The Dining Hall
I didn't even recognize him when I arrived on campus. My own kid, whom I had come to take home for the summer. Sailed right past him to the Plat du Jour station, where I asked a woman with her hair tucked under her cap, "Is Benjamin Dodd working tonight?"
She leafed through a clipboard and led me back to the pasta bar section, right next to the Pizza Parlor where a girl shoved pizzas into a flaming brick oven with a long-handled metal paddle.
I stood before a handsome kid, his eyes masked by the visor of his black cap. He wore a black apron, tied behind his neck and waist, over a white serving coat. His thick brown hair stuck out from under the cap, and he looked down as he ladled pasta into a porcelain bowl. In this silver chrome dining theatre of dancing flames and sizzling bacon, something familiar came into clear focus: I recognized my child's hands.
He glanced up at me with those greenish eyes, those eyes with the dark-rimmed irises framed by dark lashes, those eyes of the baby, toddler, and high school student staring ahead point blank. His look of amazement melted into a smile.
"How did you get here?"
The word formed around the lump of my throat a full 10 seconds before I could articulate it.
"Walked," I answered.
By this time I was partially reconciled to this dining hall that they situated in the middle of campus. It's a central meeting place for the students. Cafeteria-style choice is the wave of the future. Students will no longer tolerate going through a steamy line, where plump middle-aged women slop meatloaf, spinach, or tuna casserole onto their plates.
However, the older students still remember dining in the Quadrangle, a majestic cathedral of a dining hall with dark wood-paneled walls stretching up to a loft arched ceiling next to stained-glass windows. The alumni remember when sit-down dinners, 10 seated to a table, were served in the Quad, and students had to dress for dinner. But that's when Mears Cottage, just down an enclosed hallway, was still a girls' dormitory, and pretty coeds would make an entrance, sailing down three flights of stairs with carved banisters to boyfriends waiting breathlessly below. These guys and girls carrying trays in the new dining hall, their flip-flops flapping, don't worry about making entrances or even dating anymore. They hang out together instead.
After dinner, I sit on a bench on North Campus, just in front of Cowles Hall, as the May evening becomes cooler and darker. Tomorrow, after his last final, I'm taking Benjamin home. The construction of the new dining hall, looming in the distance across an expanse of lawn, has now been completed, and the silver trailers of the building contractors, which had been sitting in churned-up mud, are gone. The building, flanked by neatly-trimmed grass, has symmetrical, cubed windows, lined in order, as though everything is logical and makes sense. It has one very large round black window, which can't peer into the future and is mum concerning the past.
The last time I passed by this bench in front of Cowles Hall, and lengthening shadows fell across North Campus, was nine months ago August, the beginning of Benjamin's second year. I usually hate late afternoons, the depressing end of the day -- except at Grinnell, on days like that one in August, with the sun descending, muting the red brick Gothic dormitories on both North and South Campus, the huge shade trees standing like sentinels, and the vast expanses of contrasting lawn dazzling, so eternally green.
On that August day, we walked past the tower of Rawson and Gates Halls, toward smoking grills and tables of food, a welcome-back picnic for returning students.
"Now Mom, when we get there, I don't want to sit by you," Benjamin said, stepping quickly ahead in his tennis shoes as I struggled to keep up.
"But there are other parents here tonight. Look at that man in the Hawaiian shirt, and those two small kids, somebody's younger brother and sister."
"Yeah, but there aren't very many," he said, scanning the scene with his steel greenish eyes. "I don't know who of my friends is here yet, but I'll probably run into somebody."
We waited in a long line, the sun setting in the west, brightening the vivid colors of the crowd's summer clothes. I noticed a number of parents, laughing and talking among themselves. Benjamin looked past them, searching for somebody he knew.
I couldn't hear all of his words when he met a curly-haired kid wearing a white T-shirt and chain around his neck. They talked and laughed, probably about their summers, what classes they would be taking, who was back on campus. Benjamin was happy. That's how it should be.
"Just one piece please," I said to a student carving a roast under a canopy, as I juggled my paper plate, plastic utensils, and slippery cold can of Coke.
Benjamin sat with a group of students in the shade of the new dining hall. A boy with wire-rimmed glasses was talking loudly and gesturing flamboyantly. Sophisticated vocabulary. Obviously a very bright kid, a character. I wonder what it would be like to be his mother.
I lowered myself onto the ground, dutifully sitting away from Benjamin, as I balanced my plate and beverage. The ground was cold and wet under my summer dress, and my sandals cut into my feet. I pulled down my skirt and situated the plate. My hands trembled slightly as I held the utensils, and the lump in my throat made swallowing difficult.
