Remembering those first days in college while approaching the last.

By Carter Johns | Sunday morning arrived too soon, as usual. On this particular holy morning, the last day of June, 2006, my blaring cell phone summoned my creaking bones from the bed to answer a wake-up call from my friend, who had convinced me to put in a few hours for his organization, Julian Kinsky Camps and Programs, moving teenagers into the Quad for summer programs. Some of the kids would be attending sports camps, others taking internships in various fields. Such motivated teenagers could soon be freshmen at Penn.

Thinking of this prospect as I walked to campus, I felt a tingle of nervous energy in my stomach. My own move-in day was sunny but unusually cool for summer in Philadelphia; even so, with the rush of excitement and activity, I had sweated as though enclosed in an oven. As we pulled away from home that morning, I felt like a kneaded ball of dough, ready to expand and mature. I was only 16 turning 17 in the first week of school, roughly the same age as the kids I was to help this afternoon.

As I stood in the shadows of the Quad’s Gothic walls for the first time in two Flings, I was uncertain of where to go; the renamed houses, wings, and halls sounded foreign to my prematurely antiquated memory. Following one of the paths that snaked through newly landscaped fields, I remembered spending idle freshman time in Spruce, Woodland, and Community college houses, chasing the scents of expensive perfumes, dropping in on welcoming and unwelcoming strangers, finding pre-party gatherings, and tearing dry-erase boards from walls in fits of underage passion. I once knew how to navigate the winding halls and find my friends, but now I was flustered. I felt like an elderly man, all of 22 years old: Which one was Fisher-Hassenfeld? Or Riepe? Where was my brain medication so I could keep it all together?

The campers and their families arrived beneath the gray sky of impending rain. Some were wide-eyed and shy, others loud with excitement. Their carts overflowed with transplanted pieces of identity: tennis and squash rackets, golf clubs, makeup kits, huge duffel bags and suitcases stuffed with clothing. All for a three-week stay? It seemed absurd.

The early afternoon went easily enough. At first, there was just a trickle of kids coming through the Quad’s massive wood doors and past the security checkpoint to make their way to the sign-in tent. We had two or three counselors to assist each resident. Corny jokes about our youthful endurance from mothers were met by exaggerated laughter from the staff. I started to think this would be the easiest 50 bucks I’d made since lying in the MRI machine and pressing buttons when I saw happy or sad faces.

In one lull, waiting for another batch of fresh faces to arrive, I tried to light a cigarette beneath one of the jutting alcoves, but before I could a senior counselor politely encouraged me to stop. I’d forgotten how impressionable teenagers are, how they imitate the older crowd—which I was now part of, a once-unfathomable prospect. Who would look up to me?

My freshman-year roommate and I had left our anxious parents to set up a suitable furniture arrangement for our room while we went off to activate our telephone, get e-mail addresses, and inquire about work-study jobs, ordaining ourselves in the rituals of adulthood. On the way back, I wanted to get a pack of cigarettes to seal my coolness. My PennCard was declined as proof of my legitimacy by the kind man at the newsstand, but my of-age roommate stepped in, purchasing a pack for me and one for himself. We sat on the stone entrance to Locust Walk on 36th and Walnut, exhaling blue-gray smoke and sharing political views. It felt so mature, sucking down poison and talking about the potential of maintaining decent government policy in a world so prone to violence and war.

After two o’clock, the trickle became a flood. Now the campers were filling the third and fourth floors and stairways had to be scaled and descended. Now came the fashionistas with weighty bags of clothes. Now the students were fussy, assertively unsatisfied with their room arrangements, desiring that we take apart the bunk beds, rearrange furniture, and remove cumbersome desks and nightstands. Now the spaces we worked in were obstructed, as family photo-taking impeded the motion of entire wings. Up, up, up the stairs with heavy bags; down, all the way back down and across the Quad to take the next young man or lady up to their rooms. Tour groups were dispatched at 2:00 and 3:00, and the more rebellious teens declined umbrellas from their parents as they walked in chatty clusters.

On my move-in day, the more adventurous among us explored the halls with wide grins and animated introductions. At Freshman Convocation, we would be called “Future Leaders of America.” The title gave us pride, even though we were at the lowest point on the undergraduate grid. But on this Sunday morning, as I huddled beneath the sign-in tent with the other counselors amidst a sudden downpour, watching the youngsters acclimate themselves to the internal logic of the Quad halls, I realized that that torch had long ago been passed, and passed again, and that this torch-passing would continue ad infinitum.

The freshman me would have cried if he knew how badly I was sucking wind after what should have been a relatively low-impact workout, but he would have been delighted with the facial hair that now, annoyingly, needed to be shaved at least weekly. That freshman knew so much in his 17 years; he was headstrong, even a little arrogant. He barely paid attention to lectures, but still attended and managed decent grades; the sophomore me went him one better and decided that even going to class was too much of a bother. The promise that had gained him admission to one of the most prestigious schools in the country had mutated into lazy self-satisfaction. He needed to regain the passion for scholarship, the youthful desire to fulfill and exceed potential. It would take two tries and three extra years before finally getting it right, but once he—I—did, I felt the same confidence I remembered from sweeping the awards ceremony in grade school and finishing in the top 10 percent of my high school class. After all, as I constantly reassured myself, graduating in four years is really only one of many options.

By the time the day’s labor was done, the downpour had slowed to a drizzle, and I walked back to my apartment under the cool mist. There was reading to be done for my summer school class and work to be done the next day. While I wondered how these teenagers would someday respond to the life alteration that is college, I also began to think forward, to the senior year ahead, and to the professional prospects for a humanities major in an increasingly technologically enhanced world. Forgive an old man for going on and on, but there was a time when I was like these kids: impressionable, anxious, eager to meet new people and experience new things. A bit overwhelmed by the prospect of independence, but also excited to forge my own path through the social and academic worlds Penn offered. Come to think of it, things haven’t changed that much after all. 

Carter Johns C’07, an English major from West Philadelphia, is trying to convince the government to recognize his senior-citizen status and start delivering those Social Security checks. In the meantime, he works at the Gazette and lives vicariously through freshmen.

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