Quintessential Kenyon: Student Life, Uncut

From Middle Path to the MBTA

Carolyn Ten Eyck
July 7, 2017

The first college I ever toured was a state school in western Massachusetts. As my family walked from concrete building to concrete building, spread far apart and encapsulating only a fraction of the entire campus, I learned something: I wanted to go to a small school, a school where I wouldn’t have to drive to parties, or walk half an hour to get from one class to another. Kenyon turned out to be the small school for me. It has about the same number of students that my high school did, and most things that I need are under a mile away.

I wanted a small school for the sense of community, for the tight-knit friendships, but there was also another reason that was in the back of my mind during every college tour: my motion sickness. It’s not debilitating, but I have enough horror stories (vomit and all) from my youth to make me hesitant to set foot in a car when I don’t have to. The few instances where I did have to ride in vans or buses for long periods of time during my first year at Kenyon (the five-hour drive to West Virginia during my outdoors pre-Orientation program comes to mind) were filled with nausea and nerves. So being on a walking campus works just fine for me, although I’ll usually tag along on a Chipotle run to Mount Vernon, as long as I have shotgun. A small perk: I have eternal dibs on shotgun in all my friends’ cars — the alternatives are too messy to consider.

Most other forms of transportation render me only mildly queasy: subways, airplanes, buses — these I can tolerate, but not enjoy. So when I got an internship in Boston and decided that I would travel from home to work via the city’s MBTA commuter railroad, I knew I could do it. On my first day, I downloaded a bunch of podcasts onto my phone, committed to making my hour-plus commute as productive as it could be.

I like my internship — I get to do a lot of editing and some writing, and I haven’t been asked to get coffee for anyone yet — but after my first week, the commute seemed unbearable. Factoring in after-work gym visits, I wasn’t getting home until 7:30 most nights, sweaty and tired. All my lofty reading and writing goals of the summer seemed doomed. I barely had the energy to interact with my family when I walked in the door, let alone read and annotate a book of essays.

Eventually, my mother made a suggestion. She experienced motion sickness as well, albeit in a less showy way than I did, so she could empathize with my battles against nausea.

 “I can read on trains,” she said. This may not seem like an unusual statement, but it took me by surprise. My whole childhood, I’d struggled with the boredom of three-hour drives to relatives’ houses while my brother tore through book after book in the seat next to me. As an adult, I could get through long car trips, but only with the help of podcasts, music and talkative friends. Being able to read while traveling was a golden goose of sorts, something I’d never dared to hope for.

I knew that I would never be able to read in cars — but could I read on trains? The next morning, I tucked “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” into my work bag (in keeping with my summer tradition of inhaling old favorites post-finals, to remind myself that reading is fun). And, to my surprise, it worked. I could read. Suddenly, my commute wasn’t a waste of time anymore.

After I worked my way through the Harry Potters, I moved on to books of essays, for my senior thesis. Over the course of the next year, I plan to write a long-form nonfiction piece, most likely comprised of essays about being in college. My ideas for it are still very nebulous and up in the air, and right now I’m in the read-a-bunch-of-relevant-stuff-and-hope-something-sticks stage. Train reading doesn’t allow me to take notes (without elbowing the person next to me in the nose), but I’ve found that it provides me with an intense sense of focus. The 45 minutes of train travel are short enough that my attention doesn’t wander, and long enough that I can feel accomplished with the amount I’ve read in a day. Most importantly, it gives me the autonomy to be productive before and after a workday of being told what to do and where to go.

Will I miss my commute? Three weeks ago, I wouldn’t have given that question a second thought. But now, even as I write this in a train car with no air conditioning and dirty windows, I can’t help but feel torn. Apart from the revelation that I can read and write during my commute, there’s something to be said for taking time at the start and end of the day for reflection, for assessing what went right and what went wrong at work, and then putting work out of your mind to focus on the evening ahead. I hope to bring my habit of reflecting on my days back to Kenyon. If this internship feels like it’s going by quickly, my days at Kenyon have gone even faster. It’s hard to believe that I’m going to be a senior this fall.

When I was in my last year of high school, I couldn’t wait to go to college. Now, back in my hometown for the summer, I’m trying to be mindful of the time I have left — at Kenyon and at home. This is probably the last time I’ll be living in the house I grew up in for more than a couple weeks, and this will be the last year I’ll be at Kenyon. In a way, the 12-hour drive from Boston to Gambier has been a commute, one I’ve done twice a year for the past three years. I doubt I’ll ever love long car rides, but there’s no denying that traveling inspires reflection.

In “Imagining America in the Novel,” an English class taught by Professor Mason that I took this past fall, we talked about how movement gives the illusion of progress, how we often try to combat boredom or roadblocks in our lives by moving from one place to another. From going home, to school, to home again, it can sometimes be hard to gauge if I’ve become better or just older. But then I look at my friends, my professors, my professors who are also my friends, and all the things we’ve built together in a tiny Ohio town, and I know that Kenyon has changed me, irrevocably, into a different version of myself. A version that I happen to like. Funny how it took sitting on a train to make me figure that out.