The last first

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Aug. 26 will be my last first day of school ever — which feels quite strange to say considering it wasn’t supposed to be (Mom, Dad, don’t worry, I’m going to grad school, “last first day” is just for effect).

The moment I clicked “accept” for my offer of admission two years ago, the UC Berkeley class of 2022 became a reflex, a signifier of identity, beckoning me to Facebook groups and giving me common ground with new people on campus.

2022, so modern-sounding and distant, gave me a place to put the future. All the looming uncertainty of post-grad life was only mitigated by the concreteness of that year.

In short, by 2022, I’d have my s— together, or so I thought.

But the pandemic came and changed everything, as it did for every single one of us. I returned home thinking I’d spend spring break and some change here, but it became five months. Distance, which previously induced longing, made me increasingly hostile to UC Berkeley instead.

Months prior to the pandemic, I’d been severely depressed and increasingly detached from schoolwork. I blamed UC Berkeley and even came to loathe every little thing about campus. It was an acrimonious breakup.

I simply couldn’t bear the thought of returning to another classroom or lecture hall or seeing another consulting club out on Sproul or facing the godforsaken Barrows bathrooms again.

I felt absolutely no connection to campus, save for The Daily Californian, and thought I’d be quite all right staying home and never returning again.

So I made a decision: With only four classes needed to graduate, I chose to forgo my spot in the class of 2022 for one in the class of 2021 instead. And to distract myself from a summer inside, I decided to complete the summer journalism minor because unfortunately, there is no minor in Daily Cal studies.

I would get through summer and get back to UC Berkeley, engage with “the growth process” and work on “healing” during my senior year — because, being from Southern California, there are some new-agey platitudes I just can’t resist.

I wanted to have a great senior year that could draw the curtain on the narrative arc of my college experience, because I’m dramatic and like symbolism.

It seemed foolproof.

Of course, it soon became clear we wouldn’t be getting back to in-person classes, at least in the “normal” sense.

As if on cue, that feeling came again: the recurrent sense of being cheated, like I’m perpetually my third grade self gazing wistfully at some pizza party thrown for another classroom while I’m stuck with a cold PB&J.

I have spent far too much of the past two years at UC Berkeley feeling cheated — feeling too ill, too stupid, too lazy or too inept to fully engage with my education. But the pandemic is part of life now, and I have two options: engage with my most negative impulses about the upcoming school year or try something else.

So this is me trying. This may not be the best of all possible realities, but it is The Reality.

While my last first day of school will be on Zoom, it doesn’t take away the privilege of attending UC Berkeley, my dream school. I know my high school self, which felt utterly distressed over “getting into the right college,” would be happy I ended up here. I still ended up becoming the person I once dreamed of being, even if that person is just as flawed and confused as all my past selves.

And while I’m tempted to make this degree all about me, it isn’t completely. I can’t absolve all the dissatisfaction I’ve felt at UC Berkeley, but regardless of my own feelings, graduating is about more than me. It’s a triumph for those who came before me — a mother who survived the Iranian Revolution, a father who came here from rural Denmark with nothing, grandparents who spent decades paycheck to paycheck to give their children a better life, a great-grandmother who never received a formal education beyond her early teen years but told her daughters to go out and learn.

I’m the product of people who spun gold out of yarn and turned lemons into lemonade so that one day I’d have a better chance — and this year, I’ll turn that chance into a college degree.

The pandemic hasn’t taken away the progress I’ve made toward graduating, it hasn’t taken away my love for English, it hasn’t taken away the excitement of a new year coming and it hasn’t taken away the thrill of perusing the school supplies section of Staples (wearing a mask, of course).

It’s taught me resilience, a definition that has changed over these past few months. For me, resilience now includes taking mental health days and (sometimes) skipping class because there are days when it’s simply too much to get on Zoom from the couch — and that’s OK. Resilience doesn’t need to be grand or dramatic. In fact, it could just be continuing to do the best we can when everything else falls to the wayside.

And still, throughout these arduous nine months, I have remained safe, healthy and comfortable throughout the pandemic, which is the greatest privilege of all.

So even though this last first day is the end of something, it isn’t the end of everything between UC Berkeley and me. This relationship isn’t over; there’s still a lot left to be said and done.

And I know, one fine day, we will meet again.

Contact Hanna Lykke at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @hannaathearstDC.