Saturday, June 28, 2008


"I quit being afraid when my first venture failed and the sky didn't fall down." ~Allen H. Nehart

On my way to DC yesterday, my train rolled past Penn, my undergrad alma mater. We had a little engine trouble so we were stuck at 30th Street Station for about 15 minutes. Penn is right there, just over the bridge. I began to tear up as I looked at those buildings that were so familiar to me, or at least used to be. I was surprised by this response. It stirred up some emotions that I hadn't thought about in a very long time.

I learned some hard lessons at Penn. I had my heart broken, really broken, for the first time. I began to get over the loss of my dad and all of the fallout that affected my family thereafter. I learned about failing. My first quarter I got 2 A's - Ancient Rome and a German Studies call titled "The Third Reich", and I got 2 C's - Calculus and Physics. Problem was I was in the engineering school, not a liberal arts major. (That changed after year one and I graduated with a double major in economics and history and a minor in psychology.)

At my first orientation meeting the very first cute college guy I ever met asked me, "Are you a Ben Franklin scholar?" And I replied, "I'm not sure. How would I know?" He walked away. I learned about hierarchy and for the first time was exposed to a type of class system. Among a lot of "haves", I was a "have not".

And for the first time I had people all around me of different races, ethnicities, religions, and socioeconomic levels. These people around me had traveled all over the world while I'd never left the area of the eastern seaboard between Connecticut and Washington D.C. They spoke multiple languages, fluently. They had the best of everything, always. I was a fish out of water. 

I grew up in a very small town that was about 95% white, Italian Catholics who mostly got by paycheck to paycheck, and a few with a bit more than that. Most of the town was covered with farms and grassy areas. I could count the number of stretches of sidewalk on one hand, and the number of traffic lights on the other hand. We often left our front door unlocked. I spent the majority of my childhood, save for school and my after-school jobs, outside. I was an athlete, a musician, and graduated top of my class. I was a star and I knew it.

At Penn, for the first time in my life I learned to live in a place that has more cement and blacktop than grass. My freshman dorm had bars on the windows. I lived in a community that had homelessness and where some sort of violence was a daily occurrence. I had food that was Indian and Ethiopian. I was not the top of my class - actually, I wasn't even close. I was in the bottom quartile for sure. And I was smart, very smart. It's just that everyone around me was much smarter, and I learned to study, very hard, all the time. I learned about striving to be the best, and not reaching that goal. So I learned to live with disappointment. I learned about failing, and getting up, and trying again, and failing again, and so on. In truth, I spent most of my college years lost. 

At Highland High School, there was a lot of coddling. In my entire hometown there was a lot of coddling. At Penn, you had to make your own way. No one was holding your hand. There was no lifeline; there was no hope of finding a lifeline no matter how hard you looked. I always felt like the subtitle of the school should be, "You're on your own, kid." I was scared. 

But I also found a lot of strength here. I found that I could get through anything. Even if I didn't do that well on an exam or a paper, no matter how tired I was, the sun came up the next day. The world soldiered on, and would continue to do so with or without me. The parade was going to keep going, and if I wanted to play a part in it, I needed to get out there and keep up. Or else go home. And I couldn't go home; I wouldn't go home, so I joined the parade.

I discovered theatre and the true art of collective creativity while at Penn. I learned about being open to the world and what it, and everyone in it, had to teach me. I learned about getting new dreams when the ones I held to for so long weren't coming true. I learned how to improvise and began to learn how to express who I was and what I was about in a sincere, articulate way, sans whining. I learned that while the world may be tough, I could be tougher, without losing my sense of empathy and sensitivity. And I learned that community is not thrust upon you or gifted to you; you have to create it everyday. I learned to question everything regardless of the source and the supporting chorus behind it. I learned to care for and search for the truth in everything. 

Most importantly I began to learn how to curate and build narrative. The seeds of my writing life were planted at Penn, even though it would take a decade before they truly began to grow. I got a hefty dose of tough love there, and though I didn't know it at the time, it was exactly what I needed. At Penn, I grew up.

On my graduation day, my friend, Derek, gave me a quote in a frame that perfectly summed up Penn for me. "Years from now, you'll come back and hang a plaque. This is where Christa began being what she can." When Sondheim wrote that in Merrily We Roll Along he of course didn't have me in mind. Derek added my name in there. But the sentiment holds true. There's no plaque Penn yet, but in those halls and on those grounds I did begin to be what I have become, and will continue to become. I learned about how a life evolves and changes and grows, and for these hard won lessons, I am eternally grateful.

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