It was springtime, and my junior high band, from D.R. Gaul Middle School in Union, Maine, was having a concert at a school an hour away in Waterville, Maine. I don’t remember much of the concert except that it was in a dimly-lit gym.
On the ride home, the bus driver got lost. “We’re just taking a different route!” my conductor said, and by his tone I knew that we’d taken a wrong turn. The other students perked up, looked at each other, and started whispering excitedly. I settled into my seat, with my knees on the one in front of me, and stared out the window. It was a sunny day, and I liked being lost; it was freeing.
The road skirted Colby College, and I remember—very clearly—the green lawns and feeling of openness. Colby is known for its hillocks: mounds of grass-covered earth that resemble steps. Maybe the other students on the bus ohhh-ed at the hillocks leading up to the library—because that area is often photographed and used on postcards, catalogues, and calendars, and this would have been the first time most of us had ever seen Colby—but I don’t specifically remember that part of campus. What I remember, even after more than ten years, is passing what I would later learn were Mary Low and Foss dorms and seeing a student, blonde, barefoot, in a long pink dress, walking down a set of stairs, toward the road. There are hillocks here, too, and people played Frisbee on them. A man strummed his guitar, and a group nearby kicked up a hacky sack.
The scene entered my palette of ideals, and, even before I learned more about its academics, Colby became my “dream school.” About four years after that bus trip, when I was a senior in high school, my mother watched as I opened an envelope from Colby. I burst into tears.
“It’s OK, Erin. It doesn’t matter,” my mother said. “There are other schools.”
But I was crying because I’d been accepted.
For three of my years at Colby, I lived in one of the dorms my band bus had passed: Mary Low. And, nearly every day, I walked down the steps that I’d momentarily seen the girl in the pink dress step down.
Starting sophomore year and continuing until I graduated, I also worked at an elementary school in Waterville called the George J. Mitchell School. In Sherril Saulter’s second-grade classroom, I helped teach small groups of children, usually with reading or spelling. George Mitchell is originally from Waterville, and, although I’d heard his name before, I’d never given him much thought. I wouldn’t learn about the George J. Mitchell scholarship until later.
Maybe it was because of the name of the elementary school that I paused when I saw one of George Mitchell’s quotes online. It happened when I was at Colby, and I don’t remember where I saw it, but it struck me. I wrote it down in a little black notebook in which I stored interesting sayings, and, like the image of the girl walking down the steps, his words stayed in my head: “Real fulfillment in your life will come not from leisure, nor from idleness, nor from self-indulgence, but rather from striving with all your physical and spiritual might for a worthwhile objective.”
Before and after receiving this incredible scholarship, I gradually learned more about George Mitchell and his impact on local Maine and people close to me. I learned that he once attended a steak and bean dinner in my hometown of Washington (population 1,300). I learned he was familiar with one of my neighbors, who once ran for state legislature. When I tell people in Maine about the scholarship, they unfailingly respond with something upbeat, such as: “I’ve always admired how George Mitchell worked for peace in Northern Ireland,” “Some senator, huh?” or, “If anyone can bring peace in the Middle East, it’s George.”
So, in February, it was an honor to meet George Mitchell with the other Mitchell scholars. I was thrilled to hear his slight Maine accent. We discussed his role in the Middle East, the peace process in Northern Ireland, and his background growing up in Maine, and I learned—of all things—that he did yard work at Colby for a summer after he graduated from Bowdoin College and that he had helped construct those hillocks by Mary Low and Foss dorms.
I thought of how appropriate it was for this leader to have built such a base and structure out of dirt, to have had a hand in the labor, to have created something that lasted and became a part of the campus’s identity, and which was, essentially, a gathering place. It seems he’s spent his life doing this—shaping the earth.
It’s appropriate, too, how something as simple as constructing a lawn aligned itself with my education and future. It reminds me that what we do affects others and that we never know when, perhaps unconsciously or unintentionally, we might alter other people’s visions of the world and themselves in it. Sometimes, as well, it’s good to be lost because it opens up avenues that were previously impossible.