The class: digital photography for nonmajors.
The assignment: capture the mundane aspects of your life in an interesting or compelling way.
It's definitely a challenge, because as it turns out, there isn't much in my new life that's "mundane" by my own personal definition.
Even the "boring" parts about living in a big city are still pretty new -- and thus, interesting -- to me. Like taking the subway several times daily, for instance.
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Each morning (or, due to my unorthodox schedule, sometimes late afternoon or evening) I swipe my train pass and descend a few flights of stairs onto the platform, my iPod drowning out the sounds of traffic and street music with a soundtrack that matches my mood. Here, the most interesting people sit, stand, lean or pace, staring down one tunnel or another, waiting for the headlights in the distance to come to a screeching halt at their feet.
Once on the train, people continue to shuffle in and out of your life every minute as the train stops and starts every few blocks. Naturally, people are afraid to make eye contact, so each journey is filled with stolen glimpses and feigned indifference to the world around you. At rush hour, people are forced to enter one another's "personal bubbles," and that's when things really start to get interesting.
I'm a communications student and people person, and little things like this fascinate me.
Slowly, though, I'm getting used to this life. Each day, I'm amazed and thankful that after all the struggles, the transition into sophomore year has gone off without the slightest hitch.
Of course, being a transfer student allowed me a second shot at all the rituals I neglected last year. For example, my mom was able to help me load up my grandparents' van and move into school, a bonus I'm sure she enjoyed much more than I. She already had been busy for weeks since she had heard I'd have to cook for myself, soliciting donations for any and all kitchen appliances -- whether or not I'd ever actually use them -- from anyone unfortunate enough to cross her path.
Though I cringed slightly at the thought of her panhandling around her co-workers in the hopes of scoring her impoverished son a new electric can opener, she was surprisingly successful. She managed to finagle a full set of kitchen and bath towels, dishes, silverware, Tupperware, pots and pans and more coffee mugs than a non-coffee-drinker like me knew how to turn down. One of her friends even was kind enough to throw a TV at the cause.
Once we arrived in Chicago, we took the weekend to shop and unpack. My loft is in a newly refurbished complex that houses students from colleges all over the city. I live in a three-person loft, with my own bathroom and spacious bedroom, and though I have already lived here for three weeks, I have yet to meet a roommate. I know I have at least one, but we're already into our second week of classes and there's no sign of him.
He could arrive at any moment. Whenever I return from classes, I stop and listen at the door, hoping to get a least a few seconds of warning before the inevitably awkward introduction.
Meanwhile, my classes are keeping me entertained, if not too busy yet. Professors at Columbia are also working professionals, so they tend to show up a few minutes late looking sweaty and stressed, like they've just sprinted from the subway station. I have only one class a day, and each lasts at least three hours. This is great for homework purposes, but focusing on any subject (even the ones that fascinate me, like photography) is challenging.
I've been trying (though not too hard, and with varying degrees of success) to make friends here in the Windy City. I attend all the social functions of my building, though other residents seem to get more out of my presence than I do. Last week, I went downstairs for a game of bingo and sat at the table with all the Korean international students who attend the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Within the first few seconds, I learned three things. First, none of them knew how to play bingo. Second, only a few of them could manage even basic English. Most important, though, I could tell they liked the look of some of the prizes available to the winner and were willing to do what it took to score any of them.
They kept whispering at one another and staring at the prize table, then glaring around the room as if sizing up the competition. But me, they seemed to like. After a few failed attempts to learn their names, I managed to coach them through the rules of the game, using lots of hand gestures and sound effects. I even taught one of them, who said his name was Joey, how to say "toilet paper," as that was the prize that seemed to excite him the most.
By the end of the night, those guys had won literally every game, and Joey had scored his toilet paper. Sweet are the spoils of victory, it seems -- not that I would know.
Between all of this, I've still had a lot of time on my hands. I bought a cheap refurbished bike at a yard sale last week and I took a ride all the way along the lakeshore drive at sunset. I stopped at my favorite sandwich shop along the way and watched as tourists and locals alike basked in what was a perfect evening. Sitting there, watching the skyline's long shadows stretching out over the turquoise water of Lake Michigan, I remembered why Chicago always has been -- and I suspect always will be -- my favorite place in the world.
My new camera arrives in the mail today, but I'm not sure where I'll start. I guess I'll just keep my eyes open, take the side streets to class and never let myself forget how lucky I am.
After all, the world is full of beautiful things. The trick is slowing down enough to see them.
Davis High School graduate Thomas Pardee, a member of the Teens in the Newsroom journalism program, is a sophomore at Columbia College Chicago.