I contemplated starting a conversation with the dark-haired young woman, her hair pulled back into a ponytail, seated by me. She had a baby, a little girl about 10 months old, wearing a floral sleeper. The baby kicked her feet against the navy blue corduroy lining of the plastic car seat and batted at the toy suspended from the handle.
Seeing the small child remind me that 15 years ago, when Benjamin was about 5 years old, we passed the time after dinner and before bedtime by attempting to play hide and seek.
"Now Benjamin, I'll hide first, somewhere in the house, and you're supposed to come find me."
He stared up at me with his green eyes under dark lashes, saying nothing. He started to follow.
"No, you have to give me a chance to hide. Count to 10."
He still stared, without blinking.
"OK, I'll count. One, two three ... 10. Ready or not, here you come."
I ducked into the high-ceilinged sunroom, past the fireplace mantel, leaving him in the kitchen.
The silence lasted two beats before it was punctuated by a piercing wail.
"Mom! Mom!" he sobbed.
So much for hide and seek. In kindergarten he couldn't tolerate being out of my sight for even a few seconds. Now he was sitting off over there.
I carved harder on the obstinate meat and choked down a raw carrot.
"Benjamin! Benjamin!" I cry inwardly.
It was raining in late August a year before, when we brought Benjamin to Grinnell for the first time. As we drove up on the interstate, droplets pelted against the car windows, the wipers swooshing them away. His younger brothers were noisy, creating chaos in the car, but Benjamin was silent, staring ahead into the gray nothingness.
We found his dormitory and lugged his belongings down the hallway, looking for the door with his name.
A clean-shaven student with short hair appeared and extended his hand to Benjamin.
"Hi. I'm Dan Smith, the resident adviser for this floor. And you are?"
"Ben, Ben Dodd." Benjamin broke into a smile as he pumped Dan's hand.
"Benjamin, it's Benjamin Dodd," I interrupted, but the resident adviser didn't seem to hear.
"I also attend a Bible study group every Wednesday, and you're free to join us," Dan continued. So they're still around, I thought to myself. We called them "The God Squad." A cadre of conservative religious belief in a sea of liberalism.
"No, I don't think I'll take you up on that," Benjamin said, shifting his weight to the other foot.
"But Benjamin will be attending church," I quickly intoned.
He turned around and faced me squarely.
"Mom, I'm on my own now and will do what I decide. You just have to face that."
The steely green eyes registered anger and resistance.
I crumbled, walking past the bulletin board tacked with notices, not because of his comments, but because of what I saw when I got to the lobby and caught my reflection in the glass door. Who was that middle-aged woman? What happened to the girl? The girl, whose long hair was lifted by breezes as she walked across this campus, who dreamed of love, asleep in her gabled dormitory room, the train whistle moaning slowly off in the distance.
As we left the lobby, the resident adviser told Benjamin he would be issued a passcard to swipe in order to gain admittance to the dormitory. Great. That means when I come to visit him, I'll have to stand outside and call him on my cell phone so he can let me in.
I can remember an early morning in April when I was at Grinnell, many years earlier, clutching an Easter basket with jellybeans, green plastic grass, and a plush brown rabbit, because I loved him. The dormitory door swung open, and I stole in softly and crept up the stairs. He was asleep, golden curls on his pillow, but I didn't knock, disturb the silence. Then I slipped away, heart pounding. No locks, no chains, no bars. A few birds sang in the gray of the early morning, and as suddenly as I came, I was gone.
How childish. An Easter basket in college. Yet he and his roommate later fought about who would get the rabbit. The girl, the boy, giggling as they run through the rain. The woman, the man, passionate about each other, turning over and over, a changing kaleidoscope.
The next step in the new student orientation process found us upstairs in the Rosenfield Center adjacent to the new dining hall, filling out a raft of forms, even though we have spent the summer months filling out reams of forms. College personnel were seated behind long rectangular desks, and the room was abuzz with students and parents, waiting in lines. A form waiving a $2,000 interest-free loan. A form that will allow Grinnell to notify his parents in case Benjamin is taken to a hospital emergency room. A form that will allow a Grinnell representative to become involved in case Benjamin attempts suicide or overdoses on drugs and is taken to a hospital emergency room. Otherwise, due to confidentiality statutes, no one would ever know. When I was a student at Grinnell, I filled out an application form and received an acceptance letter. During the summer, I received a letter about my roommate. My parents were sent a bill. How things have changed.
