NEW YORK — Driving to New York University to begin my first year in college could easily be labeled one of my least-favorite experiences.
I was hoping the four-hour trip would double in time, but my father sped along. I tried to sleep most of the way, to forget about what was happening to me. But my mom woke me as we came up on the skyline and put in a tape of that famous New York/Sinatra theme song, which she must have thought was most appropriate.
My sister was no help. She was going into her senior year at Barnard College and already had plans to go out with her friends that same night. She had warned me that she was going to make me learn the city on my own before I could hang out with them.
So by the time we got to New York, I wasn't saying a thing, trying to play it cool. I answered no more than an "umhm" or an "umum" when confronted with a question, embarrassed my voice would tremble. And when they finally left me at the dorm, all alone, I wouldn't let myself cry.
Thinking back, I realize how far I've come, and how my feelings going into my senior year contrast so sharply with that freshman fear. The place I felt so alone in is where I spent this summer, and I knew (kind of sadly) the last time I went back to Washington, D.C., this month that home was a place I would only visit.
Some people I met in college were escaping their former life, but I loved where I came from. The experience of growing up in D.C., in my mind, was up there next to heaven because I knew it so well. I was so deeply rooted in my neighborhood, parties that I thought were the most fun, a clique of friends and a boyfriend - that I could hardly separate myself from what surrounded me. Leaving that and coming to a city where I hardly existed was like leaving everything that defined me.
Once, when I was home on a break during freshman year, one of my best friends told me she didn't consider two other girls from our "group" her close friends anymore. I was shocked. I couldn't imagine us not hanging out together.
But it had been a long time coming. I (always slow to accept change) finally admitted it sophomore year. And of course loosening those ties is what allowed me to grow and live in New York.
The other day I journeyed from Chelsea to Midtown to Brooklyn and then to Queens. Another weekend, it was New Jersey, the Village and Uptown. The point is, New York is mine now. I was so content and so at home walking the streets. I wanted to grab that little trembling freshman girl from three years ago, go up on that looming skyline and walk on it, yelling, "Look it's not so big! You just have to understand the different parts that make it up, break it down into relationships, specific places, and feet hitting concrete with no destination in mind."
My last year in college, which is potentially my last in the city (at least for a couple of years), is so full of possibility and fun. You know how you just get a feel for something? Well, my feelings are in overdrive.
I have made progress, I would say, from that timid first day, when I held back from grabbing onto my mother's ankles screaming, "Take me with you. Please! I've changed my mind."
Now, my boxes are together, ready to move into the dorm the first day possible. I'm double-checking my class schedule and getting a job and an internship lined up. Mostly though, I'm looking forward to seeing close friends I've made at school who've been gone all summer and just hanging out until the very last bit of summertime in New York fades into fall.
* Willa Reinhard will be a senior at New York University majoring in English literature and minoring in metropolitan studies.