What I have written is based on a true experience although some elements have been fictionalized. To protect privacy, some identities and personal details have been modified. I beg your pardon in advance for any spelling or grammatical errors.
I remember that first day I went to the University of Minnesota on my own—for fall semester, that is. I had taken a 4 credit Sociology class in the summer so I could familiarize myself with campus and get used to riding the city buses. Despite these prior experiences I was still nervous. Anxiety was a major part of my life in those days; from my head to my toes I was one raw nerve, a tight bundle of worries, most of them falling under the headings of “I’m afraid no one will like me” and “I’m afraid something bad will happen to me.” I already missed high school, the easy familiarity of the teachers, my comfortable and relaxed saunter when I walked into school in the morning (which I privately termed my “Senior Walk”), but there was no going back now; high school was over.
I was going into this new situation without any friends. Two of my closest high school friends had gone to smaller colleges in state university systems, disdaining the large university I had chosen, and I had been growing apart from the others. I was not one of those girls who had friends hovering around me like satellites. During my University career I came to recognize students who carried friends with them everywhere like life preservers and I could easily identify students who took classes with their high school sweetheart, a boy and girl so closely tethered it seemed like they were holding onto each other for dear life, as if fearing they would sink if they let the other person go. I always watched them half-enviously, the other part of me glad that I had freedom of movement. I desired the closeness of friends, but I didn’t prefer to let them choose my path. I wasn’t part of a flock of people who navigated the world together or a constellation with friends in fixed and unchanging positions. My orbit was lonely; irregular and solitary.
So armed with only my courage, a folder, and a couple of pens, I forged ahead. On the first day of orientation I sat in an upper room at Coffman Memorial Union at the University of Minnesota with my orientation group. Silence, that silence of unfamiliarity that precedes a novel and not happily awaited experience among strangers, hung over us like a shroud. I settled myself on a molded plastic chair, realizing almost immediately that it was missing the foot on one of its legs. I had settled into a “tip-chair.” How typical. As if I wasn’t feeling awkward enough. In a fit of nerves and in an effort not to have to look at the other students, I opened my folder of orientation papers and checked my schedule. I already knew there was nothing to see; I was at number 1 on the agenda. The discomfort was only beginning.
I closed my folder, checked my watch—no, it isn’t time yet for my mom to come and pick me up!—and unnecessarily adjusted the cardigan I was wearing over my short-sleeved shirt. I began to gaze furtively around the room. That was when I saw him, one undeniably cute boy sitting across the room from me. Sitting atop a table with his shoes resting on the seat of a chair and leaning against the wall, I wondered for a moment if he could perhaps be the staff person we were awaiting, then discarded the idea. He was looking around the room disinterestedly, his chocolate-brown eyes scanning the faces of our fellow victims. He wore a maroon beret atop his chestnut colored waves. I felt the immediate beginnings of an anxiety reaction as I took him in, hoping that I might avoid doing anything stupid so I could make a good impression. Just as that thought was forming, his dark eyes met my green ones and he scowled at me nastily. It stung me like a slap to the face. I started to pull my eyes away in shame when I angrily changed my mind and glared at him, scowling back. “Where do you get off giving me a dirty look?” I thought at him. His eyes briefly widened in surprise before his expression faded and he looked away.
Feeling powerful after winning that battle of wills, I smiled a little as I looked around the room at the other waiting faces. Anybody else want to be mean to me? I thought at them. The high of victory was short-lived. The door opened and an upperclassman appeared. Our guide had finally arrived and once again I was plunged into the cold water of the pool with everyone else. “Hello, and welcome to the University of Minnesota,” an attractive girl with long brown hair announced as she stepped into the room. My name is Chandra, I’m a senior Journalism student and I’m going to be your guide today. Let’s begin by sharing our names, and your major–if you have one.”
“Thanks a lot,” I thought at her as I suppressed a groan. “A getting-to-know-you icebreaker. Nice.” I swallowed the lump forming in my throat, my mouth dry as dust as I prepared to share my name and information. I rehearsed silently to myself as we played this game of verbal hot potato. “My name is Debbie, I’m from the sticks, and I have no idea what I’m doing!” No! No! No! I tried again, breathing deeply to calm myself and trying to dry my sweaty palms on my pants while my nerves played a game of Keep-Away with my intelligence. Meanwhile the hot potato had passed to the boy with the maroon beret. “My name’s Patrick Selby and I’m majoring in Engineering.” His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed, but his eyes were as sharp as they had been before, as if he was daring us to contradict him. Oh, he’s nervous too. The realization cleared my mind and in a few turns I followed suit. “My name is Debbie ___. I’m majoring in English.”
The icebreaker and preliminaries over, I blended in with the rest of the newbies as Chandra took us on a brief tour of the East Bank part of the campus, listening while she rattled off bits of information. We followed her, crossing the bridge over the Mississippi to the West Bank. “Look, everybody,” she said, stopping as an odd-looking stranger came into view. “That guy is called the Bird Man. He’s a Vietnam vet and he’s homeless,” she stage whispered. “He hangs around here a lot.” We kept our eyes glued to him as he passed us, barefoot, his long-sleeved denim shirt unbuttoned and his bare chest exposed. Brown locks of hair hung down past his shoulders in a tangled greasy curtain. Unlike the other new students, I had seen the Bird Man before. On the morning before my first Sociology class that summer I had witnessed him hassling an attendant about a vending machine in the student lounge in Anderson Hall. I had gazed in awe at his wild-eyed look, looking away hastily when he shifted his glare to me. Unlike the situation with the boy in the beret, I hadn’t wanted to challenge this guy. I remembered another occasion not so long after that of seeing him curled up on his nest of newspapers on the floor of that same lounge. Against my suburban sensibilities the sight of the Bird Man was jarring, frightening, and pitiful.
The Bird Man passed us, taking no notice of us despite the fact that our attention was locked onto him like a heat seeking missile. He seemed to be in a world of his own, running lightly on his toes, his arms held out from his sides like a child pretending to be an airplane. Or a bird. I suppose that’s why they called him the “Bird Man.”
“No shoes?” clucked our guide, capitalizing on the shock value of adding the homeless man to the tour. “And no shirt?”
I followed blindly with the other chicks, staying in the shadow of our guide, absorbing what I could while knowing that it was all a confusing jumble that I would probably forget anyway. And I have forgotten. I remember that first day of Orientation by what for me were the two most salient events: the cute boy in the maroon beret who scowled at me and the curious sight of a Vietnam vet who had earned the title of “Bird Man.”
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