Trent University Revisited: 20 Years Later

For a week this summer I stayed in residence at Trent University, my alma mater.

It surprised me to realize that I hadn’t been back to Otonabee since the late nineties. When I signed up for an intensive theatre course (offered through Theatre Ontario at Trent), I knew I would feel nostalgic but I wasn’t prepared for this. Returning to my first home away from home was a transformational experience.

Twenty years. Where does the time go?

Such a cliché question to ask but it was one that followed me everywhere that week. It seems like only a few years have passed since my parents dropped me off in my dorm room, drove away, and left me on my own in a new school, in a residence where I knew no one. I remember that moment, the silence, the thwump of independence, the knowing that I could do this and was excited to do this all wrapped up into the uncertainty, the not knowing much at all.

So I started with one box, then another, slowly unpacking my room as the bustle of parents and students moved past my door. The next step was one hello, then another, slowly meeting the others living on my floor, in my “house,” on this campus, in the the town. One box. One hello. And then over twenty years later…I’m a grown up with a house and a job and big collection of friends and experiences. Tens of thousands of boxes and hellos later, I am no longer 19.

This story of independence began at Trent so this summer every time I see the Otonabee river passing under the iconic bridge, alongside the Bata Library I tear up. The corners of my eyes dampen before my brain processes what I see, my body responding before I can think. I am surprised that even the cement walls and brick-like floors and floor-to-ceiling columns in Otonabee open up windows of memories. The railings near the Wenjack Theatre, the wood walls along the Otonabee offices, the angled doorways of the seminar rooms, the way the sunlight spills onto the stairs all transport me to another time.

It feels like I am in two places at once, standing in the shoes of two selves.

I walk the halls on all my breaks taking in Trent University of 1994 and 2016. For a week I am both 19 and 41. So much has changed but so much is the same. It is a week of paradox.

I stay in Gzowski Residence this summer. It didn’t exist in the 90s. It was built near the path we used to take through the woods in the dark to The Commoner pub. My course is in the Otonabee Common room. Every day I walk by the Ironwood Gallery sign hanging there and remember how it was the first big event I had ever organized, remember working with artists, remember interacting with people as they visited the gallery, and then I remember the smokers. In the 90s students were allowed to smoke in the common room (except during Ironwood Gallery).

I remember other things too.

Here are five things that were different for students in residence in the mid-1990s:

  1. There was no Internet or email. Students could email using a new inter-university network but only to people within the university community. (We really only used it to email profs in the middle of the night for extensions on our essays).
  2. There were no cell phones. I got a part-time job on campus to pay for my own landline in residence.
  3. The library was not digitized. We searched for books by walking the stacks or by using the card catalogue (small cards in drawers with index features). My job in first year was at Bata Library. I barcoded books. After filling a cart with journals from the stacks, I brought books down to an office space, placed a barcode sticker in the back of the book, and then entered the information into the computer database. Then I reloaded the cart and returned the books to the stacks. Thirty hours of barcoding books a week. (Now even the content of the journals is all digitized).
  4. There were no food chains. I was surprised to see a Tim Horton’s in Otonabee.
  5. There were no buses on the Otonabee side of the river. All the city buses dropped off and picked up by Bata Library.

Then I visit my old residence room.

As I stand in my old residence room, the spirit of my younger self appears. She is so proud of how time has provided more confidence, more understanding, more clarity, and more joy. When I stood in this room for the first time in August 1994 I had no idea what the future held, what my story would become, or where my questions would lead. And now in August 2016 I can see that I’ve arrived. I own the story of my life. I am the keeper of the jar of questions.

I feel a lot like Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz with twenty years of life swirling around, with me standing in the centre of the vortex. I see my family and travels around the world and opportunities to work and learn and create. I see my home and my school and my staff and my students. I see my friends and communities. I’ve done it. I made it. The search, the hunt, the scavenging for meaning is over for now. I am here and it is good. Big deep happy breaths from the belly that make my ears smile. This is unfiltered gratitude.

And the accomplishments, the stuff I’ve gathered or done–none of it really matters. The fact that my story went a different way than I had imagined doesn’t matter either. This moment standing in my old residence room goes beyond all that–it is about soul. The journey of my adult soul from 1994 until now…and it’s okay. It’s about what I’ve learned in twenty-two years. It’s about how I’ve rowed my boat down the river. I haven’t made a huge mess. I am a good person. I work hard. I help people. I exist.

There is a lot to celebrate. I know who I am. I know what’s important to me. I know how I can make a difference: one box at a time, one hello at a time…

Trent University gave me more than an education, it gave me independence and it gave me my family’s history back.

My first experience of independence at Trent University reinforced all the things that remain important to me today: nurturing relationships, participating in community, connecting with nature, and thinking, learning, writing, engaging not just for their own sake but for social justice, for a greater understanding of what it means to be human, of what it means to be among others to share a planet, a universe.

For the four years I was working on my BA at Trent I was asked the same question nearly every week. I could be walking on campus, crossing the street downtown Peterborough, dancing in a pub, sitting in a lecture, standing in line for lunch and someone  would smile, reach out, and gently ask, “Where are you from? Who are your people?” They were always referring to my native ancestry. I would often answer only with what I knew: “Oshawa?”

In 2016 I know the answer. My people are Métis. It was a secret hidden for two generations. My family always said the same thing: we’re French. But that is not the story. My grandfather was the son of Métis father and a Métis mother. And their parents were Métis. And their parents. And their parents. Six generations of Métis, tracing back to the 1760s.  When my grandfather married my grandmother, he was the first to marry a French Canadian woman in many generations. After ten years of extensive research I’ve learned so much about my people and their connection to Canada’s history. (And that is for another blog post). I wonder if I would have begun this work at all without the influence of my four years at Trent.

So in August 2016 I stay in the first place away from home that showed me my family story was worth knowing, a place that valued its history, a place that attracted people who could see things in me I didn’t know were there.

In August 2016 my story of becoming is realized. I’m invited by a documentary maker to the Peterborough Canoe Museum to tell the story of one of my ancestors, Ezekiel Solomon, in a documentary on 200 years of Jewish Canadian history that will be on the Discovery Channel in 2017. Ezekiel Solomon married Okimabinesikwe, my first Ojibway grandmother. The filming is booked for the same week I am at Trent taking a course. This feels bigger than serendipity.

In August 2016 my Métis Citizenship card arrives in the mail and I officially reclaim our story to share with the family.

Revisiting Trent University after 20 years was as much about revisiting me. It was a gift to stand in two places at once, to see two versions of myself at once, and to know two stories at once (the one I imagined and the one I lived).

Above all, it marked the birth of my independence. I feel so grateful for the moment. Thank-you, Trent!

To my friends who are now parents to young adults starting post-secondary school this week:

I don’t know how it feels to say goodbye to your children, leaving them on their own among the boxes in a new place. I can imagine it must be difficult and a big change for you both.

I know you’re also excited for your children and their new beginnings. You’ll probably all cry a bit over the next week. Change is hard, even good change. But I know your children will each unpack one box, then another. Next, your children will say one hello, then another. It will be okay.

In 20 years, your children may take a pause, look back, and realize they are different but the same. We all need to continue rowing our boats down the river, to continue using our strengths to keep moving, to continue taking in the scenery along the way.

We can celebrate now. Your children are good people, hard-working, helpful, considerate. Who your children are connected to, their family, is just as important as their independence…so celebrate that: the beautiful necessary paradox of connection to family and independence of self.

This was my big life lesson this summer.


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