A cruel irony that is only understood after your second year: The best time to be at college is when you’re not there. Such is the tyranny of the academic calendar. The nicer it is outside, the less time you spend there. Constant classes when it’s cold and horrible, midterms in the peak of spring, everything due when you’re dying for the Beach, and so on. Only when you dare to spend all summer on campus do you break the cycle. Here, as you enter academic purgatory — otherwise known as a master’s degree – you gain the posture to look beyond your next step and notice the redness of the bricks.
Indeed, it was only during the summer that I realized how lovely Homewood Campus could be. I discovered as such one warm Friday afternoon, walking along its hidden creeks and trails. Wiping the sweat off my face, I wandered my way into a building. Somehow drawn by a deep ancestral compulsion, my body had divorced my mind and found its goal: air conditioning.
I turned to the stone wall on my left, the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy. Its axis mundi is an impressive telescope at the center of a sunlit cylinder. That’s where all the money goes, I thought. The building was totally empty as far as I could tell except for scattered bags, discarded ring-bound theses and the plain faces of Nobel Prize laureates on pastel posters taped to the walls. My exploration eventually landed me at the foot of a large electronic globe, displaying a live heat map of carbon emissions, which I admired for a short while.
My trance was broken by a sudden voice: “Are you here to see the pumpkin?” I turned to my interlocutor, a fellow brown boy.
“I’m sorry?” I replied, looking at his kind, bearded face. He was already giddily working the keypad, and before I knew it the dark corridor took an orange hue; the globe had turned into a giant pumpkin. I spoke briefly with my new fairy godfather. He was a physics PhD student. “When will you graduate?” I asked as I moved towards the exit.
“Never ask that to a PhD student.”
I spent a few short summer nights in the rickety comfort of Levering Hall. Three jaded postgraduates playing pool, periodically interrupted by the swathes of high schoolers on some kind of big-brained Hopkins summer program. They are easy enough to spot, bearing bright red lanyards, free from bags under their eyes.
“Quantum mechanics, really boring stuff,” one of them told me when I asked what he was learning. What a shame. It was one of the least boring things I’ve heard in a while. What does he like instead? “I’m fixing to get into med school, you know how parents are. Gotta be a doctor.” It occurred to me that the age of the innocent child must be getting younger and younger: How institutionalized is this 14-year-old boy from Dallas, still wet behind the ears?
“Hey! You can’t be in here,” some poor Hopkins sophomore in an orange hi-vis zipped at him. As they were escorted out, Dallas Boy and his friends stared at us, the grownups, and murmured things to each other. We are much cooler to them than we ought to be, the "mind-forg'd manacles" they hear not.
The library is particularly eerie in the summer, its usual bouncy vim totally flattened. You have access to all the best seats in the house and find yourself cradled by a calm silence typically reserved for the Pentagon-like facility stored five levels below. There are no run-ins with someone who was briefly your best friend before you dropped the only class you shared, no unbearable tableside gossip that really ought to be said in a way lower voice and no NPCs awkwardly trying their best to look busy, like distracting movie extras.
I don’t want to say that it’s dead. The organized chaos of the semester surely cannot be sustained year-round. The library, too, needs rest. 6 p.m., lights out.
It’s a strange time. The buses, the library and the cafe are mostly populated with those who have no reason to leave: PhD students, post-doctorates and internationals who want to avoid leaving the country as well as undergraduates who work way too hard. The increasingly suffocating American summer air is undercut by graduate student ennui. Some days you hardly notice it. It’s replaced by an unfamiliar sameness. You begin to recognize your fellow bus riders. One gets on at Penn Station and is always smirking about something, another has gotten way too into menswear (tassel loafers are not appropriate lab attire). There are much, much fewer conversations about people hating their roommates.
The summer is steady. Under the surface, the fall term approaches.There are letters of acceptance, tearful goodbyes, cardboard boxes and the inimitable cocktail of anxiety and anticipation. Soon Hopkins will be teaming with new faces, new voices, a loss of familiarity and an increased velocity, painting its songs of experience.
Yousif Almehza is a graduate student from Arad, Bahrain in the Center for Biotechnology Education.