Monday, September 24, 2012

A NOSTALGIA FUELED EXCURSION INTO THE NIGHT- Houghton College- May, 2012, 11-12:15pm

College. For many it is one of the most vivid and exciting times in their lives. Larry Osborne, author and pastor of Northcoast Church down in San Diego County, pointed out in a book I read once that people are like legos. Everyone has a certain number of connectors. Some have just a couple. Some have a lot. Once those connectors are full, however, they can be friendly, but they don't have the relational space to really connect. This is why people who move to small towns or some churches report that everyone is nice enough, but they struggle to connect on a deeper level with people. What they don't realize is that they are entering a context where everyone's connectors are all filled up. Everybody's nice but they just can't seem to connect. They're left wondering what's wrong with them or imagining that things are wrong with their context. "People around here just aren't friendly," they might say or "This church is cliquey." The magical thing about college is that everyone is coming into a new context all at once. They've all left friends and family behind and all of their connectors are wide open. Everyone is looking around for people to plug into their connectors. Deep friendships and intense feelings of community and beloning are born. Many people look back on their college years and yearn for those feelings of connectedness.

My college years were spent at a small christian liberal arts college in Houghton, NY, about an hour south of Buffalo. Situated on a hillside above the Genessee River's floodplain, and surrounded for miles and miles in every direction by woods and farms Houghton may as well have been Alcatraz for a student without wheels, but we loved it.

My dorm was Shenawana Hall, which I was told came from a Seneca Indian phrase meaning "house of brave men." Who knows if that is true. I asked my roommate, who just happened to be a Seneca, and he shrugged and said "I don't know. Probably." During our one night in Houghton this past May Sarah and I stayed with Drs. Mike and Jill Jordan, two friends who we went to school with and who have now returned to serve on staff at the school. After staying up late visiting with our very gracious host and hostess I ventured out for a nocturnal trip down memory lane. My first stop, of course was the house of brave men, Shenawana Hall. This was my first return to Houghhton in more than a decade, and I was prepared for much to have changed, but surprisingly it had not. The entrance had changed some, but once inside I found that it still smelled the same- a funky melange of spent popcorn bags and dirty socks. It wasn't a pleasant smell, but still it had positive conotations for me. It smelled like home. I visited each of my four rooms in turn. I spent a year on each of Shenawana's four floors, my last two as RA of the basement (or foundation as we called it for some reason) and RDA on the 1st floor. On the thrid floor, on my way back from an inspection of the glass palace I was confronted by two RA's who astutely sized me up as a stranger and demanded to know my business in the dormat such an hour. I identified myself as Shen Lord Josh Tate and demanded that they pay me homage, which they did. Actually, and I am absolutely not making this part up, they recognized the name Tate, but seemingly had me confused with my brother Job Tate. They creditied me with playing some role in the establishment of the "Shen Block" at Houghton soccer games, which I was not a part of. I did inform them that I was the one who established the first Shenanigus celebration, which did make an impression on them. They offered me a free IBC rootbeer out of the Shen Desk in deference to my august rank as a Shen Lord, which I refused citing the hour, but then instantly wished that I had taken them up on it if only for the photo op it would have offered for the purposes of this post. Ah well! I also told them that I had gone to school with Drs. Mike and Jill Jordan and that I had also roomed with Professor Eli Knapp during my freshman year. One of them said that Mike was his "mentor." I said "Good choice," and made my exit out into the drizzly night without dropping any more names.

It was good to know that Shen hasn't changed much. After all, I did have reason for being concerned.

The bubble gum trees were still encrusted in the unhygienic leavings of hordes of undergrads migrating to and from the upper terrace where Shenawana is located.

These sculptures were situated outside the Art building during the years I attended Houghton, and surprisingly they remain there still to this day. It was nostalgic to see them there, but, in truth, I have never appreciated them on a purely aesthetic basis. They kind of remind me of medical drawings of female anatomy which I have occasionally seen in Doctors' offices in which breasts are depicted as fatty deposits and blood vessels. These sculptures always remind me of that.
The verse inscribed on the cornerstone of Shenawana Hall, which I walked past daily for nearly forty years. I subconciously memorized it. I can't think of a more appropriate verse to be confronted with daily during those years.
Surprisingly I found the chapel unlocked. As a student, my chapel record was kinda spotty. I attended the minimum required number of chapels, and those were often spent furiously completing an assignment that was due immediately following chapel or catching up on reading for a class. I also skipped a fair number of classes, but if I could have either the classes or the chapels back I would pick the chapels now. I sat in the chairs and roamed the stage before exiting through the lobby.
I am a different person now then I was in my college years. I was studying business and French back then. Today I am pursuing an MDIV degree with an eye towards pastoral ministry. There is nothing I enjoy more than teaching the word of God to people. That was not true back then. One of my private ambitions, which I have not revealed to too many people is that I would like to return to Houghton to speak at a chapel service some day. I have already briefly outlined my remarks. Maybe someday.

This was my old college mailbox- 1666. It has not been too many years since I graduated, but back then we were on the cusp of technologies that we take for granted today. Sarah and I wrote each other the old fashioned way during our long-distance courtship, and this was the box which I came to every day with hopeful anticipation that a letter from Sarah would be there. I sometimes saved checking the box as a reward. "Okay, just finish this assignment, then you can walk down and check the mail." I would rather have received a letter from Sarah than money back then. When there was a letter I would secret it away like a squirrel with a nut to somewhere where I could read it and reread it in private. Those days gave me an enduring love for "real mail," which is why I continue to correspond in the old fashioned way to this day. That is also why I still send mail occasionally to the current boxholder of CPO BOX 1666.

I stopped by the college's dining hall and sat at "my table." I consumed many mediocre meals in that spot. During my freshman year I hated going up to the cafeteria because I didn't have a group of friends to eat with. So either I could sit by myself like a loser or introduce myself to stranger and ask if I could eat with them. Either way I was doomed to an uncomfortable time and a hastily gulped down meal. I settled on a novel strategy, which was to pick a table, more or less at random, and sit there at every meal no matter who was sitting there. I remember once sitting with a group of super-cool soccer players and another time with girls who were intimidatingly gorgeous, but still I hung in there, and before long it became known as "that one guy's table." Eventually I populated my table with good friends.

I stopped by the infamous gazebo.

I hung out in the campus center, which is the place where I discovered my love for falling asleep in public.

I wandered all over campus, visiting every building in turn, before wrapping up my walk by paying a visit to South Hall, which has now been renamed Rothenbuhler Hall. I understand that Rothenbuhler is a Seneca word meaning "where the roaches scurry." I paid my respects.


The Fredricksons: Brian, Britney, Salty, and Benji said...

Are you peeing on that building??!!!



Matt O. said...

Loved this article. Class of 94 here, bestowers of said gazebo (wasn't my idea, what can I tell you?). I'm curious to know what made it infamous?

The point of open connections and connected-ness to other people so unique to certainly Freshman year of college resonated DEEPLY with me.