only seemed to approve of her fellow classmates from Malaysia. “They are okay,” she would conclude. “They are reasonable.”
Anyway, that’s the story of how I made a friend at a seminary courtesy of the word f**k.
Conversation from junior year, first semester.
My head is increasingly off-kilter; the depression, three years into college, is becoming more of a thing. I’m making it to school, but not attending a lot of class. I show up and proceed to sit on various benches around campus…people-watching, people-listening…skipping class for days, weeks at a time.
But one day was particularly nice, weather-wise. I was in front of the library, drinking coffee, listening to the tick of cartwheeling autumn leaves.
Jen-ling marches up. That was her only walking mode: marching.
Jen-ling: M. Hello.
M: Hi Jen-ling.
J: Walk me to class?
J: I see that you are moping again.
M: No, I was people-watching. That’s different. You should join me.
J: Oh goodness, I can’t sit and mope. No time for that.
M: It’s not moping!
J: It is. Here is what you do. You sit. Then…
She gestures at her face. She frowns.
M: But I’m thinking about stuff, which involves critical thought and that precludes the possibility of moping, since- as I define it- moping is characterized by passivity.
She takes out a small notebook, a pen.
J: Spell that. “Preclude”.
This is one of her word-learning methods. She writes out the spelling of a word she is unfamiliar with…looks up the meaning later…then begins working it into her conversation. She never asks what the word means; just: “spell that”.
J: I am willing to make one concession.
J: While you do sit and mope… it is better than what most people do here.
She points at a group of students in front of a building.
J: That is what most people do here.
M: They’re just standing around. Talking.
J: They are not just standing around. They are loitering. It serves no purpose. Look at them. They are stopped clocks.
M: It’s not time for class. What should they be doing?
J: Preparing. Doing things. Not loitering. Everywhere I go, people are just standing around. It is pervasive. You have seen the signs?
M: Which ones?
J: “No Loitering.”
She throws up her hands.
J: It warrants the posting of signs!
M: Huh. People do stand around a lot.
We pass another group of people standing around.
M: I hadn’t realized how much. Fortunately, I never loiter. I sit and think. That’s qualitatively different.
J: I have granted this point.
We march. Two female students walk by, going in the opposite direction. They are wearing low-cut, cleavage-baring t-shirts.
J: I saw you looking.
J: Too late. I know what I saw.
M: I was looking straight ahead.
J: I don’t think ill-fitting shirts are appropriate.
We reach her building. She looks at her watch.
J: Ack. I still have ten minutes. Let’s walk around the building. Do you have time?
I don’t think she realizes how much I skip class. We march; the building rotates around us.
M: So. You don’t like ill-fitting shirts.
She wrinkles her nose.
M: But a lot of the guys around here…the frat guys…they’re muscular. And they wear tight shirts.
J: This is not inappropriate.
M: What’s the difference?
J: Muscles connote good health. It is okay to wear tight shirts in this case.
M: All right. If that’s your story.
J: I think if we define our terms, I would make a distinction between “tight”- which can be appropriate- and “ill-fitting”- which, if too much skin is showing, is inappropriate.
M: You were at the seminary too long.
J: Oh goodness, that is true. That was a very long year.
We march and march. She checks her watch, leaves for class. I sit on a bench and watch squirrels fight.
Part 2: more conversations, graduation, our friendship ends. I am offline for a bit; this and other posts are set to auto-publish. Part 2 will be available on May 25th.