It was summertime when I first visited our college town.
I was 18 years old, and I walked up the road behind the football stadium and sat on a bench in the flower garden. This isn’t right, I thought. No family. No friends. Some new classrooms, but so what? The feeling lingered like a bad cold.
Month to month, through my first fall into the spring. I chose this place, I thought. But I must have chosen wrong. Spring to fall to spring again. I’ve chosen this place, so I’m going to make it here, I thought. But this place is not my home. Fall to spring to fall. Each examination period was another chance to never again return to the place that I am now ready to bid farewell to because it is time, again, to leave what made me.
It’s my great-grandmother’s fault, I think. Fault, crack, earthquake.
She died before I was born, back home, in Texas, the other place that grew me up. Before that, she lived with her parents and read her schoolbooks on the ferryboat that shuttled her to and from the University of California each day.
The bridges would not be built for a decade. David Prescott Barrows was the campus president, not a building full of books. The Wheeler Oak still stood mighty and fine.
Even so, my great-grandmother’s time in California remains recognizable. She strolled through Sather Gate and sat under the Campanile, studying in a library that we have both called Doe.
1924 and 1925 and 1926 and 1927. Then it was time to get married, so she left three credits short of a degree — exactly 90 years and one semester before I am going to complete my own.
She kept a journal, but no one thought to keep it. I like to imagine, though, that she spent her years here the way that I am spending mine. Perhaps she studied speeches and poems and flowers in that same botanical garden, which opened the year before she never returned. Perhaps she also tried to be a collegiate athlete, got hurt, tried this and that and that until she found her people, a resting place at a typewriter in the basement of a building somewhere along Telegraph Avenue.
Maybe she wrote for The Daily Californian. It was there, in that crowded newsroom, that she first learned to scribble down both the ordinary and the emergencies with little fear or favor. Why did you write? I asked her before finishing my first newspaper piece.
No, she was gone before I could ever ask. But maybe the rest of the story is not untrue. Both the actual and the possible are real.
Married, then off to Los Angeles she went. My great-grandmother raised my grandmother, an only child like me. Then, when it was time, Grandma applied to the UC Berkeley, but as the story goes: Honey, it’s just too far. So, my grandmother graduated from UCLA, and then my grandfather stole her off to Texas, where she grew up my father and, later, me.
I was always supposed to attend the University of Texas, and I was supposed to stay at home and live a block away from my father because he lived a block away from my grandmother. But it was best not even to apply to that school in Texas. Felt more natural, somehow, returning to the California we had left behind.
It is strange wanting to belong somewhere that you’ve never been. Stranger to arrive and sit high above that place, watching it from the flower garden, and feeling that you do not fit. Strange — until belonging becomes becoming.
I sat in the flower garden with my head hung because I was fixated on what the University of California was not yet making me. I had not yet learned that the magic of this place is that it can give you new eyes with which to inspect the world — or, rather, that the magic is in learning how to refocus the eyes that you already have.
Now, I see. Eureka!
Fiat lux, my great-grandmother said, let there be light. Or maybe she did not say it, but they told her it was true all the same.
Fiat lux, let there be light.
This is the cause and consequence of my time here. It is the reason that I spend my time studying and writing and encouraging the written word.
Most of the men in the journalism class that I co-facilitate at the Solano state prison are writers. Their poems and journals and stories source their pride, but reporting facts is something new. Writing a representation of reality that endeavors to conform precisely to it is a difficult task. My job is not to teach them writing but to help them speak their realities.
You were supposed to forget about us, they say, but look, we are here. We have made our mistakes, and we have been locked away for them, and this is necessary, they write, but now you see us. You cannot look away because we are also human. We will not stay endarkened.
My other job, at San Quentin State Prison, is to edit the men’s newspaper work, but after we finish — after I walk through their yard and out the gates and drive home across the now-completed Richmond-San Rafael Bridge with the prison lights behind me — it feels like it is the men who have rewritten me.
It’s a strange thing to leave a place when others will always stay behind. Stranger still is to try to teach syntax and structure and learn patience and forgiveness in return. This is Berkeley’s great gift. This is, I think, what it means when my great-grandmother said let there be light.
She started at the University of California in 1924 so that it might expose some direction, a way forward through the dark. She never finished, but, even so, she found what I found, and now, in a few days, I will throw my cap skyward because she never had the chance.
At last, Berkeley remains my home.