One late night sophomore year, I was up trying to finish a book for my African literature class in the morning when there was a knock at my suite door. I opened it, tentative; we didn’t usually have visitors at 3 a.m.
“Are you Eli Okun?” asked one of the Department of Public Safety officers standing there.
“Have you been posting on poetry.com?”
“Are you okay?”
I’d never heard of poetry.com, and they didn’t offer more information before bidding me good night. The only explanation I could conjure — unlikely as it may be — was that perhaps someone named Eli from Brown had posted some disturbing stanzas, and DPS was checking in with all of the possible authors.
It was shocking to think there might be another person with my name at my school who also had a habit of spinning late-night sadness into words. I felt worried, but less alone. I never heard anything more about it.
Brown is older than the United States and richer than a couple dozen countries, so it’s sometimes tempting to imagine it as a monolith, unyielding in its history and static in its power. Every undergraduate enters, careens through some kind of education and exits. The institution endures.
But now that graduation tugs at the remaining weeks like a whirlpool, I find myself considering all of the things that have changed in my four years here.
Some are significant, like the gathering momentum of activism this year on sexual assault, mental health and first-generation student experiences. Others are so small that they crop up only in occasional failings of my memory: declining balance becoming Bear Bucks, MyCourses switching to Canvas.
But there is one name change I’ve had trouble accepting. Behind Sayles Hall lies a beautiful expanse of grass that slopes downward to Soldiers Arch. In the springtime, it’s zigzagged by Frisbees and supine students, speckled by the sunlight floating through trees. I lived in Littlefield Hall my first year at Brown, next to the green. And glorious Lincoln Field still feels emblematic of my time here.
Those benches at the top are where I created my first close friendship of college. That grass is where I read my first college book. Those sidewalks are where I worked through my emotions on many a night.
But as soon we left that year, Littlefield became a sophomore dorm, and the Corporation rechristened the green as the Ruth J. Simmons Quadrangle to honor the departing president of the University.
With every entering class since then, I have felt a little protective. Do they know it hasn’t always been like this? I used to live there. They don’t get it. This week I asked my four first-year Meiklejohn advisees what they call the green, and three said Simmons Quad or a mixture of the two names — the fourth said the Quiet Green.
Why do I care so much, or at all? I can’t account for all of the contours of my mind, but I imagine it has something to do with my fear of time.
It’s difficult to accept reminders that this place is bigger than me and changing all of the time — even before I graduate, even in the grass beneath my feet. Thinking about leaving is like staring at the sun: I can do it directly for only a few moments before it blinds me.
In middle school I learned that Spanish has two words for leaving: “salir,” to depart from a place, and “dejar,” to leave something behind. At college, with graduation impending, the former has always been inevitable, but increasingly I worry about the latter.
This is an altruistic anxiety but also a selfish one. I want to improve Brown, but I’m also scared by Simmons Quad, and I want some assurance that my time here won’t just vanish when I walk through the gates — that I will have somehow imprinted myself on this place. That’s an illusion, of course. It will take only a few years or months before nobody here remembers the experiences of me and my friends: all of the dreams and ambiguities, the public breakdowns or the nighttime trek underneath the highway to IHOP. The bird that flew into the Absolute Quiet Room window and died in front of me. The girl at the gym who glanced at my leg brace as I stepped off the treadmill and said, “You were incredible.” The DPS officer who showed up at my door and shook me from some kind of reverie. These will be carried with us or forgotten, but they won’t linger.
I’ve been trying to figure out why I feel such a need to leave something good behind, besides an ineffable nostalgia. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that after Brown, the canvas for creating change suddenly stretches to encompass the whole world, and soon I will be a small person in a big city on my own.
Marcus Aurelius, whose statue stands guard over my favorite place on campus, once wrote, “Turn thy thoughts now to the consideration of thy life, thy life as a child, as a youth, thy manhood, thy old age, for in these also every change was a death. Is this anything to fear?”
These seem like words intended for someone older, but they feel relevant nonetheless. As do Joan Didion’s, albeit in a very different context: “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.”
I’ve been worried about what I will leave on this campus, but perhaps what will remain after I’m gone is the 17-year-old Eli Okun who entered, shed like a snakeskin. He is less hopeful and more certain. He’s never gotten stitches or tattoos. He still thinks it’s called Lincoln Field. And I’m planning to leave him there.
Eli Okun ’15 is a former Herald editor-in-chief and an international relations concentrator from Rockville, Maryland. He can be reached at email@example.com.