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Saturday, May 25, 2024
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Why did you stay?

Dear Prospective Student,

A few weeks ago, late at night, my friend texted me, “SOS — need to chat ASAP.” In the year and a half of knowing him, I had always seen the image he liked to project: his bright teeth twinkling, his laugh ruminating in the hallways and his wit dispensed mercilessly during heated games of Catan. But, I’d also seen the private underbelly: discontent, loneliness, uncertainty about the future and worried about his place.

A couple of thin fabric bracelets always cling to his arm with the abbreviation “WWJD?” Orange, maroon and pink bracelets were not meant to hide, they were there to make a statement. He hails from a Catholic suburb of Chicago. Getting into Notre Dame was the highlight of his parent’s life. He oozes intelligence, genuine curiosity for the world and, like any good Catholic boy, strong religious values.

That night, as he hopped in my car, I could see his deep brown eyes holding the weight of newly settled gray bags. With no destination, the long curving rides became our ritual of healing and exploration. The roads with no path in mind became our real world version of Catan — seeing all the neighborhoods we could connect and all the places we could go. 

The only part of the ride that was the same every time was discussing the gospel of exclusion. It’s what we had termed the theology, which some circles of Notre Dame choose to wield, circles he is often a part of and confronted with. He knows that I have wanted to transfer — many times — throughout my four years here. 

On this drive, he asked me, “Why did you stay at Notre Dame?”

At Notre Dame, I’ve confronted the god of the shag carpet. I’ve written extensively on the ways it makes me feel like I’m fighting for every inch of existence and the horror stories I’ve encountered. However, I haven’t as readily discussed what it looks like to survive.

My first run-in ever with what I call the God of the shag carpet was when I was seven years old. Every year, my mom, siblings and I would go camping; it was our way to escape from the world, to be in nature and in communion with each other. Finding little nooks where we would feel both held and free. 

We often construct God as one of the ceilings. An impossibly high ceiling through which we will never attain. A ceiling of perfect crown moldings, swooping arches and elaborate mosaics for which we can never live up to. A God that is a teacher running around with a moral yardstick telling us how short of salvation we are. 

About halfway through our expedition, my mom told me we needed to go to the bait shop, just us. From little worms to neon gummies, we found everything possible that could help us attract fish. Before we could leave the parking lot to go back to my siblings, she said she needed to talk to me. 

She held on tight to the black looney toons decorated steering wheel cover. She told me that my dad, Craig, had gone into our house earlier that week, stealing money and a car. Worst of all though, my other dad Paul, had the pee in the toilet tested, and it came back positive for drugs. He had already been to rehab multiple times, so I thought he was clean. My little brain wondered, “Why could I not be enough to keep him off drugs?”

I slipped to the floormat in the passenger seat and cried. My mother, right there held my hand as I unloaded every ounce of water in my body onto the thick carpet below.

When I’m on the floor it’s often when I find myself closest to God, caked in centuries of history, dirt and hidden treasures. God doesn’t expect more of us than who we are and he’s there to catch us when we fall. 

When I was ten, I broke one of my grandma’s statues while she was away from the house. Terrified she’d disown me, I found the bright magenta carpet to be calming. When I was twelve, I found my mom dead in our basement, stolen from my life, marking yet another tragedy in my really short life. Yet again, I found myself comforted by the thick carpet in our living room that held me close as police entered the house. 

It’s also been a place of hope for me. At fifteen, the thick white shag carpet of my first girlfriend’s home is where we shared our first kiss. At eighteen, when I got into college, I celebrated with my family and hugged my dogs into their dusty beds. It’s where I sit with friends as we plot out the future.

While some of my most poignant moments with the floor have been in times of despair or happiness, I don’t think it’s just isolated to those moments. I think that makes God superficial in the sense that where he’s only useful in times of joy or duress. I find God on the floor when I’m at peace, when I’m reading a book that gives me a new idea or when I’m so grateful for mere exsistence. 

Of course, I couldn’t explain all this while in the drive-through lane at McDonalds. So I simply told my friend, “The moments when I’m on the floor.”

It’s where I’ve counseled my friends in their biggest moments of despair, it’s where I have just lived parallel to others doing work and it’s where I’ve celebrated their biggest wins. It’s also where people have supported me when I have been at my worst. 

Nancy J. Walsh picked me up off the Student Government office floor when I thought the prospect of changing my major meant I was stupid. Fr. Joe Pedersen gave me a hug even though I’d pretty much soaked my light blue sweater in tears. Fr. Gerry Olinger was meeting me for coffee on the Corby’s porch. Lane Obringer made a notebook on the Lyons hall mail room floor while I stared at the ceiling.

Moving into college felt like summer camp. Move-in day practically running down the hallways with the giant dark red bins, cramming all my stuff into the room and meeting a random person who I would be living with. Everything was so new, and I felt so unbelievably green. 

Those activities were quickly followed by the new normal bonding activities. As a dorm sprinting around the lakes, maneuvering to a giant bonfire and screaming chants so loud that others could hear us in downtown South Bend. 

It was fun. It was great. It was also the thing I was most apprehensive about, in many ways, it felt like a fraternity, which was something I specifically was not looking for in a college. I knew deep in my heart I could never belong in a single-sex all-men’s dorm. There was no way the men would ever in a million years accept a queer man from Seattle.

I instead chose to throw myself into communities outside of my dorm: student government, The Observer, off-campus political organizing, student research and pretty much every other opportunity I could get my hands on. 

I spent every second, except for the seven hours I was sleeping, outside of my dorm. There was simply no way I could ever be myself in my dorm. This year, I decided I wanted to be a Resident Assistant (RA), in part because I was searching for that same grounded feeling that I found in so many of the mentors and friends I had enmeshed myself with, and I somewhat expected that maybe my freshman year thesis could be right. 

As an RA in my dorm, I’ve had my moments this year where I’ve come back from grad school interviews and had Fr. Drew Clary there to help pick me off the floor of my room. Or my Rector, Mike Davis, to help me rethink solutions to my current drama. Or other RAs there to pick up the slack. I’ve also had the greatest gift of getting to be there for my residents. When their girlfriend dumps them or they flunk a test. When their parents are being difficult, or they feel their life is so beyond unsettled. 

Through the past nine months, I’ve been proven utterly wrong. The men in my dorm have loved me not in spite of who I am, but they have wanted me to be me. That is the only thing they have wanted.

I have put myself in the crossfire, and for most people the difficulties of my experience would never happen to them. However, for those who try to push the University and it’s students, they can find a wicked and cruel underbelly. They also don’t need to make the same mistakes I did of assuming belonging or a lack thereof from the jump.

I truely don’t know if I would choose Notre Dame again. However, I know why I stayed. Some of my own predictions have been proven woefully wrong. Becoming an RA has been the biggest blessing ever. The guys have taught me how to love better. They don’t really give a shit about what I am; all they care about is that I’m there for them. 

We’ve hosted Republican debate watch parties, Republican elected officials, and local faith leaders in my dorm. I’ve had conversations with guys whose identities and ideologies could not be further from mine. However, in my little pocket, I’ve found folks that I care about so dearly it tickles my toes. 

Leaving the McDonald's drive-through and driving my friend back to campus, I elaborated. I stayed at Notre Dame because of the people around me who intimately knew the God of the shag carpet. A God who is always there. A conglomerate of friends and true family who have helped in the roughest of moments. A group of men who have taught me what it means to love better and to expect the best in others.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.