What gets lost with UDaB
He cannot, for the life of him, find anything redeemable in the “homogenous blob,” as he puts it, the bitterness devouring him from within. Cynical, hardened and disillusioned, he reduces his peers to categories, confident he made a fatal error, and seeking desperately to undo it.
Then he spends a week with those peers. Sorority girls, business bros, hippies, frat guys and everything in-between, most of whom he’d never have otherwise spoken to. He returns to campus with a new appreciation for them.
And he stays.When news broke, several days ago, of the University of Delaware Alternative Break’s (UDaB) cancellation, my stomach lurched. Inevitable though it was, yet another good thing taken by the destructive streak of coronavirus, seeing the name of a friend at the bottom of the message — someone who, like me, had their life and perspective transformed by a week spent fixing houses in Pittsburgh — spun me into a reflective spiral, and the sense of loss was palpable.
Not the loss of any personal plans — the cancellation left my spring break, which didn’t involve UDaB this year, unaffected — but the loss of something deeper and more important. The lost opportunity for hundreds of students to learn more about each other and their world, and maybe make it a little better. The lost efforts of dozens of organizers, whose deep and unabating commitment to this cause will still have cost them, but without the intended payoff. As coronavirus uproots life as we commonly understand it, derails plans and aspirations with neither precedent nor certainty, it was this news, the latest disruption leaving me completely untouched, that hit hardest.
Because at that moment, I also realized how dangerously close I’ve come to losing all that was gained in that short, strange, beautiful week in the spring of 2017, and how important those insights are in the present moment. And I thought, with sadness, about what the lost opportunity to participate in UDaB this year could mean for so many others.On a weekend morning, sometime in April or March three springs ago, I hopped in a van with people I hardly knew, bound for Pittsburgh, and with an utter lack of enthusiasm. I was recovering from mononucleosis, angry, having just published the first of what would turn out to be a seemingly endless series of columns disparaging my peers, regretting having applied to UDaB at all. The mood, in my eyes, was not a pleasant one. Cranky and carsick, the forecast for the week — as it nearly always is, according to my moral meteorology — was bleak.
I recall little else of the ride there. Nothing, actually. But I remember vividly our arrival. Our week would be spent with the homeowner dignity division of a faith-based non-profit in inner city Pittsburgh. Quarters were to be close, meals to be shared and prepared by a motley bunch of college kids who were to, somehow, apparently, pick up some tools and fix some houses. All of the preliminary talk about how what we were doing was “kind of problematic” suddenly felt real.
The earliest moments were, predictably, bizarre. Those who (sorta) knew each other formed quick coalitions. People from all majors, all circles and backgrounds, let their social ineptitude reveal itself. Conversation was strained and painful. On edge, skeptical, unhappy about the prospects of collective decision-making and cooperating with a schedule that wasn’t my own, I quickly established myself as a pain-in-the-ass to be reckoned with.
That title was earned through one moment, in particular. During an early meal, once my five food allergies were, by necessity, disclosed, the inevitable question struck.
“What do you even eat?” a stranger asked.
“I don’t appreciate that question,” came the sharp retort, followed by silence.
That stranger, I’d learn shortly, was named Lauren. By the week’s end, she was somebody I was grateful to call a friend.The first day of work began … uncomfortably.
Our group, a thoroughly secular one, stood before some scrappy and energized organizers in prayer. Recoiling, we then listened to the plan for the day. We were to be divvied up among three houses, all of which were owned by elderly women, and all of which required some serious work. A series of key terms — “caulk,” for instance, eliciting more than a few giggles, more than a few times — entered our vocabularies, along with new names of places and people.
A short drive later, one of those names, Mrs. Stewart, was brought to life, and soon became the name of a friend. Her house was an impressive, beautiful creation of a different era, into which we were heartily welcomed and embraced.
What followed was remarkable. We set out to fix that house, and fix it we did. Caulking and sanding, and caulking and sanding again, Cassie — a once-nameless “sorority girl,” as far as I was first concerned, who turned out to be one of the kindest and most motivated people I’ve met in four years here — and I worked tirelessly on the stairwell, while others renovated the upstairs. Just as memorable, and rewarding, were the short breaks, when Mrs. Stewart, sitting patiently below, shamelessly blasting Marvin Gaye, would share stories with us over lunch.
It was a testament to something special, to the enduring truth that anyone, from any walk of life, can come together in the name of a common cause. It sounds stupid and cliche, given how small and short-lived the work was. But while we may not have changed the world, something was changing in me.The subsequent mornings were early ones, and strange new routines, newfound sources of stability, began very quickly to take form as people settled into their roles. Every morning, Clare (formerly just “the engineer”) and I were in a mutually understood race to beat the sunrise and brew the coffee. No matter who won, we’d sit in that caffeinated, early-morning serenity and chat, waiting patiently for the groggy souls to descend from the bunks above. Whatever awkward tension stood between everyone initially was rapidly dissolving.
This may have actually gone too far. (There is, even in hindsight, probably such a thing as too much comfort.) Previous burdens of collective decision-making became newfound joys. Past perceptions shattered. My bad jokes about Protestants and primates were, for the first times, at least on this coast, finding an audience.
The hyperpersonal, inexplicable joy of these moments fueled a week of remarkable productivity, of deep reflection and of newfound appreciation — both for each other, and for the world in all its weirdness. The sappy shit I’d warned myself against began to make sense, and all of those past judgements and labels became sources of regretful embarrassment, forced to confront the sudden realization that there were people behind them.
When all was said and done, I was saddened it had to end. And I wasn’t alone — most people refused to sleep that last night. But I was returning to campus with nearly 20 new friends, and for this, I was, and remain, infinitely grateful.Had it not been for UDaB — for the subsequent realizations about how mistaken I’d been, and how every moment, however small, is an opportunity for hope and personal transformation — I wouldn’t be sitting a block from campus right now. Occasionally, to myself and surely to others, this counterfactual history sounds like a happier one. In these strange and uncertain times, in the turbulent three years that followed — marred by political frustration and friends’ deaths, financial anxieties and an inescapable awareness of the suffering so basic to this life — I’ve let those lessons slip behind me, resummoned a cruelty on and off of these pages that, three long years ago, I thought myself to have abandoned.
Yet I remain forever grateful for that week in the spring of 2017, for instilling something like hope in me, for teaching me that a better world is possible. Without that week, I’d have been a piss poor Resident Assistant, an editor incapable of believing that everyone on this campus has a story to tell. I share this all not to compound the sadness and anger of the current disruption, but for those who will be deprived of those lessons, at least this year. For those, like myself, who are currently struggling to make sense of an ugly reality, and for those plagued by growing anxiety and suspicion.
Because those maladies are, in many ways, scarier and more difficult to eradicate than this virus. If the cruelty and distrust this pandemic inspires outlive the virus itself, we surely won’t outlive the next one. Only with the trademark virtues of UDaB — admitted vulnerability, commitment to a greater good and ability to see break through the pessimism that so easily prevails in trying circumstances — will we weather this.
That’s not the message you usually get under this byline. But for those — freshmen, especially — who have had their semesters and futures thrust into uncharted territory, for those looking for something like UDaB to restore a faith they’re now left without, know there’s something worth returning to after this.Know, and don’t forget, that that freshman — and the cruel and condescending versions of him that have since reappeared — was wrong.