When I was in middle school, the chairs at our desks in science class were the flimsy silver ones that scooted on my school’s scratchy, tile floors; the ones that made a very distinct and very headache-worthy screeeeetch. To try to stop the ear splinting sounds that the chairs seemed to manifest every time someone would slightly reposition themselves, the teachers found a solution: cut slits into tennis balls and stick one on each of the four legs of the chairs, creating a relatively ingenious throne for any 13-year old king. This way, everyone could easily scoot to their little middle-school-hearts’-desires, without anything to be heard other than a sound like feet on carpet. It wasn’t long until some of my classmates became creative and came up with the idea of taking one of the tennis balls off of the legs of the chairs, tucking a note inside the rip of the ball, and rolling it across to their friends. Although the notes were along the lines of, “Our teacher sucks ass” or “That headband looks just awful on her,” they still were passed along like CIA level intelligence; small little green balls swimming amongst our feet. Our ass-sucking teacher stood behind a desk, unaware.
My frizzy-haired, wide-eyed, and wholeheartedly unconfident middle school self experienced the tennis ball pool, watching little notes go by every so often, throwing stares and being stabbed with some too. I remember the conversations in the silence, and how everyone seemed a little more tense, knowing that they were either going to be talking about someone, or someone was inevitably going to be talking about them. And I see myself today, still a little frizzy-haired, still a little unconfident, and just as equally confused, watching my world back at home go on without me, a silent conversation, no different than when I watched those tennis balls roll past my feet.
Being away from comfort and being away from home is hard. Really, really hard. You can almost see your skin grow thicker with every unanswered and unacknowledged question that you have about virtually everything around you, and sometimes you want nothing more than to crawl under your covers, close your eyes, and pretend for a moment that when you resurface you’ll be back at a place where you already know the answers to your questions. Instead, I’ve found myself plenty of land and water away from the comfort I was once so used to being submerged in. To love knowing what’s going to happen next and to have every move strategically planned out is comfort. It’s comfort, it’s safety, and it’s absolutely no way to live.
This semester I’ve learned the absolute beauty of spontaneous road trips, that sacrificing a few euros of spending money to indulge in a big dinner is perfectly okay, and that feeling wholeheartedly uncomfortable is the only way to see parts of yourself that you didn’t know you were. This semester I’ve learned that life, absolutely and without a doubt, doesn’t wait for anyone. I’ve learned that people will grow and move and change, and sometimes, you can’t do much more than watch it play out, try to figure out where you one day might fit back in, and at the same time, trust that somehow you will.
I’ve talked about reflection, and I’ve talked about observation. And I still think that being abroad is one of the absolute best ways to realise that distance can show you which things are actually pretty minuscule as long as you take a step back to view them in a different way. Trying to understand things that happen to you upfront is like trying to take a photo with a camera that you have no idea how to use. And being abroad is like finally taking the photo, but not being able to develop it until you’re away from where you took it. I wish, as I’m sure that most people do, that they could go back to their middle school selves, especially as I see mine stare at those tennis balls rolling back and forth under her chair. We wish we could look them squarely in the face as we give them the hardest slap we can, and desperately say, “Please, my god, just learn how to wait.”
Once upon a time, Cheryl Strayed wrote: “There are so many tiny revolutions in life, a million ways we have to circle around ourselves to grow and change and be okay.” And all of those ways include being outside of your comfort zone. It can/will hurt, and it can/will sting, and you can/will realise how silly, how obsessed, and how self-absorbed you had been when everything was laid out for you. You quickly find out that there are so many things to be tortured about; so many teeny, tiny, torturous little stings. And you quickly learn that not being allowed to read something rolling at your feet that isn’t meant for you is not one of those things.