Every once in a while—when I’m running across campus to turn in a paper, say, or strolling down Broadway some sunlit Friday afternoon—I think back to the first morning of my freshman year. My family and I had arrived early, so for half an hour, I stood on Low Plaza and waited. I remember being so taken with my new home in stone and brick, so excited by and so scared of the classmates with whom I would now be sharing a life, so ready for the day ahead. The entire campus was festooned with bunches of blue and white balloons, and as I stood there, one bunch got away. I watched it float placidly higher and higher, over the trees and buildings, over the streets and city, until it was so high up, and so far away from where it had begun, that I could only imagine where it had gone.
Do moments like these happen in real life? Within a month, my classmates and I will find out, as we leave Columbia and enter into the real world. It’s called that because, unlike at Columbia, out there we have to arrange for ourselves—our own housing and dining, our own living and learning—and we have to make all our own choices as to what kind of lives we’ll lead, with fewer people there to help us if we fall behind.
But perhaps what comes next is also called the real world because, on the rocky heights of Morningside, we inhabit a universe washed in the surreal, a world too good to possibly be true. Cliffs to the east and west lift us halfway into the clouds. And for a century, Columbia has risen higher, from that first library on a hill to towering dormitories to science complexes whose very heads touch heaven. In the basement of Pupin, a generation of physicists fleeing Europe were among the first to experiment with the higher secrets of the atom. And from the telescope on the roof, we have peered into the stars. Here, people of a thousand languages have come together and built a single tower.
Some of them have been disappointed by what they found here, and I can’t blame them. I worry that we are spread too thin, that we have learned to be cruel to one another, that our infighting accomplishes nothing, that the future of the institutions we love are in jeopardy. And sometimes our tower is made of ivory, and we always could do to be much more connected with the communities around us. But in spite of all that, I feel a deep and abiding confidence that Columbia is and will continue to be an extraordinary place.
In spite of all the good reasons not to, I will deeply miss this place when I am gone. Will I feel that way about the things I do in the real world?
Here I have met people of immeasurable ability who have nevertheless been generous to me with their time, their friendship, their patience, and their skill. Who have struggled for their visions of the good every day of their lives. Who have been kind to one another in the face of setback and success alike. Who have fought me on the battlefields of the mind and never tired, even when I was obviously in the wrong. Who have forgiven me when even I have wronged them, even without good reason.
Which brings me to the last story I want to tell in this column, something that happened on a Wednesday evening in the fall of my sophomore year. It was already getting dark out, and I was crossing College Walk when I got a call from a friend of mine. She was trapped on the balcony of Hamilton Hall.
Atop that building’s high colonnade is a wide ledge that’s only accessible through the windows of three classrooms on the sixth floor. My friend had snuck out there and, when she turned to leave, she realized that all three classrooms were now in use. She couldn’t get down without making her presence known. Still on the phone, I walked over to the quad below Hamilton, and looked up. There she was, sitting on the ledge.
I was not the only one who saw. Around me, a few observant students had taken notice of the person sitting high above. What should she do?
What else could we do? Me on the ground, her sitting up high—we talked. As dusk turned to darkness, we stayed on the line, an ancient heavenly connection in an extraordinary place, until the classroom behind her emptied out and she made it down.
When we leave here, will we rise to some loftier height or softly descend to Earth? I don’t know. But I know that whatever the real world is like, we have been changed by living in a community whose virtue defies all reason.
For that, I am profoundly grateful. From our rocky perch on Morningside Heights, we put up our hands, and touched the face of God.
Samuel E. Roth is a Columbia College senior majoring in history and political science. He is a former Spectator editor in chief. We Are Not Alone runs alternate Thursdays.