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The “What If’s”

A year ago in my life drawing class, we took a break from working time to let the model loosen her body after an hour of posing. My classmates dispersed: some to the Corner Cafe to pick up a quick dinner or snack, others outside for phone calls or a quick walk, and some lingered looking at artwork. The leftover few (myself included) with no place to rush to in the next twenty minutes made our way out of the classroom to the small lounge area between the painting and drawing studios.

I eased myself into a chair perpendicular to the wall of windows facing south. The Academic Building across the street glowed in the chilly November darkness, and I had a clear view into the first floor hallway.  From afar, I saw a student pass through to the stairwell and felt another wave of frustration about the drawing I was entering my seventh hour of working on but still felt puzzled by. My own body ached from standing at an easel in intense concentration for the past hour, working and reworking the same areas on my piece. I closed my eyes. My mind started racing with a list of things I needed to get done after class. I tried to block it out but my to-do’s kept growing, new numbers popping up in the black space behind my eyelids.

My friend Mary plopped down next to me.

I could feel it coming. She wanted a “talk”. These happened a lot on drawing breaks. Last week it had been a theological debate about textual proof for the role of God in writing the Bible; a few weeks before that, the validity of ArtPrize. I was too tired for this.

“Do you ever wonder,” she began, speaking to no one in particular, “what it would have been like if you had chose a different school?”

I opened my eyes and picked up my head slightly to look at her. I wasn’t sure how to respond.  The continued silence told me no one else did either.

“What do you mean, Mary?” Chris, our professor who had joined us at a chair nearby, asked.

“I always wanted to go to an art school in Chicago,” she said “something with more resources. A school just for art. You know what I mean.”

More silence.

“I had one picked out,” she said, “but it was too expensive.”

“I’ll admit,” he said, “maybe you might have fancier technology at a school like that. You’d draw on IPads, know how to use all the software in the Adobe suite, but don’t downplay your time here just because we don’t have that. Think about what we have: the community here, your relationship with professors, the chances to get involved with things outside the classroom.” He paused, perhaps recalling the days when he was a student at Aquinas. “That school might have made you a better technical artist, but Aquinas is going to make you a better person. And,” he added “you can’t make art without having experiences outside of that.”

If one can have a swelling, bursting feeling of patriotism for a school, I had it in that instant. I could see the way Chris’ comments were holding true in my own life. If my college career was a mountain range, this would be one of the peaks. I can see myself standing up at the top of the mountain in that moment thinking “Yes. Yes. This was all right, all worth it. I am where I was always supposed to be,” while I gazed down at my starting point miles and miles below four years before. In honesty though, I had been in Mary’s shoes, down at the foothills of the mountain.

My senior year of high school, I ran into the local pharmacy to pick up a prescription. It was the breaking point of spring, and although in Northern Michigan the brand new patches of brown and green popping up in yards and the shrinking of snow piles on the side of parking lots are usually accompanied by a communal sense of relief, my anxiety was heightened every time I saw a new sign of winter’s end. Thawing snow meant graduation was coming and, after that, college. I still hadn’t made my choice. I was stuck between two schools: one which was much closer to home as well as the final choice for my best friend and a second which was farther away but had a community and campus I had fallen in love with. On that early spring day in 2009, I was wearing a sweatshirt from the first school, and when I finally waited my way through the line to the pharmacist’s window, he pointed at my letters on my chest and smiled.

“I went to school there, and my daughter graduated from there last spring.” He smiled again, bearing big white teeth. “It’s a great school.”  He paused, “Do you go to school there?”

I gulped. I knew the question was on its way.

“I don’t know,” I told him. I explained my predicament and he listened. I don’t remember much of that part but I do remember, at the end telling him I was scared I was “going to make the wrong choice. I don’t want to pick the school I’m not meant to be at.”

His smile melted. Instead of proceeding to push his alma mater on me (like most alum did), he said, while giving me the most serious eye contact, “The school you pick is where you are meant to be. Pick one and don’t question it. Never ask ‘what if?’.”

The “what-if’s” are dangerous.

Mary had a bad case of them. I flirted with them my freshman year:

What if I had chosen the other school? Would I have studied something different? Would I have stayed closer to my high school friends who went there?

But the “what ifs” and “would I have’s,” for me now, are scarier and more numerous on the other end:

What if I had never met professors like Dr. Dawson, Chris, and Miriam who inspired me, pushed me, and forced me to believe in myself? What if, at another institution, I never had a chance to become a Resident Assistant or Student Ambassador? What if I had never met Daniel, Ian, Richie, or Adam freshman year, never played board games with them until times of night my mother would shudder at? What if I had never intersected paths with Chris and Alicia? Bailey, Megan, or Anna? What if I had never studied abroad in Ireland? Never walked four miles for chocolate cake with Janie? Missed crying with Mia and Mariah? What if I had never climbed a mountain at daybreak? Never wandered along the Seine River at dusk?

I can’t imagine my life without Aquinas. Those experiences, plus so many more, have taken the shy, scared girl I was on freshman move in day and developed her into something more.  I have learned how to love. I have learned that there are things more important to me than making a lot of money. I have learned the power of people but also the importance of being alone. I have learned that the learning is just beginning.

I took the pharmacist’s advice.

For the past 4 years and for the next 7 months, this place is where I am, this place has made me who I am, and this place is, without a doubt, where I am supposed to be.

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