Dear Junior Year



My grief didn’t shrink — I don’t know that it ever will — but my heart expanded.



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{shortcode-097912bcb5705790fe60eafaa545d1c65c60540e}ear Junior Year,

I didn’t want summer to end. The season away from school returned the color to my face for the first time after a seven-month winter. Your invitation back to campus in August felt like a punishment.

I’ve never been as nervous to meet anyone as I was to meet you. Sophomore year, tainted with grief and loss, threw me to the wayside. I didn’t want to go back there. I couldn’t go back there. But that’s what you asked of me — to live in the same house where I’d been the worst of myself, to walk in a straight line through the place I’d received my worst news, to return to Mass Ave. and the Charles and the Yard like they held only good memories.

And then you surprised me.

It’s funny, the way these things go. One year I expect the best and get the worst, the next I expect the worst and get the best. Of course, you didn’t seem like “the best” as your first semester was unfolding. The greatest moments don’t always present themselves so clearly. Because it wasn’t magic or euphoria that you had, but ease.

Freshman fall was a whole new world, sophomore fall was tumultuous, and yours was just… there. Simple and calm. Totally my own. I knew who I was, I knew who my friends were, I knew campus, I knew, for the most part, how to “do” college in some way that made sense to me.

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My grief didn’t shrink — I don’t know that it ever will — but my heart expanded. I committed myself to this new life I was living, my life after loss. I committed to finding joy in it and to fighting for better.

You came with me. You joined me as I ran and walked and fundraised for mental health care. You dressed me in blue shirts, his color, and adorned me with purple beads, my color, the color of those who have lost a friend to suicide. I wore my grief on my body, unashamed. I spoke openly of my loss. I shared stories I loved about our friendship. It kept him alive, to me. Maybe it would keep others alive, too.

You were comforting. You didn’t give too much or too little. I felt strangely settled, even amid the waves of emotion that absence always brings.

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Then, of course, just as I had finally gotten accustomed to you, I had to bid my goodbyes for the rest of the year.

My plan to study abroad had been in the works for a long time. I had made my decision in September before I’d realized how comfortable you could make me feel. Sometimes I wonder if I would’ve made a different choice about you had my deadlines been delayed. Part of me is glad I’ll never know.

Naturally, your second half was entirely different from your first. In January, I landed in Rome with a singular familiar face, approximately two memorized words (“grazie” and “ciao”), and four months to go. I’m not opposed to change — I typically jump at it — and at times I worry that this is a flaw I’ve falsely interpreted as a strength. Like I’ll never let myself stay comfortable, never let myself relax into a place I know. I catastrophized about this fact I’d come to recognize in myself, spiraled about its implications. I had, for some reason, chosen to move 4,000 miles away from school and 6,000 miles away from home, and now I had to actually do it.

You didn’t always make me feel better about it. There were moments you caused me to doubt studying abroad: when I felt like a baby trying to communicate, when I became more homesick as time went on (I thought it was supposed to be the opposite), when I missed out on the solar eclipse and the Boston Marathon. But then there were moments you assured me, in striking clarity, that I couldn’t have done anything else.

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I liked Italian you. Open, friendly, unafraid. You brought me to Tivoli and Florence and Bologna and Naples. You fed me authentic carbonaras and heavenly tiramisus and new types of mozzarella. You sat with me through eight hours each week of Italian class, one hour a week of oral language practice, and an indeterminable amount of time each week of using my skills in the wild. Eventually, we figured out our way around town, learned to hold conversations long enough to get to know people.

Rome was welcoming in all the right ways. Strangers invited me over for dinner. Store cashiers helped me find ingredients I couldn’t pronounce. Baristas let me play charades. Local university students invited me to crash their lunches and slowed their pace of speaking so I could be in on their jokes. My language professor bought me flowers on my birthday. A teacher at a Roman high school, where I’d started tutoring in English, always offered me coffee for free. A waiter I’d only met once remembered I was from California the next time I went to his restaurant.

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You showed me I could Do The Thing. You taught me lessons I’d forgotten — that most people in this world are kind and patient, that most mistakes don’t matter, that most efforts pay off. You illuminated what I cared about back home, who I missed, what I wanted. You prepared me for a life after graduation that I know will come eventually and convinced me I could muster it.

Junior year, I’m glad I took the chance on you. I’m grateful you were anything but static. I think I’ll remember you forever, and I think the memories will always be good.

Yours,

Michal

Associate Magazine Editor Michal Goldstein can be reached at michal.goldstein@thecrimson.com. Follow her @bymgoldstein.