The Invisible Audience

A writer explores the journal of a 19th century UC Berkeley student

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Daily Cal Archive/File

I read somewhere that spirits who don’t leave our world are in a state of distress. They are usually dissatisfied with something or feel that they have an unfinished task they are responsible for — and therefore cannot leave until it is complete.

So I cannot help but wonder what all these souls are doing here on campus. Here. That’s right. I’ve felt them watch me as I lug my backpack through the halls in the library, functioning on three hours of sleep, two cups of coffee and still zero clue about what I’m doing with my life.

And when I consider the hundreds of figures that have walked these same steps, I am immediately flooded with questions. Am I a disgrace to them? Am I what has troubled them in their graves “Them” refers to the ones who stood before me. “Them” refers to the ones, in my same position, who pulled through and were able to contribute to the university — the world, even — in ways that has made it what it is today. Surely, I am less competent.

I spent the day in Bancroft Library, in search of clarification.  I had found a journal online written by a former student here at UC Berkeley named Etta McCue. I couldn’t find much about her online. Truth be told, I couldn’t find anything about her online. And so, when old reliable Google failed to answer my inquiry, I turned to the very old, reliable library. Little did I know what would come of it.

I pushed past the doors and crept in. The librarian behind the circulation desk quietly handed me a box-like folder. Inside was Etta’s journal — handwritten, doodle-filled and worn with years of use and admiration.

Etta McCue

Jan. 2, 1895

Berkeley,

U.C. ~ ’97

I read the last line twice. Ninety-seven. This was the one-and-one-fourth-century-ago “ninety-seven.”

Suddenly, I was very small and surprised that my feet touched the floor when I sat in one of the library’s chairs.

I turned the first page.

Jan. 2, 1895

Having now entered upon the New Year I hereby signify my intention of keeping a diary. although having on the occasion of very many new years here before this signified at least to myself, I have signally failed thus far to keep my resolve for “though the spirit was willing, the flesh was weak”, and I have not gone so far as to even obtain a book. Even this year, I neglected to obtain a book until today.

Her first flaw was apparent: fear of wasted opportunity. It was an anxiety, which I knew from experience. Her voice was so clear in the yellowed pages.

Jan. 13

Been studying Latin this evening. Haven’t got down to hard work yet. Think I have my course settled for the term, now, unless I discover another delightful conflict tomorrow. Shall have 2 courses in Greek, 1 in Latin, 1 in Mathematics, and 1 in Classical Philosophy. 16 hours all together, not so much as I wanted.

Of course, I couldn’t predict anything from Etta other than high expectations for herself. Her fight for excellence reminded me of countless overheard conversations I’d heard just in the past month.

They went something like this:

“Just had an interview with Google! It went well, but I’m sure someone else will get it.” Or “I’m taking 20 units this semester, but I really regret not taking more.” Or my own inner dialogue of, “When can I sign up for study abroad? Should I take summer classes? Will a double major look better than just one? I am so unbelievably behind.”

I once heard that Berkeley has a perfectionism problem. I think I believe that.

Jan 13

[…] in college, one day is very much like the other. Just before the [exams] began, however, I had a great deal of fun. As I recorded in my last entry, Rees had asked me to go to the [dance] with him. Well I went and hes been very attentive ever since. Took me to the Junior Prom and the Unity Club dance and also to see “Hang” about a week ago. Came down to call last Friday eve and evidently spent a pleasant eve for he stayed till 11.

Fun. It was a concept I hadn’t thought of in a while. It certainly wasn’t something I had thought of when I pictured Etta at UC Berkeley a hundred years ago. I forgot that, no matter the date of birth, kids are kids, even if we do have adult responsibilities.

I could see her walking down a street about 9 p.m. in San Francisco, maybe, with this “Rees” that she mentioned. He was tall and very handsome and was nervous as hell. He unhooked their arms and reached to pull out his umbrella at the sight of rain. But the wind picked up and violently whipped his umbrella inside out. Etta hunched over in laughter, her smile just as bright as the streetlight reflected in the cement’s newly formed puddles. She grabbed the deformed umbrella so that she could hook arms with him again. They kissed.

Jan 22

Got out of the wrong side of bed this morning … I didn’t wake up til 8:15 and consequentially couldn’t get my studying done before the reception at 9:25. Mama always keeps curtains down.

Of course, it was only a bump in the road for her, but my chest still ached in sympathy. Something about having her writing in front of my eyes, watching her long, cursive strokes become choppy in frustration, reminded me that this sense of self-disappointment was something that we shared. I recalled sprinting to the bus stop that same morning, not sure if I had even put on matching shoes. I had been there. We had all been there.

Among the last pages, I found an entry that proves to be my favorite.

Berkeley, Feb 3 ’97

One of my bright little wheels has started up again, with the result that Ive again made up that piece of varying machinery, called my mind, to keep up this journal till the end of my college courses, at least, which terminates next May. Ah me! it fills my heart with gnawing grief! But tonight I feel too absolutely silly to grieve over anything. Someday, when I’m in a […] grave and serious frame of mind, I’ll relate to this little book […] upon graduation.

And with that, I gently closed Etta’s journal. I leaned back in my chair and let the smile I had been containing spread across my face. I must have sat there for about a minute, just grinning and looking like an idiot while Librarian No. 2 shot me worried looks. I was lost in Etta’s world.

I realized that afternoon, after hearing her young voice through pen and paper, that she wasn’t much different than me or any other student on campus. She was human, she made mistakes, and she knew nothing for certain other than that she wanted to grow. And she did.

Her journal, although beautifully written, wasn’t full of world-changing insights and unparalleled bits of social ideology or poetry. It was simply a recollection of things and experiences that were, in fact, normal. She stayed out late with boys, she had exam anxiety, she woke up late, and she second-guessed herself. Having fun and screwing up sometimes suddenly didn’t seem as lethal as I had originally thought.

I now realize that when I do walk into Doe Library or past the Campanile or through Sproul Plaza and I sense those souls that have walked before me, I am not being criticized. I am being commended. These spirits I feel in the walls, the wind and the foundation of this magnificent place are not here to judge me. They are not distressed or burdened. They linger in admiration at our stupidity, our thirst for knowledge and our similarities to them when they once walked this same path. I could feel Etta’s beaming smile as she watched me grasp her journal, absorb her words and realize how similar we all really were.

Chandler Nolan is a staff writer for The Weekender. Contact her at [email protected]