My freshman college dorm room was in a brand-new building, spacious, luxurious even, offering even first-year students a room to themselves in four-room suites that had their own fully-appointed kitchen. The furniture was new, too, built in heavy, cube-like, Danish-inspired blond-wood designs. My room had plenty of light, and was issued with a single bed, a chest of drawers, a desk—all modular so that they could be configured in a number of different ways—and a wardrobe. What more could a student want? But, perversely, I did want more: I wanted magic.
First I unscrewed and removed the back panel of the rectangular, coffin-shaped wardrobe and heaved it up against the door of my room. Then I filled it with all my long, flowing garments and the fur coat I had just bought in a thrift shop for twenty dollars. Anyone seeking to enter opened the door from the well-lit hallway into a dense thicket of hanging clothes and had to feel their way along in the dark until, disheveled and bemused, they burst through the door into my domain.
Inside, my bed was tucked between the wall and the side of the wardrobe, whose door opened out into the room, further screening off the private corner I had created in the sterile squareness of the place. There, like so many other college students, I had my Indian print bedspread, posters, and poetry adorning the bare walls. I remember two poems in particular, both written in my clumsy attempt at calligraphy; the first, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Fairy Bread,” I must have pinned up in my very first semester in college, looking back nostalgically to A Child’s Garden of Verses:
Come up here, O dusty feet!/Here is fairy bread to eat.
Here in my retiring room,/Children, you may dine
On the golden smell of broom/And the shade of pine;
And when you have eaten well,/Fairy stories hear and tell.
The other I must have posted toward the end of my first year, after discovering the poetry and tormented prayer of Gerard Manley Hopkins:
O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.
For—again like so many other students, then and now—I was asking myself what I was doing with my life, how what I was learning was going to guide me through, and whether any of it justified the cost of the private university education that my parents were working so hard to support. I feared that I was both wasting their money and losing the wonder of my childhood without finding anything of greater value to replace it.