Stroke by Stroke

Trying to write this reflection reminds me very much of a passage I once wrote about a computer cursor. I described the accusatory blinking line because it was all I could think of. The problem now, however, is not that I can’t think of anything to write, but that I think of too much. In less than a single year, Andover has defined itself to me in many ways. The only single word that can encompass all that it has come to mean to me is “everything.” I came here and every expectation I had was either firmly contradicted or easily surpassed.

About a year ago today, I thought I had boarding school life down to a science. Halfhearted research into schools that all seemed the same brought me to some seemingly solid conclusions. No number of differences that my mother painstaking sought out could change my mind that the prep school formula boiled down to academic rigor and extensive extra-curriculars. Play a sport and an instrument, work hard. That was all there was to it. Of course there were the frilly side-attractions like diversity to which I was certain I owed some thanks for my acceptance, and intellectual discussion to which I was certain I’d find a way to contribute. All of those, however, just served as wrapping paper and a bow on the gift that Andover, like any prep school, would give to me: a gateway to college.

Now, every minute that ticks by reconfirms my conviction that I was wrong. I was wrong that Andover was simply a gateway to college like any other. A gateway to college couldn’t inspire enough perseverance in me to stay up with a cup of coffee for company. I was also wrong that I had it down to a science. The fact that I’m starting Monday awake and desperately hoping to be asleep when the sun rises is proof that I don’t have it down to a science quite yet. Kudos to my best friend for a good cup of coffee though. She knows what she’s doing.

Sometimes telling a story involves starting at the end. For the past two weeks, I have convinced myself not to give up on anything by repeating to myself that “It’s all just a five minute piece.” Even now, an hour into writing this, I have thoroughly convinced myself that it is a five-minute piece. And I can do anything for five minutes. The five-minute piece has come to symbolize a lot for me this term because for some reason, I ended up doing crew. Before coming to Andover, however, I had never even heard of crew.

As an outsider, I looked upon the crew “cult” with confusion and a mix of disdain and admiration. Their hands were blistered and they complained about the weather and their afternoons disappeared stroke by stroke. Yet, everyday, without fail, with eyes full of excitement (like damn chattering monkeys), they discussed crew. They dissected their strokes, analyzed the boats and told inside jokes. Such dedication, I revered. Such passion, I marveled. Such stupidity, I concluded and moved on with my life.

Finally, at the end of winter term, the time came to choose a spring sport. I had been erging for about a week because a friend encouraged me to try it, but I was still determined to take a LIFE sport, because God forbid I lose my free Wednesday afternoons. Somehow, the deadline was upon me and I had not made a decision. Naturally, I walk into the common room of Alumni House, dramatically declare my woe and wait for suggestions. Lo and behold, three girls from the dorm planned to do crew. Then suddenly, in a moment that I predicted regretting before it even happened, the number rose to four.

Preseason passed and I could not generate love for erging, or PENN drills. I did find myself experiencing a whole new type of admiration for the girls around me, though. I returned from Spring break to get out onto the water, something that the experienced rowers told me would be thrilling and satisfying. Within one week, I felt myself turning into the rowers that had so perplexed me in the fall, though not as good with an oar.

Every Monday, five minutes on the erg cast a shadow overthe entire day. Every second leading up to it vibrated with an electric nervousness powered by the need to improve. Every breath I took brought me closer to that preciously terrifying five minute window in which I could prove that I was working. Then, when those five minutes were upon me, my heart raced and dear God, I thought I would end before it began. Words of encouragement yelled over my head and over those around me sank into my mind and are imprinted far deeper than a weekly five minute piece.

“Do not let up! Do not take the easy stroke!” “I know you can pull harder!” “Think of your team!” My personal favorite, hands down was, “You can do anything for five minutes.”

Every week, every term, every school year is just a series of five minutes. Andover told me that I can do anything for five minutes, and it definitely doesn’t always feel that way, but I believe that. Last year at this time, I was a Varsity couch potato, content to hike to the fridge and back. Now, I’m breathlessly rushing to the gym after seventh period to get onto the bus to the Merrimack because Andover teaches that you can do anything for five minutes, so you can do anything at all.

The empty coffee mug now seems almost symbolic. Symbolic of what, I cannot yet say. In this moment, the coffee cup represents long nights, good friends, music and debate. The entire world, which at the moment seems to shares lines with the “Andover Bubble,” is in that coffee cup.

Reaching this far has made me realize that I am still faced with my initial problem. If my fingers stop tapping, a lack of inspiration cannot be blamed. I could write about staying up to do homework, glancing in panic at darkened window and realizing that I’m not actually as efficient as I thought myself to be. I could write about trying in vain to do homework on a Sunday morning while on the bus to a debate that would excite and terrify at the same time. I could also describe the feeling of exploring my notions of race so that I could be a useful contributor in ongoing discussions. With the same care taken to give the story of how I fell in love with crew, I could tell the story of an old woman at my Community Service who demanded that I accept a quarter almost every week for helping her with Bingo. I could frame one or many of the friendships I’ve formed here over impossible math, instructional swimming, sixth lunch or anything else that seems fair game for bonding.

Still, “everything” is harder to describe with a list than with a feeling. Thus, I will refrain from telling 50 little stories that converge into a complex big one. Rather, I will liken Andover to being caught in a whirlwind of frantic activity with precious moments of stillness dropped in between, just long enough to let a student breathe. Andover is the light hearted happiness that comes with accomplishment, and enrichment, just as much as the exhaustion that comes from giving 112 percent of your effort. Andover is finding the sport that can make you work until it hurts, doing the subjects that keep you thinking, joining the clubs that feed your passions, making friends that you can’t imagine life without. I haven’t completely explored all the possibilities at Andover, but I have two more years to delve deeper into this conglomerate of everything.

_Alex-Maree Roberts is a new Lower from Roseau, Dominica._