"Frosh"

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic
A short story detailing my experiences at my first year of undergrad.

Submitted: November 23, 2016

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Submitted: November 23, 2016

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It was the Friday morning before my first day at university. Every person from my course had received an email from our chem prof to purchase the course notes ahead of time so we could hit the ground running on Monday. Fresher’s week was winding down, and by some miracle I woke up early enough that day to have a few hours to sort out some things before the orientation events started. After eating breakfast, I decided to walk across campus to go fetch the course notes. I walked out of my college towards the special university chemistry store in the beautiful burnt orange morning light that painted the buildings and bridges. I was terrified of starting university. My course was extremely competitive with an extremely high cut-off admissions average. I knew that when I walked into that room on Monday, nobody in that room would have had less than a 95 average before coming here. To add to that, most of those people would have gotten such high scores from competitive schools and were probably well prepared for this. Meanwhile I came from this really crappy school where the science department didn’t even have the budget to photocopy and where the only competition in our graduating class of 400 students was between me and two other girls. On top of that, I’ve had the rumours burned into my brain about how university was this impossible thing where they will fail half of the class and you will be lucky to understand 10% of the material and that your average will drop by 20%. I vividly remember telling myself as I stared in bed at the concrete wall the night before, “I would be so happy to be in the top half of this class.”

With thoughts racing through my mind, I arrived at the store to find no line. I purchased the course notes and cherished them in my hand as I walked towards the dark brick atrium. In the spotlights formed from the sun shining through the high windows stood two students from my course who, unbeknownst to me would become my closest competitors and friends. I walked past them to return to my dorm room, listening in to them dismissing this all as “easy”.

As I walked outside, I opened the book. Chapter 1: Atomic Structure. I know this! Chapter 2: Hybridization. Hey I know this too! I can’t even describe the relief I felt when I flipped through this book. For the first time ever, university seemed survivable to me. I noticed a drop of rain fall on the pages. Then another. Within seconds it was pouring rain. I quickly put the book in my backpack to protect it from the rain. I slowly walked through the rain, passing through the building I would soon spend my nights studying in. By the time I was out on the other side, the light shower had turned into a thunderstorm. Looking back, I have no idea why thunderstorms never phased me before then. Just weeks ago I would happily walk home uncaringly through lightning storms. But this time was different. To this day I can’t describe why. My gut wrenched inside of me. I knew I had to get inside. By then I had already crossed the ring road. I hurried forward into the health services building ahead of me. I felt a large calm come over me as I sat in the waiting room, looking outside periodically at the dark clouds and streaks of rain. Suddenly, a huge blast sound rocked the building accompanied by a significant bright white flash from the west window. Silence filled the room, followed by relief. Within 20 minutes the storm was over. I exited the building and headed back to college. I turned my head to the sound of sirens, as I watched two ambulances rush west on the ring road behind me.

I returned to my room to see my roommate still laid back in bed with his guitar. “Wait, don’t we have orientation events in like 10 minutes?” I asked, confused.

“Nope!” he replied in his usual positive demeanor, “all events have been cancelled today due to the thunderstorm.”

“Wait what? That’s a bit weird. Why would they cancel everything if the storm is over?”

He shrugged.

“Oh well, I guess we finally actually get free time then haha! I’ll catch ya later”

This was the perfect opportunity to meet up with some friends I met from a summer program who went to my university. I texted them and we agreed to meet in the environment building. I headed out of college, but instead of heading left at the triangular path, I headed right to go to our meeting place. It was on the way back from our meetup when I checked the news on my phone: “Girl Dies from Lightning Strike at University”. My gut sank. I walked back towards college to find a swarm of news crews huddled around the path to another college, just a hundred meters west from the health services building. A news reporter approached me very forcefully, “did you witness any of the events?” “No,” I replied coldly. He promptly left and tried chasing down another student passing by.

Confused, I headed back to college. The connections snapped together when I was walking. I can’t believe I was just a hundred meters away and never connected the dots.

Over the weekend the news elucidated through the mud. The girl who died was a fresher as well, and also one of the only hundred people in my course. She was struck by that lightning strike that rocked the health services building that Friday morning. She died only a few hundred meters away from me.

