Nineteen X Old: A personal essay

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There exists no liberty purer than taking a nap at 1:30 p.m. on a Tuesday in April and having nobody ask, “Are you feeling OK?” or “Shouldn’t you be doing something?”

Daytime napping is truly the pinnacle of freedom, a luxury we can enjoy only during certain phases of life: as babies, when we spend entire days eating, sleeping and pooping; again, decades later, as elderly retirees with rather empty schedules; and apparently, during a short four-year window in between — as 19-year-old college students, who often stay up until 3:00 a.m. for no reason at all. Napping, with no questions asked.

Before I left for UC Berkeley, family and friends told me how different university would feel. How it, marking a final end to childhood and the beginning of a shaky foray into self-sufficient adulthood, would be unlike any other transformation in my life. And while they were right — I’ve assumed many responsibilities I once delegated to my parents — college has also, in some odd way, felt like a return to the earliest years of my life. A profound beginning, startlingly childlike.

For example, learning how to self-feed? Not just for toddlers. By now, we advanced bachelor’s degree-seekers know how to physically transport the food from our plates to our mouths. But everything else about the self-feeding process — finding the food, preparing it, getting it onto a plate, cleaning that plate — is somewhat uncharted territory for many college students. It’s not just meal preparation, though. Some of the most basic fixtures of life, like the emptied trash and vacuumed floors I surely took for granted back home, seem unexpectedly complex now, as if I’m a young child, truly experiencing for the first time the contours of what makes a house hospitable.

…college has also, in some odd way, felt like a return to the earliest years of my life.

Then there are my daily walks to class and around Berkeley. Rarely stretching more than one city block beyond campus in any direction, they remain no broader in distance than the stroller rides I used to enjoy as a child. In fact, I think I logged more mileage while strapped into that two-seater than I do traveling on my own pair of 19-year-old feet. For me, high school was a peak of spatial freedom, and now, without access to a car, I feel very much like a child again, confined to the block. “Make sure I can see you, Jericho!” I imagine my roommates hollering from the window of our room.

And the napping! Considering the frequency of afternoon nap-taking among my dormmates (myself included, of course), you’d think Cheney Hall was an eight-story daycare center. That is, if babies could stand at 6 feet tall, grow scraggly facial hair and write mediocre 12-page academic papers.

But really, it’s more than any of that.

As babies, we interact with the world as though we’re seeing it for the first time. Every experience we have is awe-inspiring. We live in perpetual wonder confusion reverence curiosity puzzlement. We stare at objects unblinkingly for minutes at a time, trying to decipher what on earth they are. We stare at people unblinkingly for minutes at a time, trying to decipher who on earth they are. We remain fascinated by the simplest of mechanisms — mirrors, bouncy balls, clips. We put objects in our mouths to figure out what they are, how they taste, what they feel like on our tongues. We constantly touch, hear, smell the world around us, intrigued by how things work, what they’re made from, how they’ve been molded. A boundless desire to learn, and learn tactilely, fuels our every movement.

Now at 19, 20, 21, 22 years old, we, like saturated sponges, have lost some of our absorptive impulse. It’s easy to believe we’re all grown, that there’s nothing left to soak up — not in an academic sense, surely, but in the ways we approach the givens of our environments. Intoxicated by adulthood, drunk with our newfound power of independence, we college students sometimes assume we have the means to know everything, or at least everything we‘d like to know. We begin to conveniently ignore the other stuff. We begin to hurry. Adults, I’ve noticed, do a lot of hurrying — there’s always something to do, somewhere to be, someone to meet. It’s a grown-up thing, I think, like a terminal condition that slowly worsens with age. Incurable after onset.

“Make sure I can see you, Jericho!” I imagine my roommates hollering from the window of our room.

And so we, as college students, begin to grow more perceptively detached, some of us trapped in semihurried worlds from which we can’t escape. A corner of a coffee table no longer sparks the sense of awe it once did. Neither does the nose of a random guy we’ve never met, nor the fallen leaves we pass as we walk down the street. As adults, we can’t (shamelessly) hang our mouths on books, iPhones, furniture or clothing to see what they feel like on our tongues.

And anyway, it’s not that I would really want to lick my hoodies or that any electronic gadgets strike me as particularly tasty. Just, I’d like the option, you know, if the right circumstances ever arose. Why limit myself? Alongside babyhood, college has been the most sensorily foreign point in my life, many experiences — eating foods I never knew existed, living in a dynamic urban environment away from home, taking a class with 400 other people or staying out with friends until 5 a.m. — appear without a semblance of precedent. We should tackle them as such: with a childlike mindset, embracing every encounter as one that is utterly unfamiliar, that requires incessant listening, staring, prodding and, yes, even gnawing.

With that, I’ve decided I want to remain a kid, for now at least. Thinking about college as the end of childhood feels rather constraining, like we have to know stuff, important stuff. Like we’re out on our own. Like we’re expected to have life’s tastes, smells, sounds, sights all figured out. And many of us don’t. That’s why we’re here.

I plan to approach the rest of my time at UC Berkeley as though I’m 19 months old again, reveling in wonder, confusion, reverence, curiosity and puzzlement. All of this, while I still can. So next semester, if you see a tall white guy stumbling through Sproul on all fours, don’t worry. That’s just me doing a little exploring — crawling, ever so gingerly, toward adulthood.

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Contact Jericho Rajninger at [email protected].

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