So, obviously I've decided to enroll.
I talked to my parents, and the conversation went better than I'd expected. They think I'm making a huge mistake, but that I'm an adult now and should be allowed to make mistakes while I'm young...which is not the sort of thing you want to hear from your parents, but at least they're not angry. I don't think I'm making a mistake, but I suppose if I am there are worse mistakes I could make.
I arrived yesterday, with only a single bag, as suggested. Sharon told me to stash my bag in a side office (there were something like ten other bags in there already) and gave me a uniform and a "buddy" to look after me until the assembly that night.
When I say "uniform," don't picture blue blazers and ties. They look more like martial arts uniforms than anything else, and then there's the black cape to go over it. Faculty and staff, except for Sharon, wear the same outfits except all in brown, brown uniform and brown cape.
I don't remember most of the tour or where anything is, but the campus isn't very large, just three main buildings, plus some barns and sheds and so on. There's a working farm here, with fields and greenhouses and fruit trees, though there's not much to see now, because of the snow. There are farm animals, too, goats and chicken and horses nosing hay in the snow. Ollie, my "buddy," says one of the masters boards horses here, in addition to the school's horses.
I asked him why they call the faculty "masters," not professors, like in a normal school. I've noticed he uses a lot of odd names for things.
"If you wanted a normal school you wouldn't be here," he began. He has a point. "We call things what they are, but a lot of things just don't fit the normal words. So we need new words. They are professors, but they're something else, too. You'll see. And we could call you an incoming freshman, but a lot of people start out here with at least some college credit already, so people move through the school at different rates. So it doesn't really make sense to have distinct classes, freshman, sophomore, and so on. But everybody has to meet certain requirements in their first year, and you're all new together, so we call you 'yearlings.' Make sense?"
Ollie asked me if I'm Christian, and I was really taken aback. That question, asked like that, usually makes me feel a bit defensive because I don't go to church very often. Sometimes people object to my being Methodist, too, and attempt to convert me to some other denomination. But here I assume it's different and I wondered if Ollie was going to give me a hard time for being Christian at all. But he didn't give me a hard time about anything. He just wanted to make sure I knew there are a couple of Christians, Jews, and Buddhists on campus, though most people are pagan in one way or another. There are bicycles I can borrow if I want to go into town to church or for anything else. Ollie himself is Baptist.
I remember my Wiccan friends in high school talking about their holidays, and I vaguely remembered there was one in February. I was right, and today (or, by now, yesterday) is the day; they call it Brigid here, though my friends used to call it Imbolc or Candlemas. Ollie says the campus does not celebrate the pagan holidays (sabbats) in a precisely Wiccan way, but they do celebrate them. The assembly is evidently a Brigid celebration, among other things. I asked if the assembly was part of Orientation, but Ollie said nobody except Sharon calls anything Orientation. There is no formal Orientation, Sharon just tells new people to show up for Orientation because that's easier than explaining the assembly. I don't think I like that, but Ollie says the assembly is how they--we--welcome new students, so the analogy is sound.
When it started getting dark, we went to the Chapel Hall, where the assembly was. It was cold in there, not much warmer than the outside air. I was comfortable enough in my uniform (the cape is made of heavy black wool and I had on long johns), but I'm not used to being able to see my breath indoors by candlelight.
The candles--the whole room was lit only by candles, large tapers set in holders on the walls, torch style, every few feet, plus tapers set in a four-foot tall holder at the end of each of the eight rows of chairs. There were only two candles on the stage, one on either side, but I could dimly see stands for a lot more candles, plus a two rows of folding chairs and a lectern. There was enough light for us to see each other and to move around by gleam and shadow, but the high ceiling of the room was entirely lost in the gloom; it could have been a million miles up.
A bell struck, once, high and clear.
Then a line of people processed in, cloaked in brown, and carrying unlit candles. The bell struck again and again as they walked, until I began to feel slightly odd, between the dim light and the repeating bell, like my mind was stretching somehow. The procession divided into two groups of eight each that moved up on either side of the audience until one person stood at the ends of each of the eight rows of seats. The bell silenced, abruptly. I had an end seat, and I looked up to see a woman, her expression neutral and shadowed weirdly, but beautiful. She was a small woman, with fine bones, maybe forty years old. She didn't look at me, not any more than a statue would have. I saw the students on the other row ends use their tapers to light the candles held by the brown-cloaked people, so I copied them and lit the woman's candle. She nodded to me, gravely, and she and the others processed up to the stage and took their seats; ten in the back row, six in front--three seats remained empty. They lowered their hoods, but in the candlelight I could barely see their faces.
The ceremony that followed not only introduced us to the school (we had to stand and say our names, plus the name of one of four animals: hawk, elk, snake, and turtle. I picked "turtle"), it was also the school's commencement exercise. There were some fifteen people from the undergraduate program I'd just joined, plus three master's level students who all finished together.
The graduating bachelor students emerged one by one from the wings of the stage, and knelt before the tall man who seemed to be acting as officiant. Then each stood and the man removed the student's black cape--there were some words repeated, a kind of small rite, and the graduate said something to us, like "thanks," or "I love you all", or made some small speech. What was under the black cloak varied--a white suit, an academic robe, a work uniform of some kind, doctor's scrubs. My favorite was the naked guy--he got a laugh, but nobody seemed to mind. After degree conferral, they all processed down the center aisle and out the door. There were only three master's students. They were dressed in brown, like the faculty, and they did not get diplomas. Instead, they received rings, each from a different faculty member--the student's adviser, I assume. After getting the ring, each graduate sat down in one of the empty seats on stage, with the faculty.
I tried to picture myself crossing the stage, but I could only imagine it in the third person. I couldn't imagine being the person graduating.
Afterward there was food and hot drinks, both at the back of the chapel room, like a mini reception, and again in my new dorm. Moving in took about five seconds, since I have so few things. There were no disposable plates or cups at the little reception. Instead, everyone drank from tin cups they kept clipped to their belts. They ate from handkerchiefs held in their hands. I didn't know what to do, at first, but there was a big box of cups under the table and Ollie helped me find the one with my name on it. There's a handkerchief for me, too. I couldn't believe it. Two days ago, none of these people knew I existed, and now they've given me my own cup! It's a little thing, and really prosaic, but it's perfect, the perfect little welcome. I didn't know what to say. I still don't.
We stayed up half the night, talking and drinking (all home-made; making alcohol seems to be every other person's hobby around here). Two days ago, I was quitting college so I wouldn't fail. I didn't know what to do with my life. Now...I don't really know what this place is yet, but I've got my own room (and my own cup), my uniform that feels like a costume from some magical fantasy turned real, and I've got fourteen new friends (even though, except for Ollie, who is is my dorm, too, I can't remember any of their names). I think this is going to work.
[Next post; February 4th: First full day on campus, Zen meditation, a therapist paraphrasing Lewis Carroll]