second chances at illini tower
Two years ago, I quietly moved out of the privately-owned residence hall where I spent my first few semesters at this university. I lived there first as a paying resident, and then as a Resident Advisor during the summer and fall of my sophomore year. In this time, I made many wonderful friendships and learned a great deal of positive life lessons. However, after a series of very negative experiences I had as an employee there, I decided to quit my job.
Shortly after, a student from the Daily Illini who had heard about the situation asked if I would be willing to sit down for an interview. I agreed, and the paper soon ran a piece on the story, which referenced a blog post I had written about the whole experience. It was deeply cathartic sharing what happened to me with so many people, people who understood and who offered me kindness and support. However, the day after the article ran, when my roommate stopped by Illini Tower to pick up his last paycheck, he was asked to deliver me a message: I was strictly banned from the building, never welcome to return. This news was especially difficult because of the close relationships I had come to foster with many of our residents – warm faces I still greet with care and enthusiasm whenever I run into them. With nothing but a swiftly-relayed threat, I was forever cut off from the community I helped create.
But two years later, I find myself in Illini Tower once again. I have been hired by the College of Business to work as a Resident Advisor for a month-long summer program where I am tasked with overseeing high school students of color who are interested in the business field. And it is weird. I’m in this tense, peculiar place right now, for instance, where I’m sitting ten feet from my old boss, writing a blog post about being an RA in a building I used to be an RA in where I’m still technically under a lifetime ban for writing a blog post about being an RA here. It’s all at once puzzling, painful, and incredibly surreal to try and articulate just how it feels to be back in an environment that was both so kind and so cruel to me.
I understand why it might be hard for people to believe this, but Illini Tower really is such a special home to me. This building will always stand in my memory as an odd, sacred sort of space, swollen with significant memories (both sad and sweet ones). Illini Tower is, after all, where I first developed a sense of friendship and community in college. It’s where I brought all of my family and friends when they came to visit. It’s where I met people from the Chicago suburbs and from Africa and India.
I will always remember Illini Tower as that place where, on our first night at school, my roommate and I decided to cook steak and Mako shark in our kitchen, inviting kids from all over the building to join our impromptu potluck. I remember it for being where I held sleepovers in the basement movie theater, where I first watched Game of Thrones, where I had dinner with the strangers I wanted to get to know. It’s where my Catholic missionary friend crashed while his apartment was being renovated and where my grandfather absolutely annihilated our bathroom when he came down to visit.
Illini Tower is where I evangelized. It’s where I developed friendships with some of the most gregarious people I’d ever met, by joining a group called Campus Crusade for Christ. It’s where I spent day after day knocking on doors, impressing upon people that they should become a part of Cru Christianity™. This building is where I hosted and participated in revival meetings and prayer sessions, where I started a blog to share my (thoughts on) faith, and where I and a couple other students started a weekly Illini Tower Bible study group that meets to this day. It’s where my eager, inflamed zeal for Christ surely burned plenty of bridges.
Illini Tower is where I laughed. It’s where my devoutly Muslim roommates and I spent each night finding strictly alcohol-free things to do (things that often got us into more trouble than boozing around would have). Illini Tower is where I successfully played “the floor is lava” from my bedroom all the way down to the building’s front entrance, where we filled an empty vodka bottle with water and guzzled it down in front of our RA, and where we locked each other in the bathroom at the most inconvenient times. It’s where we dragged our desks and chairs into the northwest elevator and hunched over physics textbooks, acting annoyed when people came in and interrupted our “studying.”
Illini Tower is where I played. It’s where we used County Market pineapples and kiwi and tomatoes to hold games of real-life Fruit Ninja. It’s where I chased my roommate through our floor lounge with a kitchen knife, breezing past bewildered neighbors as we sprinted along shirtless, slathered in Ketchup we pretended was blood. Illini Tower is where we pushed all the buttons on the elevators, where we abused Vaseline and whipped cream, Febreze and saran wrap, to interrupt each other’s studying with predictable pranks. It’s where I played lots of other things, including songs by The Fray, Coldplay, and Mumford & Sons with banjo, electric, and piano-proficient friends. It’s where I first made music with the girl I would one day fall in love with.
Oh, Illini Tower is where I loved. It’s where I felt a hard flittering in my gut as I fell asleep one night, where I told my roommate, softly, almost imperceptibly, …I think I like Tara*. It’s where I began my first relationship, where I had my first kiss, and where I used a Panda Express fortune cookie to facilitate my first breakup. This building is where I flinched and swiftly wounded someone who didn’t deserve my callousness, where I internalized feelings of shame and regret that have followed me for years. Illini Tower is where I first became enamored of C.S. Lewis, and where, for the very first time in my life, I fell in love hard and had my hard heart wrung and most definitely broken. It’s where I first told a girl I love you and actually meant it, and it’s where that girl couldn’t stop crying for hours afterwards.
