It’s Sunday morning in Gambier and the Resident Advisors are sipping coffee, standing in front of a blank, concrete wall, a bucket of sidewalk chalk at our feet. Brady writes welcome! in blue, block letters the size of hubcaps. Further down, Meera draws a map on which arriving students can mark their hometowns. Soon shuttles will arrive from the airport carrying teenagers from as far as Suzhou, China. Others will emerge from the rear seats of station wagons with plates from Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania. And they do. By five p.m. McBride hall is home to 110 new residents.
On the way to breakfast the next morning, I notice most of the chalk wall has been washed away by rain, including the pale yellow outlines of the map. All that remains is what was written in orange: you are here and below it a scattering of x’s which, now mapless, look like a constellation.
What surprises me most at the end of the first day is how eager the students are, after five-plus hours of class, to do things they don’t have to do. For example, I am sure our proposal during the program meeting to go on a “firefly amble” will be met with groans of disinterest, but more than thirty people show up for the excursion. Jaja, a rising junior from the Bronx, says she’s never seen a firefly before. “We don’t even have stars,” she says.
With so much uncertain in love and at war, at home and abroad right now, it seems an especially great privilege for these kids to be here in this quiet corner of the world, learning to write. And I think it wise for them to have chosen this craft, which more than any other demands precision and balance, concision and reason, and above all a generosity towards the strange, the other. We lack the qualities I have just described so often and so completely that I challenge anyone to say there is not a grave need for more writers in the world.
All this to say the students here this week and next will become the kind of adults who live their lives wide awake. All this to say that when these Young Writers leave this hilltop, they will be the opposite of helpless. All this to say that when rain washes chalk x’s from a wall, when stars return to their same skies, lines still crisscross between them. All this to say, sometimes there are pictures in the sky.