At 1:35 a.m. the assault on my room commenced. Repeated pounding on the door woke me and somehow I sensed the presence of numerous energetic young men poised for battle in Willard’s well-lit hallway. In this groggy half-dream reality they were pirates: swarthy, unclean, armed with the fiercest array of buccaneer-gear imaginable. (Only the middle descriptor turned out to be true.)
“Nicholas Castele! Nicholas Castele! Open up!”
The pounding continued, but I couldn’t bring myself to answer the call to confront these intruders. What’s holding me back? I wondered. Perhaps it was the extra layer of comfort-foam my mom had added to my mattress before she left, or the prospect of a twisted ankle suffered in the leap from my top-bunk perch. I rolled over and went back to sleep.
“Seriously, open the door, man!”
“Be right there,” I heard myself reply. But still I did not move.
Then they were upon me. They opened the door themselves and invaded the room, yelling like predators desperate for blood. As doom approached, I could ask myself only one question. How the hell did I get here?
* * * * *
Some eons ago, all my friends had abandoned me for a bunch of colleges on semesters. They left me no choice but to salvage my sinking social life by diving into the world of Northwestern in any way possible…mainly through Facebook. I spent the rest of the summer accepting random friend requests from freshmen as lost and lonely as I was.
Soon I almost had more Northwestern Facebook friends than real friends. In the realm of meaningless virtual relationships I was pretty damn popular. Case in point: even Phaiye Blaount, the manufactured online personality and NU “freshman” with a name weirder than that of anyone in Sarah Palin’s family, commented on my wall. Seriously. We would have had a great conversation, too, if she hadn’t been outed as a fake. Funny how most girls in the stories I tell turn out to be fictional. But I digress.
The approximate month of Facebook-Friending Fun ended with an abrupt shift into Wildcat Welcome Week. It seemed that I fell asleep in Cleveland and awoke in Chicago. Before I could even get my bearings, I was marched through the sorority quad with a pillow in one hand and a dehumidifier in the other. My parents followed proudly, carrying the specialized dorm accoutrements they had purchased months ago. For the next two hours they schlepped boxes into my room, arranging everything with the careful knowledge that this was their last chance to prepare a home for me.
Then they were gone. Their arrival and departure felt almost instantaneous. I sat at my desk, shocked and alone. There was nothing to do but forsake all sense of safety and explore this new world. I left my room and paced the halls, looking for open doors, for equally confused Willardites eager for awkward introductions. Over the next few days a glob of acquaintances congealed, solid and vibrant like Jell-O. People entered the group and left it, but enough stayed to form the basis of a community. Willard’s second floor, Woo-Two, was born. We left our doors open and blared music from portable iPod speakers. We visited each other with indiscriminate abandon, often at obscenely late hours of the night. We talked and did our own laundry and learned to live as independents.
The hardest work—acclimation—was finished. What’s next? we collectively wondered. The answer arose in the freshman groupthink like a nascent salamander emerging from primordial ooze. Get involved, the disembodied impulse said. And we did. Some ran for student government or joined Indian dancing ensembles. Some attended any meeting possible, scavenging for free food. I tried out for a capella groups.
A capella auditions challenged the aura of security I had cultivated over the past few days, and for a very simple reason. They were pant-wettingly terrifying. Let me be more specific. Auditions themselves were easy. Callbacks scared the shit of me. Watching my peers, I was amazed at their sheer weight of talent, their self-confident display of skill, their comfort with fantastic executions of musicality. They were supermen, each a vocal Hercules. What was I doing here?
The question haunted me as I dropped into bed that night, heavy with dissatisfaction. What could a normal person do in this place, where talent and unbelievably extensive resumes abounded? How could I even begin to get involved? I drifted off to sleep exhausted and demoralized, prepared to accept a new life of significantly less participation.
And that’s when the dream-pirates attacked. They threw the door open and surrounded me, countless vague forms shouting incoherently. I hid myself beneath the covers, praying that they would leave me alone. Suddenly I stopped; amid the coarse babble I distinguished a recognizable phrase:
“Congratulations! You got in!”
What? They weren’t pirates at all, nor did they intend to kill me. In fact, they seemed to be dancing. In my room. At what now had to be almost 2 a.m.
“Welcome to Asterik!”
And apparently I was now one of them. Half-naked in bed, it was hard to feel that I belonged. A t-shirt flew towards me from the darkness.
“Let’s go, we have to wake up the other freshmen!”
As the shirt enveloped my face, it all became clear. This was no simple call to run around campus in the wee hours. This call was metaphorical—Nicholas Castele, open up!
Open up. To new experience, to the opportunity to grow, to the certainty of small failure and the destiny of grand success. This absurd invasion in the dead of night became in that moment a paradigm for all freshmen: Leave behind all comfort and walk in the dark places you have never seen before. Join a new community. Attempt something unprecedented. Accept challenges. Risk failure. And don’t be afraid to be stupid.
“Come on, Nick, we have to get the rest of the guys.”
The call had been issued. There was no chance to back down. I answered with the best words I could muster.
“Sure I’ll come out with you. Just let me put my pants on first.”