The Kids in the Hall

The Kids in the Hall

From Chicken Soup for the College Soul

The Kids in the Hall

People love others not for who they are, but for how they make us feel.

Irwin Federman

When I started applying to colleges, I definitely had no idea what I wanted to major in, let alone what kind of career I wanted. All I knew was that I wanted nothing to do with math or science. So I researched liberal-arts programs and found myself at Emerson College in Boston, a school known for its music, television and theater departments.

Because I’d been writing fiction since I was fourteen and had appeared in every school play since junior high, I thought I was more than prepared for what Emerson’s brochures called a “creative environment.” But when I stood outside my dorm that first day in Boston and saw my fellow freshmen in all their vintage, multipierced, tattooed glory, I realized I was wrong. I suddenly felt about as alternative as Mariah Carey. All these intimidatingly artsy guys and girls, lugging crates filled with tons of CDs, paints and sheet music, looked like they had grown up on a different planet from me and my Gap-packers back in suburbia. I was sure I would want to transfer before Thanksgiving.

Back at my preppy high school in New Jersey, you could be labeled weird if you weren’t wearing the “right” loafers. So when I started to meet the people who lived on my floor—like the girl with the electric-blue hair who walked around campus with a hand-carved walking stick and the sorceress a few doors down who said she practiced witchcraft and had dated Axl Rose—I didn’t know how to react. The strangest part of it was that a “normal” preppy girl like me was the bizarre one among all these eccentrics—like someone wearing a bathing suit at a nude beach.

After a day or two, I realized I was stuck at this freak show of a college, and there was nothing I could do but try to make friends. So I swallowed the lump in my throat and started classes.

Luckily, the ones I started taking, like voice and articulation and creative writing, kept me busy and absorbed. Once in a while, I saw people in the study lounge who looked like they actually bought their clothes in a store instead of at a garage sale, but they were usually hunched over their computers for hours (wearing invisible but obvious Do Not Disturb signs). So I closed my door at night and quietly tried to recite monologues, draft plots for short stories and deal with one of my roommates, who was mostly interested in applying gobs of punky makeup to her face, looking in the mirror every second and going out to flirt with guys.

At night, when I briefly left my room to go to the bathroom or use the vending machine, I began to notice that a scruffy little group (especially a guy who wore a wool ski cap twenty-four seven and a girl who was always draped in long, flowy hippie gear) would gather every night in the hallway. They held miniature poetry slams, played guitars and listened to discs I had never heard before. They talked about human injustices in Bosnia and Tibet, while they lolled around for hours on the beaten brown carpet that blanketed the wide hallways of our one-hundred-year-old stone dorm.

I didn’t get these people. My high-school friends and I never read poetry together or jammed, let alone talked about politics. When we wanted to have fun, we went to the mall or saw a movie. And when we talked, we talked about guys—or each other. It occurred to me that even if these people invited me to hang out with them, I wouldn’t know what to say. “How late is the library open?” seemed really lame.

But after a couple of weeks, I felt a little jealous of these people who weren’t hyper about studying and were getting close enough to talk about everything. Through my open door, I heard them going on about silly stuff like their mutual love of roller coasters. Other times they’d be discussing their deepest family problems. Listening to them form their friendships in the dark hallway was like reading a good book: the plots and mysteries were unfolding before me, but I couldn’t take part in the action.

I don’t know what possessed me, but one day when I returned from class, I started to sing “Blood and Fire” by the Indigo Girls superloud, straight from my gut, with my eyes closed—and my door open. When I opened my eyes midway through the song, the guy with the ski cap was standing in the doorway. I was mortified that he had caught me singing about how life isn’t worth living after getting dumped. But then I thought I might look like an even bigger loser if I couldn’t finish the song. He stood there, absorbing me for a few minutes. Then, without a word, he walked away.

It wasn’t until I headed for the bathroom and heard him strumming “Blood and Fire” on his guitar that I waited in his doorway and then mustered up the courage to introduce myself.

The guy in the ski cap now had a name—Marc—and he urged me to come and hang out in the hall that night. He played his guitar, and I sang softly, making up melodies and lyrics. I was so intrigued: Marc was unlike any guy I had ever met. The guys at home were either jocks or nerds. Marc was neither. In my eyes, he was a new kind of male species.

That night he also introduced me to Monique, the longhaired, flowy-skirted girl. She played the cello and knew from the time she was, like, eleven that she wanted to be a filmmaker. She told me that when she was sixteen, she chained herself to the steps of her hometown theater to protest the local government’s plans to tear it down. I couldn’t believe it. Let’s face it: while Monique was passionately involved in the cultural issues of her town, my friends and I were obsessed with Melrose Place. I felt shallow, but Monique didn’t see me that way at all. She told me that she loved to listen to me sing and that my grave voice inspired her to take up electric guitar.

Some of our other dorm mates began to join us in the hall, including Rob, a tall, beautiful African American guy who also had been too shy to hang out at first. Rob told us stories about growing up in New York City, witnessing drug deals and shootings. We both wanted to be writers, and we started writing goofy scripts about the other kids on our floor (our personal favorite: “The Witch Girl’s Blind Date”). Rob turned me on to Coltrane, and the jazz saxophonist’s unpredictable seductive recordings became my favorite hanging-out music.

For the rest of our freshman year, Marc, Monique, Rob and I sat up late and talked for hours and hours. The best part of our friendship was that we worked hard on keeping it real. If I was pissed off at Monique, we’d talk about it instead of doing that high-school, behind-your-back thing. And if Rob and I didn’t agree on an idea or if I didn’t want to go to the dining hall with Marc, they’d be cool about it. It didn’t take long for me to tell the three of them all about me—from my parents’ divorce to my dreams of becoming a famous singer.

But Marc was my favorite new friend, and I have to admit, halfway through fall semester, he had changed from my hall buddy to my crush. He would call me at 3:00 A.M. to try to lure me outside to sit by the Charles River (yes, we did venture out of the dorm). Sometimes he even called in the middle of the night just to read me a poem. Marc could find beauty in anything—like a dance beat in a Madonna ballad that most people would denounce as cheesy or not even hear at all.

Marc was open to everyone’s ideas, no matter how wack. He was even respectful of some of the other dorm inhabitants who tried, with their Ouija board, to channel the one-hundred-year-old spirits who supposedly haunted the place. He would say, “Well, it’s their dorm, too” and grin. I haven’t met anyone as nonjudgmental since.

It didn’t take me long to realize that I was learning more from my new friends than from some of my lectures. Understanding and becoming friends with different types of people was the biggest achievement of my freshman year.

Sure, I can tell you about the beginnings of Western civilization and how to write a speech—but the most important lessons I learned in college probably didn’t take place during class. Those lessons were reserved for my dorm room.

Suzanne Casamento

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