The first week of university was very rough. I was in a room where everybody was convinced that they themselves were the smartest in the room. People had races to get front row seats. People showed up to two hours before classes started every day so they could claim the same seat that they would try to call as “their’s” for the rest of our degree. I tried to avoid talking to anybody. Everybody seemed to have hidden malicious intentions to get the upper hand on their classmates. Near the end of the week, one student proclaimed to the class that we should vow to leave one seat empty in honour of the girl who passed away. He pointed to the seat I was sitting in. I didn’t mind too much, but was off course a little suspicious that he might have chosen me on purpose to mess with me. The next day, I arrived in class and thought of where to sit. Looking around the classroom I noticed a note taped on the seat I used to sit in: “Reserved for Her”. For the rest of our degree, I never settled on a permanent seat like the majority of my classmates, opting instead to hop around and try out new places. To this day, we always leave that seat empty in her honour.

My course was awful. The only way to survive academically was to let yourself die emotionally. I have seen so many of my classmates, confident and well-spoken, break in front of my eyes, leaving behind a motionless empty shell. I fought hard to stay alive. Convinced that I would fall behind in this class of geniuses, I worked non-stop. I gave up a lot of sleep, and spent many nights crying alone, ploughing through the workload.

The first semester ended and our rankings were emailed to us. I opened the email, searching desperately through the text to find my number. I couldn’t find it. My friend who was next to me pointed to the very top of the email, which in my nervousness completely skipped over: “1/125”. I stood shocked in disbelief. Later I discovered that my average actually went up by one percent from school and that the ranked second person was 6 percent below me. For the first time in university, I felt that my classmates respected me.

The only problem was that I wasn’t really that smart, and definitely not good at looking smart like many of my classmates. I felt the immense pressure from my parents and myself to keep up my status. My spirit may have faded and died in first semester but I didn’t break then. It was this pressure for this semester that truly broke me. I had endless sleepless nights, in bed staring at the concrete wall, with a clawing feeling of pain inside of me. It never went away. Contemplating suicide wasn’t new to me. In school I would constantly imagine very creative ways of ending my own life with complex machines and systems, just so that split second of relief I felt when I no longer had to live through this hell gave me enough salvation to last another 10 minutes of class. My mood was low, but never this low. I tried to reach out, though it was difficult as the majority of students at my university are dealing with severe mental health issues and only 3 counselors are available and only during hours that we also have lecture. Eventually I was diagnosed with chronic depression, general anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and schizotypal personality disorder.

Later the second term we held an official memorial for her. The department installed a piano in her memory in the basement atrium for anybody to play. The president and dean of the university made speeches. Of course, none of them know anything about individual students, so their speeches were dry, based only on information submitted in forms that were received from her during the admittance process. It felt so heartbreaking that her official goodbye judged her only worth in life from her university application. I met her family that day, and discovered that her family was from the same city in the motherland as mine. I have spent so many nights alone studying in that basement atrium. Yet I rarely touched the piano.

The term was a whirlwind. Any innate passion for learning I had when I came here was brutally quashed and bleached away. I felt like an empty, dead, shell. I feared having to continue my degree with my life, fearing it like a soldier fears returning to war, and even during my research term (we don’t have breaks or vacations, only “study terms” where we attend lectures and “research terms” where we do research instead) was so scared of having to go back I had to be intercepted at the last minute when a couple of students realized I was considering jumping in front of an incoming metro train.

However, before leaving for my research term in the States, I spent a final night in the basement. Alone, at 4am, I sat at the piano and played a famous nostalgic song from our shared motherland as the music echoed and filled the ghost-empty atrium. By the end, I was on the floor next to the piano in tears.

I had wanted to kill myself so many times. There had been countless nights I’ve wondered to myself “why did it have to be her?” This girl must have worked so hard her entire life, likely giving up on so many joys in her childhood just to get into this course, only to have it all become worthless 3 days before she was to start. She would have probably been able to accomplish so much if she was given the chance to live, and here I am, given that chance just by luck, wishing so desperately that I wasn’t alive.

But is life worth living if you feel only pain? Why am I not happy during those moments when I am not suffering? Will I feel happy once I finish my degree? Or am I just cursed to feeling pain forever no matter the situation? But how do you not feel pain when you are going through this torture?

These questions dash through my brain in a rushing confusion every day. Yet answers are still nowhere to be found. Life is such a strange thing, but yet I still spend so many nights, staring into the void, wondering, “why?”


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