Yeah, this place was never entirely rainbows and butterflies. Many memories bring nothing but pain.
For instance, Illini Tower is where, under orders from my “spiritual discipler,” I tricked people into attending an evangelism meeting under the guise of a free pizza party. It’s where my sense of discovery and excitement about God and the Bible was constantly stifled by a ministry leader who encouraged me to stop a) taking religious studies classes, b) participating in interfaith work, and c) attending mass at the Catholic church across the street. This place is where I stood outside on a balcony on the building’s sixteenth floor during the worst thunderstorm of the year, shouting at God, crying, pleading, asking him to just help me understand. It’s where I unintentionally started to become alienated from a holistic, authentic practice of the Christian faith, where the tiniest cracks in my perfect, carefully-constructed worldview first began to appear.
Both my spiritual and secular experiences here held their fair share of darkness. As a freshman, I saw friends swallowed up by the ugly underbelly of the glory-bound, fratty lifestyle that maintains a heavy foothold on this campus – eating disorders, alcoholism, emptiness, depression, (sex) addiction took their toll on too many. I myself only had the most minuscule taste of these afflictions’ consequences. Illini Tower is where I became unnecessarily hooked on energy drinks, where I sometimes missed classes for weeks at a time, and where I once didn’t wash my shower towel for so long that using it gave me open, running sores on my face.
Some time later, I was hired as an RA. And I loved it. While others chose “Mario Kart” or “Monsters Inc.” as their floor themes, I selected “Suffering on Floor Se7en,” happily spicing up my floor lounge with crafted skulls, pitchforks, and the flames of hell, designing eye-catching door decs that depicted each of the seven deadly sins. I performed standard paraprofessional duties – both busting parties and sharing those sacred RA words with students I cared about: “you can do this, I believe in you.”
But soon, Illini Tower became the place I spent late nights awake and worrying about my job, where I discreetly searched for apartments online, where I called my father trying my best to hide the shaking in my voice, “dad, I’m so sorry. I don’t think this RA thing is going to work out.”
A lot of other college things have happened since those days. I got an apartment, I met other friends, and fell out of love. I left Campus Crusade and found a new church home. I got another RA job, traveled internationally, and changed my major. I fell in love again.
But now I’m back in this old place, surrounded by these same spectral smells, sights, and sounds that first introduced me to college – the sharp pull of Freon in my nose when I enter a cooled room, the plush neon and blue novelty furniture, the musical way the elevators arrogantly ding and jump to a stop as they arrive. I’m back playing basement ping-pong with residents and eating crappy imitation-brand Frosted Flakes in the old dining hall and using the same dysfunctional electronic keys, in this place I thought I would never see again. It’s the strangest sensation – déjà vu on steroids – a nauseating sort of nostalgia that leaves my mental state lurching between past and present, spinning from soaring highs to sinking lows.
I feel like a reluctant zombie, in this strange process of rediscovering, stumbling through this vaguely familiar life. And I’m so grateful for the opportunity.
Because in the real world, we don’t ever have this luxury. Tragedies and trauma suddenly thrash against us and their violence changes the core of who we are. Assault, addiction, death, divorce, depression. We know that we can’t ever go back in time and somehow try to relive and avoid the awful things that brought irreversible destruction into our lives. It is fully impossible to return to who we used to be before whichever cataclysmic event stained our souls with marks of pain and darkness.
A friend recently told me how she spent this past year in the midst of her own natural disaster. It was a trying, catastrophic time for her, something I can’t even imagine going through. And what she told me was that after this trauma happened, after this thing that nearly killed her finally passed, there was nothing left of the person she used to be. Things had gotten so rough that she had to start from scratch, to learn day by day how to be her own self again.
I would do anything to give her the kind of chance it feels like I have now. An undeserved opportunity to relive history, to remake the past in my own image.
There are many times in my life that I’d love to return to, if only to try and handle things differently, better than I did before. My parents’ divorce. Custody battles over my little sister. Falling in love with an ice queen. The way I left Campus Crusade. But in the end, I get the sense that even the most ancient magic couldn’t have saved my parents’ marriage, kept my youngest sibling in my life, or saved me from heartbreak and social rejection. The past is eternally out of reach, forever creeping backwards into memory, into legend, into nothing.
All we have is this moment. We never get the second chances we deserve.