On Locust Walk, only the faces change
I acquire knowledge sideways and remember in shadowy bursts. University of Pennsylvania. 1978. Freshman year. White bowls of chunky granola in the dining hall. Apples the size of baby pumpkins sold from a cart. Poems in a cherry-colored box beneath my bed in a top-floor room in the Quad. The black curls on the head of a senator's son. Classrooms like movie theaters. A calculus professor so far away on his foreign stage that I wondered if a pair of binoculars might help.
(Nothing, when it came to calculus, would help.)
This was Penn to the gawky girl who dragged the aura of loneliness around her like a Casper BFF. This, and the Russian history class she loved, and the fifth-floor stacks at Van Pelt Library, and the bookstore down beside the bridge, and, always, the soundtrack of Locust Walk, where gossip simmered, students politicked, and music flumed through the raised windows of the Greek-lettered houses that dominated the 3600 through 3800 blocks. "Let the Good Times Roll." "Prove It All Night." "Rosalinda's Eyes." "Take Me to the River." "Don't Cry Out Loud." The music banged and slid and exulted and dared, and it was important not to take it all so personally. To let the Cars, Bruce, Billy, the Talking Heads, and Melissa just rock and roll on by. To avert one's eyes from the boys who slouched against their wide-eyed architecture.
Just two decades before I'd arrived, Locust Walk had been Locust Street, complete with automobiles and trolley tracks and the residential residue of the "suburban" district this area once was. Its conversion into the campus' main thoroughfare - its "outdoor living room" - was rapid once the cars and trolleys vanished. Steinberg-Dietrich Hall opened its doors to aspiring businesspeople. The Palladium Restaurant concocted walk-side dining. A dozen or so fraternities turned their stereos to a dominating volume. The world hurried, sideways.
Locust Walk begins in the east at 34th Street - carving a path through Blanche P. Levy Park, past Van Pelt and the 5,000-pound Claes Oldenburg Split Button, and beneath the nose of a sculpturally enthroned Ben Franklin. It cuts up past Sweeten Alumni House and Robert Indiana's tilted-O LOVE sculpture and then runs direct beneath the shade of leafy trees toward 38th Street, where the Generational bridge carries pedestrians toward an increasingly vaporous finale.
Years ago I was a student - confounded by the mysteries, dancing with strangers, embarking on a lifelong love affair with Bruce (Springsteen). Today I am a teacher - a spring-semester adjunct who is never lonely in the company of the heroic 15 who sign up for my class in creative nonfiction, no binoculars required. I keep growing older - every year I do. But the young people I meet and teach are perpetually young, and they are perpetually energizing, and from them I take my hope. And though I teach in a Victorian twin on Walnut Street, I make a point to walk the Walk every teaching Tuesday. To stay attuned to all the ways it has changed, and all the ways that it hasn't. Call it a metaphor. Call it a way of clocking time. Call it me trying to remember how it feels to be that young and perhaps uprooted, so that I can properly construct my teaching home.
Certainly Locust Walk has been deeply diversified since my days as a heat-seeking freshman. Many of the former fraternity digs have been given over to vice provosts and graduate study centers and institutes. The former Palladium, in that grand Gothic structure at 36th Street, has become the Arts, Research and Culture House (the ARCH), a complex now under massive renovation.
The coursing brickwork has been reconfigured over brand-new pipes and electrical conduits and chilled water lines. Sometimes bright kites fly overhead, and always the freshmen who want to protect their good-grades mojo must avoid stepping on the inlaid rose compass at 37th Street, and now there's "Ben on the Bench" in his casual pose, at ease as he reads the Pennsylvania Gazette.
I walk aware of what is new. I walk grateful for what remains of the university I once knew: The green patina of College Hall. The fiery brick of the Fisher Fine Arts Library. The mansard roofs. The white-stone castle. The leaded windows. The ivy. And while I never hear the Cars or Melissa out on the Walk anymore (and only sometimes hear Bruce), the a cappella artists are still clamoring for attention, and the young politicians are still advocating, and if you want to buy your tickets to The Vagina Monologues or the next production by Club Singapore, you can get them here.
It took me a long time to shed my lonely aura and my ghostly BFF. It took becoming a teacher before I felt fully at home with students. Locust Walk is a river coursing, a thoroughfare, an "outdoor living room." It's where students stay young and teachers grow old, where the past is felt and the new is tested, where the world keeps rumbling forward.
Beth Kephart is the author of "Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir," which was inspired by her work at the University of Pennsylvania, and includes the writings of her students. She blogs daily at www.beth-kephart.blogspot.com.