Having jumped through these hoops, it was time for lunch in the new dining hall. I was warned about this place, knew they were going to build it, because the College president told us at an alumni gathering in Kansas City, even though a woman cried, "How will this change the look of the campus?" Her voice was muffled by cordial laughter and the clinking of wineglasses, and she faded away, lost in the candle glow that illumined the cheese ball and hors d'oeuvres on the darkened dining room table.
We stood in line and waited for a cashier to take our money. Students and parents carrying trays milled around the food islands, labeled with hanging signs: Pasta Bar, Pizza Parlor, Plat du Jour, Breads and Cereals. I startled as flames suddenly jumped up on my left, ensconcing the hamburgers on the grill. From a fiendishly glowing brick oven, a boy with a white chef hat delivers as much as he can; but there's not enough, and hungry people look mournfully at a sole surviving tiny slice of cheese pizza. The food islands open into a long rectangular room, with white paper Chinese lanterns suspended from the ceiling, and a wooden wall is indented with symmetrical square recessed windows squinting at us. I don't know this place, and I'm losing it. I'm losing Benjamin, I'm losing focus, and I'm not being reasonable. I know this, as I set my tray down on a chrome ledge and lift some familiar lettuce into a salad bowl, but I don't care.
"Bring a box of Kleenex, because you're going to cry yourself to sleep," a friend had told me, but even though I was warned, I still can't pull myself together, so that when an acquaintance we met at a party for prospective college first-years greets me, I counter her pleasant smile by blurting out some inappropriate comment like, "I really hate this dining hall."
We locate a seat, but have o go back for the ketchup, mustard, drinks, can't find anything. Benjamin's younger siblings are darting in and out, knocking over beverages. Benjamin is hostile, and honks some other comments about being independent. Things are at a standstill. I still can't let him go.
That afternoon, the parents sit in an auditorium, addressed on various topics by college officials. A woman asks what is being to prevent date rape, the same woman who publicly humiliated an august college official that morning because her daughter wasn't allowed to take a banana out of the dining hall. Date rape? It would never be my kid, lady, I think to myself. You don't have to worry about boys like Benjamin. But how could I communicate this to her, and would she understand, because isn't this a strange place, even if you graduated from here, where you drive up in the morning together as a family and drive home in the evening without your child?
After the lectures in the auditorium, the parents file out onto the lawn in front of the North Campus dormitories and see their children. See them, but at a distance. All the incoming students have been organized into groups and are playing some kind of game. They sit in huge circles on the grass, and then two will jump up, one chasing the other around the outside perimeter of the circle. A barefoot boy with long hair runs as fast as he can, but can't tag the student in front of him, who sits down, safe.
Isn't this game a little childish for them? I think to myself. Are they going along with it because this is the beginning of new student orientation, or does it resonate with them because they are still children? I scan for Benjamin, and having found him, sit down heavily on the stone bench in front of Cowles Hall.
I look at the other parents standing nearby who are also watching their children run through the grass, listening to their laughs and cheers. They are probably interesting people, but this is no time for conversation, because they are lost in their own thoughts far, far away. The woman wrapped in the sweater looks across the lawn and sees the adult child as a toddler, and perhaps is asking herself, Could his father and I have worked harder at staying together? The father sees a blooming girl. His facial expression reflects his pride, but his brow is also furrowed with worry. She has been his little girl up until this time, but now he will no longer be able to influence all of her choices, let alone the choices of new friends she has not even met. All of these parents, up until now so busy with carpooling, housework, wiping runny noses, and coaching soccer teams, suddenly have nothing to do but watch and wait.
After the games, the incoming students are herded toward the new dining hall because it's time for dinner. They walk in small groups, chattering with their new friends. They don't look back, and then they're gone.
On this May morning, I walk to Alumni Recitation hall where I will wait while Benjamin takes his last final. Pansies are planted behind Herrick Chapel, and fluorescent pink geraniums adorn Steiner. I pass the lawn in front of the Forum, where a wooden platform awaits graduation ceremonies scheduled the following Monday. I stare at the raised planks in horror. Benjamin's only a sophomore.
I know that one day he'll probably go to graduate school, get married, and perhaps make me a grandmother. He may even move far away. But now I'm taking him home, with the summer stretching before us. There will be some weekends in June and July when he'll sleep until noon under his comforter. I'll open the door and yell at him to get up. The room will smell like Benjamin, and he'll make some monotone sound from his bed. I'll tell him I need his help in the garden. He'll be my boy again, for a while.
Originally published as an online web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Fall 2008