Spring semester, 1990. Ithaca, NY.
Surviving a semester at Cornell academically is daunting enough. When you add to a normal student’s stress level the pain and hassle of a winter in Ithaca, the internal gray is only matched by the colorless sky that statically hangs over the campus for months at a time.
But every now and then, the fickle weather patterns of upstate New York bring a gift.
The gift doesn’t arrive the same time each year, but if you wait long enough, arrive it does. My last semester on campus was grueling. I was pretty burned out having suffered through countless sleep-inducing engineering class lectures and homework assignments. Study sessions in the libraries were monotonous, relieved only by the stolen glances at attractive female coeds who were no doubt not partaking in the engineering curriculum. It’s no real surprise then when I tell you I took an elective in the Hotel Administration School that semester just for sight seeing purposes.
The January to May stretch of a graduating senior can go one of two ways. Either you’ve locked up a job after graduation or you haven’t. I had all my rejection letters stapled to my bedroom door, a small reminder that I had at least tried. There wasn’t much time left and I had few remaining options. I made no effort to excel those last few months, and I deservedly earned my lowest GPA of my academic career. I didn’t care though. My spirits were as barren as the weather was.
One day though, it turned around. Earlier in the week, I received a phone call from a recruiter at my current company. Even though I had already received a rejection letter, I was apparently on the list of alternates and at least one person had turned down their offer. I took the job on the spot. Beggars can’t be choosers. Coincidentally, it was the last week of classes; but it was also the first real day of spring-like weather.
The last day of classes at Cornell is traditionally known as Slope Day. Years before I was a student, it used to be an official school-sponsored gathering. Bands, food, drinks, and everything in between would get together on the campus’ largest grassy slope behind its largest library. Skipping class that day was the norm. Even the surliest of teachers would know to give any important details about the final exams on the day before Slope Day, smartly anticipating reduced attendance for the last lecture.
For my last Slope Day, there would be no bands, no music, and no organized efforts. The University was forced to break any official ties to the day and assume a business as usual approach. I never knew the official reason, but in 1990, it didn’t matter.
While Slope Day became unofficial, it was still celebrated. With the first real gorgeous day developing around us, my core group of friends and I made our way up to campus from our apartment, intent to party like never before. We gathered up every remaining bottle of alcohol left that we could find, pouring its contents into a plastic-bag-lined trash can filled with fruit punch. You name it; it was in there. Surprisingly, and almost necessarily, nobody could taste the alcohol in our concoction.
While many of that day’s cathartic details are lost forever, one small piece is still locked in my subconscious, reappearing every now and then at the most surprising of times.
When I walked out of my building today at lunchtime, it caught me. The temperature was right. The sky, it seemed, had just the right pattern of clouds. A barely imperceptible wind whispered of it. But it was there when I finally inhaled deeply, filling my lungs with the crisp Carolina air. The scent. The subtle aroma of the outside air was exactly the same. Locked somewhere inside my mind, memories of my last Slope Day came rushing back. It was like a rush of water cleaning away a layer of dirt, leaving you crisp and clean. And pure.