“Look at everyone. They’re all ants,” my brother Jan sarcastically remarked as he and I stared at the right wing’s hatches collapsing into a smooth white as we began our steady climb.
By the time the pilot gave us his usual spiel—electronics in airplane mode, backpacks out of the aisle, insert shameless self plug for the United Airlines app for “movies, music, and all your entertainment needs here”—my brother had checked out with a black mask draped over his eyes before muttering, “Take that, gravity.” Like most of the other passengers, he dozed off to the occasional cough and whining kid and now the familiar hum of the airplane as it skyrocketed some 20-21,000? (Note to self: must fact check) feet above the air. I, however, kept my eyes glued to the window watching the terrain change before me and the wing remain assuredly straight.
The entire time, I expected to feel a sense of… Excitement? Relief? Hope? Something at the very least. I was hurtling across the continental United States at a speed and an altitude that humans a century ago couldn’t even come close to reaching in an aircraft that is forged by the fires of aeronautical genius in order to visit one of the most renowned universities in the entire world. Yet I felt nothing.
The entire time, I expected to feel a sense of… Excitement? Relief? Hope? Something at the very least… Yet I felt nothing.
As I kept looking, I noticed streaks of gray forever interrupting the serenity of the wing. Were they etched by age or by accident? Perhaps by both. Constantly brushing against the clouds failed to purge the impurities. “NO STEP” marks were periodically stamped at every hatch.
I peered over to the seat in front of me, and I saw a man, 50-something with tinges of gray in his hair, armed with a MacBook and a legal pad crafting the ultimate Dungeons and Dragons adventure. His contemporary sword and shield was intended not to destroy, but to create. And then destroy. You know how DnD’ers are. Meanwhile, a kid behind me—future shushes and scoldings informed me his name was Kevin—complained that he had nothing to do. His mom, tired, but accustomed to her son’s tantrums, connected to the United Wi-Fi and browsed their collection of movies to calm her raging child. Spoiler alert: she failed.
My task in spite of all the noise was to finish a favor: my friend TC asked me to look over his papers to decide which two would be best to submit for his university freshman essay contest (Why, I don’t know. Writing always seemed like his forte). This wasn’t the first time that he asked me to do something like this.
To give a bit of backstory, let me tell you something about TC. He was always the one to make plans. I still have the itinerary for a cross-country road trip which hit all the major landmarks—Mount Rushmore, the Gateway Arch, the not-even Golden Gate Bridge, the list goes on—that he laboriously mapped out, calculated, and organized, only for it get buried in my inbox by overbearing parents and gas prices. He finally succeeded in doing something remotely close to that—a trip to New Orleans—but with my sister instead. So color me surprised when he sent me his first essay detailing his hesitation with leaving Southern Maryland to go to Connecticut, the “land of skyscrapers and skinny jeans,” he calls it.
Having known him for a good seven years now, I thought he was up for anything. I had chalked up his tendency to get up and go to ambition and a primal longing to venture beyond Maryland’s crab-infested, lax-loving borders, but it didn’t feel as if he escaped at all by moving to a hoity-toity, big shot Ivy League. Maybe he didn’t want to. But I had never known him to be the type to reminisce about the quirks of life below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Most of his essays that he’s sent me has had the same air, this classic SoMD feel, about them. His tried and true family recipe for heavenly rice, his experience crabbing in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, and his final visits to his Grandma’s the weeks before his exodus to the north are all beautifully commemorated and immortalized in literature. Although he’s kicking butt at Yale, part of his mind never left the Old Line State.
Would I feel the same by the time fall comes around? Would I feel a sense of belonging when I set foot on Stanford in a few days?
The crackle of a speaker interrupted my reading. A flight attendant got on the intercom and announced that we had achieved our cruising altitude of 32,000 feet. My earlier estimate was far from correct.
As we exited the land of lacrosse and Old Bay and headed westward to In-N-Out™ and San Francisco Bay, I started to feel something familiar and unwelcome building within me. I brushed it aside as I focused on TC’s essays. Some six hours later, we finally arrived at SFO. Thank goodness, my legs were starting to go numb.
Some family friends had come to pick us up and show us around the Bay Area. We saw a lot of the major sites, mainly to take a lot of pictures—“It’s for memories,” they explained as they snapped their 147th photo of my brother and me at the Golden Gate Bridge. We visited Fisherman’s Wharf, Lombard Street, and the Palace of Fine Arts before we tiredly packed ourselves into the car towards their home in Vallejo. I had noticed that I had become what I never wanted to be: a tourist.
When we got to their house and gotten ourselves settled, I finally realized where I was. The hours in San Francisco were a necessary break, but they were just that, a distraction. In a few hours, I’ll be on Stanford’s campus for Outside Admit Weekend. An awkward mix of nervousness, excitement, and indigestion filled my stomach (must have been the car ride).
I undressed and got into bed, but it was a while before I managed to finally fall asleep.
I woke up two hours earlier than when we were planning to leave. That something from earlier had returned, boiling up to the surface. I kept it from overwhelming me as I got into the car. After a drive that went on forever—I started dozing off in the backseat—I finally heard Siri’s metallic voice saying, “Turn left onto Palm Drive and arrive at the destination: Stanford University.” We did as Siri commanded and were met with the iconic view down Palm Drive, surrounded on both sides by, well, palm trees.
We weaved through traffic as I quietly said where we needed to go. Eventually, I stepped out onto a side road from Galvez Street before finally looking back at my destination: Montag Hall, the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid. I flew nearly 3,000 miles across the entire United States to arrive here. I looked at the sign and took a deep breath.
Here’s Part 2.