The Spirit of a Building

By Ben Herr

I have spent the last three years working as an adviser in a high school residence hall. As most of our students come from abroad, the culture that emerges in our dorm can be a beautiful disaster of cultures and traditions butting heads here and meshing there, of successes and failures in communication and understanding, and of independence and collaboration being sparked in both good and bad ways. As an advisor, I get a front row, interactive perspective on the daily occurrences, one that has given me more memories than I can ever hope to retain. But not until this year did I realize how strongly those memories have bonded with the building itself, and specific locations within the building.

See, our dorm is a 1954 antique. Despite the many charms and fascinations an old building brings, its list of maintenance problems and general decay finally tipped the scales of a financially conservative school toward choosing the benefits of constructing a new home. After a few years of fundraising, planning, and pushing back the timetables, we have finally moved into our new dorm. It was a happy day, but also, for some more than others, a sad one.

As the move crept closer, and became more and more of a reality, I began noticing how just about each spot in the old dorm carried a string of memories. For instance, sitting in the office chair, looking toward the door recalls images of students walking in and asking for a spare key after they locked themselves out of their rooms, notifying me that they were feeling sick and didn’t think they could go to school, or aimlessly meandering in and opening the refrigerator, hoping something had miraculously appeared since they checked 5 minutes ago.

The clusters of seating in the gathering area evoke the groups of students that gravitated toward each spot, although those memories aren’t always positive. One specific sofa reminds me of innumerable reminders about public displays of affection. Even moving through certain places in certain ways can bring back memories too insignificant to otherwise be remembered. I can walk around the corner onto my guy’s hallway and instantly see the sheepish grins of a number of students I discovered in the middle of mild, harmless forms of mischief.

I could give long and detailed lists of the significant found in each corner, each seat, and each hallway, but the real question is, what happens to those memories and those places once we leave? Do the memories slowly start to die away, unexercised by frequent presence? Do the memories simply sit there stagnant, like a pan of soapy water that had been expanding and frothing while being filled, but now sits motionless, with only a few bubbles clinging to the edges? What does it mean to collectively leave a place that was once home?

The answer was one that I only found when I first started to settle into the new dorm. I would look around the crisp, clean interior design, and while I saw the intrinsic beauty and practicality of the layout, I saw no significance in the corners, the seats, or the hallways.

At first, this made me sad. We were leaving a place that immersed us in a vibrancy of experiences, and were going to a place that, for all its warm, inviting design, had none of the same aspects of home. The chairs were just chairs, not the place your best friends sat when they were bored. The hallways were just hallways, not the place of dozens of brief, humorous interactions with friends. That corner didn’t often become a crammed epicenter of water heaters and Ramen preparation. Yet, despite not containing any significant memories, there was one thing I saw everywhere in the new dorm: Potential.

It has potential to become a home, a student’s home, our home. The semicircular seating area didn’t mean anything to me right now, but it would in a few weeks, or perhaps, months. The dorm has the potential to adapt memories from the old building. Students might be playing Monopoly at a different table now, but they’re still playing Monopoly, and that will still carry all of the memories of sudden outcries of jubilance or frustration. But mostly, the dorm has the potential to create new memories and experiences that weren’t convenient, or even possible, in the old dorm. Some locations allow activities to make do, but others allow them to flourish. In this case, the potential is more than a maybe. These things will happen. It just remains to be seen how, where, and when.

Still, it is hard to know how to leave a place that has become special in one way or another. We don’t want to forget the past, nor do we want to dwell in it and be held back from seeing and grasping the new potential we now have. How do we best remember the past?

Since the move, I’ve been back to the old dorm a handful of times, either retrieving forgotten items, or spending time in a quieter place. Already, it has changed. It feels like the polish has been scraped off, leaving a bare resemblance of what it used to be. I see the same places, but the memories don’t come quite so easily.

At first thought, it feels like the old dorm, and many memories with it, is dying. In some ways, it is. As it loses the same look it had before, the memories it triggers are less vivid and frequent. However, I then realize what made it alive in the first place. The building never made the dorm what it had become. It was those who lived in it, present and past, and created memories with me, or came back to visit and told stories from their time.

When I remember this, it feels a lot less like we are losing memories and history when we move, because the people are still here. Switching dorm buildings isn’t an end, it is a continuation. When the people that made a place special aren’t leaving, the moments with them that are so strongly tied in my memory to the places that they happened can be extracted and carried on elsewhere.

The old dorm will stand as a shrine to times past, and hold with it a set of memories lost in the shuffle to the new building, but the essence of what it was and why it was great has moved on and continued.