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August 31, 2014 / 5 Elul, 5774
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Part III: First Day Of College

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Within the span of just a few weeks, everything I knew about myself and all of my plans were destroyed. I was out of yeshiva, living at home and enrolled in classes at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU).  I did check to see if NEIU had a football team, but much to my chagrin, I was told they had to eliminate it when they moved up to Division 1 (strike one against Division 1!).

NEIU does not have a good academic reputation.  It’s often derogatorily referred to as “North-easy.”  Much of the focus of those around me who were trying to convince me that I would do fine, was that it was such an easy school.  That really didn’t build my confidence, nor made attending any more enticing, especially because performing academically was the least of my concerns, although in retrospect, that would become much more of a problem than I had anticipated.

There wasn’t much in terms of preparation for school.  I was so sure I wouldn’t go through with it that I didn’t take the shopping very seriously.  I do remember buying a pack of pens (the cheap bic pens wouldn’t do, I needed fancier pens for some reason) and a back pack (which somehow I knew was supposed to be slung over one arm, as opposed to worn normally).

My overall strategy had not changed.  My father made it clear to me that he was going to drive me to my first day of school (I didn’t drive at the time, and he wanted to make sure I didn’t get “lost” on the bus).  He could force me to go to school, but he could not force me to go into my class.  I knew what I had to do.  I would go, spend a few hours wandering about, come home and declare that I couldn’t do it.

For some reason (and to this day I don’t know why) I asked my dad to drop me off 2 hours before class time.  I found the “science” building on campus, walked in and wandered around for a few minutes.  Other classes were in session.  Many of those classes had their doors open, so I was able to peer inside.  Doing so only made me more nervous.  The students in those classes all looked like they belonged, when I clearly did not.  I was sure that this was not going to work.

I walked up the ramp in the rather curiously designed “science” building, and after wandering the halls for a few minutes, located the classroom that would host my first class.  This was 2 class sessions before my scheduled time.  I sat down on the floor opposite the classroom, and waited.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had inadvertently stumbled on a typical piece of NEIU culture.  Budget cuts made the availability of required courses scarce, and students often sat for long periods of time outside of classrooms waiting for their next class.  This made me seem like much more of an insider than I actually was.

I sat there for almost 90 minutes, watching one class exit, and the next enter.  The more I saw, the more convinced I was that this was not for me.  I’d wait for the class to begin, I would refuse to go inside, and this little experiment in college education would end.

And then the unexpected happened.  NEIU had a very small Orthodox population.  Over the course of my studies at NEIU, I would have 5-6 Orthodox students in all of my classes combined.  While I was staring at the ground, I heard a voice to my left.  It was an Orthodox girl I knew from the neighborhood.  She said, “Hi Chaim, you are in this class? That’s great, because I like knowing people in my classes.”  Those words would change me forever, for as frightened as I was about entering that classroom and encountering whatever I would encounter, I was more embarrassed to be seen by her as a coward who was too scared to go into class.

In retrospect, I could have told her I was in a different class (although she’d probably ask me why I was sitting outside of that one in particular), but I made the decision that I had no choice but to walk into that classroom.

I walked in and took a desk in the front row (which would become a location of choice throughout my college career), next to her.   I really wanted to disappear into the floorboards, but that wasn’t possible. I just sat there and watched the clock tick down until the class started.

I don’t remember much from that first class.  I know I raised my hand (hoping no one would notice it) when the professor asked if there were any history majors in the class.  I also remember taking the Syllabus, too afraid to ask what a Syllabus was.

For a moment, I thought I might still escape, as my next class was in a building across campus, and I honestly didn’t know how to get there.  Until then, it didn’t occur to me that numerous students had to switch building between classes, and that there would be an easy way to make it from one to the other in the allotted 10 minutes.

To my surprise, the same girl came up to me and asked me about my next class.  As it turned out, she had a class in that same building and offered to show me the shortcut to get there (her shortcut was actually one of the most helpful hints in all of my time at NEIU, as her route saved about 2-3 minutes off of the more frequently traveled and crowded walkway)!

I didn’t give it much thought when she walked me to the building, said goodbye AND told me she’d see me at the next class session.  I did go to my 2nd class that day without much further thought.

On the way home I stopped at 7-11 to buy a soda (a bad habit that stuck with me for my entire undergraduate career) and bought a pastrami sandwich at a local deli to celebrate my accomplishment (I did forget to tell them to hold the mustard on the sandwich, so when I opened it en-route, I just threw it out).  My father had left the return trip from school up to me, and I really didn’t know the best bus route to take.  I ended up walking about two or three miles to a bus route I knew and rode home.

It was an unseasonably warm day, especially for Chicago in January, and my mother was outside talking to a friend when I walked up the block.  She looked at me and mentioned that it appeared that I had survived.  I didn’t discuss any of the day’s drama with her, and I elected to go to my room and take a long nap.

I had survived that day and realized I couldn’t back out, but how could I make sense of all of the weird things I was seeing happen all around me?

 

Chaim Shapiro, M.Ed is a social media consultant and a freelance writer currently working on a book about his collegiate experience.  He welcomes comments and feedback at chaimshapiro@aol.com  or on his website: http://chaimshapiro.com/

About the Author: Chaim Shapiro, M.Ed is a freelance writer, public speaker and social media consultant. He is currently working on a book about his collegiate experience. He welcomes comments and feedback at chaimshapiro@aol.com or on his website: http://chaimshapiro.com/


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