Officemates

I’ve put in my time at music camp. Nine summers out of eleven, I packed my bags, stocked up on new strings, and braced myself for meeting my cabin-mates. By the time I became a counselor, I could have written a music camp survivor’s guide. I knew what kind of shower basket to bring. I knew that, despite my mild fear of heights, the top bunk is always better. And I knew how to get along with the cabin- mates who routinely used words and did things straight out of the movies that I wasn’t allowed to watch.

Movies give music camps–and the people who attend them– a sketchy reputation. Instrument They show awkward kids wearing blue polo shirts and knee-length navy shorts tripping over themselves while lugging their sousaphones through the woods. Even if the uniform is pretty accurate–although movies often forget the knee socks and standardissue cardigans–on the whole, the people are not. I’ve met my share of gawky brass players, but they aren’t the ones I remember.

I will never forget, however, the people who showed me, while we were isolated in the North Michigan woods, what my world looks like. I remember Sarah calling a cabin meeting on the first night of camp to let everyone know that she was a lesbian. I remember being stunned by Jackie’s blunt words–“I don’t have a religion.” I remember being ashamed of my own denomination’s social priorities after talking to the Unitarian Universalists after the inter-faith service one Sunday. Everything was new–the artsy people, the pluralism–and I flourished. Of course, compared to my new friends, I felt like the camper in the movies–skinny, white, Protestant, no dreadlocks, no henna tattoos, no camp flings in sight.

This August, I packed all of my bags and left for my first year of graduate school in English. A few weeks before I left, my mother had to keep me accosted by a guest preacher during coffee hour. Top on his list of the evils facing Christians today were Big Ten universities, which worship their own trinity: sex, drugs, and loud music. I did not expect that my graduate school experience would bear any resemblance to my years at Calvin College, but I also expected not to be surprised by much. I expected to be just fine, thank you very much. After all, I went to music camp.

Twelve of us–all first year TAs–moved into our shared office. It felt like English major camp, complete with the divas who claim to need more natural light than the rest of us do and the diplomats who want to make recycling schedules.

We’ve occupied Room 214 for ten weeks now, and I haven’t been surprised by much of what some of my officemates do or say. I’ve learned a few things about goddess religions, as well as some home-remedies for Thursday night hangovers. I’m used to seeing Dana’s collection of her favorite phallic symbols when I walk into the office every morning. And I’ve been invited to what sound like some interesting parties– honor your body night, the “Estrofest,” and Alice’s Halloween bash (clothing optional, of course).

But graduate school isn’t camp. This is real life, and my parents’ minivan isn’t coming for me anytime soon. Now that the bourgeoning phallic symbol collection, the passionate anti-religious soliloquies, and persistent party invitations have lost their novelty, I am learning a thing or two about sanctification. There’s no turning my back to this life now. Day by day, I’m trying, in a place where collegiality and politics are everything, to live a holy life, love God, and honor my officemates.

I’ve seen 1 Peter 2:11-17 pitched several ways–as a baptismal sermon and as a way to live in post-Christian America–but I think I would put part of this passage on the first page of my graduate school survival guide: “For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” And having survived both music camp and graduate school, I’d still rip out that page and take it with me; there’s no turning my back to this world now.

Kristine Johnson is a doctoral student in rhetoric and composition at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.