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Out of the box: A personal essay

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NOVEMBER 16, 2018

Accompanying the crowd of overly enthusiastic freshmen, I entered the glass doors of Moffitt Library. “Dude, the one opposite? Oh, that’s the Hogwarts Library. This one’s more like the Google Library.”

These words resulted in a chuckle that gradually spread across my entire Golden Bear Orientation group. The laughter was as short-lived as the joke itself, quickly shushed by a stern student. Clearly we were a quiet bunch, so the natural progression for us was to head to the elevator, go up and explore the quiet floor.

A great idea from 10 of the brightest minds of the class of 2022. When the elevator doors finally opened, we rushed in. Well, almost all of us. One guy was stopped right as the elevator doors began to shut behind a previous occupant, who pushed him out, saying, “I’m sorry, there’s just no place.”

By all means, a valid reason. Logical. Rational. But correct? Seeing it happen in front of me took me back. Back to a different time. Yet one that I couldn’t get out of my mind for the rest of the day.

Flashback in fancy italics

I waited, grasping the straps of my school bag with my chubby fingers. I let go momentarily to pull the elastic on my pants. Breakfast had been particularly filling that morning.

Then it came. From the window of my 21st-floor apartment, I watched it enter the gates of my building. I could make out outlines within it. Some laughing, others yelling, but the second my gaze lingered, they all stopped in their tracks and turned their eyes upward. The school bus was here. I’d been spotted.

The thoughts crashing in my head were quickly silenced by the familiar ding of the elevator reaching my floor. I hesitated to step in, knowing very well what awaited me below. The constant mocking, the incessant jeering. Today’s topic of conversation was sure to be my bloated belly. Regret filled me. That extra bowl of cereal was a mistake.

In that moment of hesitation, seconds before the elevator doors shut, I felt a hand pull me in. Mama, as everyone in the building affectionately called him, sat in his chair next to the panel of buttons. Noticing my sullen face, he took out a toffee from the breast pocket of his uniform and placed it in my hand. I cracked a smile. Maybe eating wasn’t so bad after all.

Mama was the building liftman. His job involved sitting for hours on end within the lift, pressing the floor buttons for the day’s commuters. He was an old man, probably pushing 70, but he hid his age behind his bright red hair and youthful energy. Every morning, as I entered the lift, fearing the ride to school, he’d spread some of his contagious spirit to me. And every evening, once the ride back home had successfully drained me, he’d reinstill it with his humor and glowing smile.

One day in particular stands out in my memory. It was a particularly busy one. The lift was so full that Mama himself had abandoned his trusted stool and was standing squeezed in the corner. I stood in the center, squashed between people, desperate for the doors to close. The memories of the day’s events haunted my mind. I didn’t know what hurt more: the cut on my knee from when two of the neighborhood boys had shoved me down during a game of football or them justifying their actions by saying, “There’s only room for one ball on this field.”

Imagine my rage when Mama held the doors open for the lady outside with the overflowing shopping bags. Much like the groceries, my anger spilled.

“There’s no space — she can get the next one!”

As everyone stood in silence, I saw mama grab the bags, move them into the lift, step out of the elevator, and offer the lady his space. His next words stuck with me.

“Kid, it’s not about having space. No one ever has space. It’s about making space.”

That was the last time I saw Mama. Some say he quit his job, others said he’d fallen ill — I still don’t know. That was nine years ago.

Today, my bullies are no longer from the playground. Instead, I am challenged daily by a world where it is popular to hate. A world where people define themselves in opposition to others. A world where people with different ideas are segregated and put into labeled categories, designed to never mix with one another.

At times, I too find myself falling into these patterns. And that’s because judgment is easy. It’s easy for me to distance myself from those who disagree with me rather than find a path of compromise. It’s easy to let my emotions and circumstances harden me and look away from the problems of others around me. Mama’s words remind me to do what’s hard.

So I guess this is my way of saying thank you. Thank you from the glass halls of Moffitt, halfway across the world from where I first learned this lesson. Thank you to the man who spent his days sitting in a 9-by-9-meter metal box, for teaching me about the value of space.

Contact Arth Vidyarthi at [email protected].

NOVEMBER 16, 2018