Baltimore, MD

Going Back to the Place That Made Me Who I Am

Ryan Fan
Blistering humidity, stifling heat, and random rain and thunderstorms that shake the Earth on a regular basis are not constants where I live. But they do exist in Atlanta, the city where I went to college and effectively the place that made me who I am.

This week, in the middle of a busy work week, I visited Atlanta. I visited some of the friends I haven’t seen in years after the pandemic and revisited the place I went to college. I went back to the campus where I had a lot of memories, good and bad. I went back to see the people who left a lasting imprint on my ability to move out of my shell and be an outspoken person who found my voice.

The ages of 18–22 are formative for anyone. I probably would have undergone a significant transformation or period of maturity either way. It was the first time I was away from my family for a long period of time, a period of life I was forced to forge my own identity independent from the collective. I was glad I could. A lot of my identity simply displaced to a new collective: my cross-country team.

But the fact remains I was my own person now. And I had to not only learn to advocate for myself but not withdraw and shut down when things did not go my way. My time in college made me who I am more than any other time of my life. I distinctly remember my senior year of college where I was shaken out of my comfort zone in one of the hardest ways I could possibly imagine — for the first time in my life, I was not well-liked and just a complete liability in many different scenarios.

The best thing about times of crises, if you can count this as a silver lining at all, is you start to learn who your friends for life are. I made plenty of those in my time in college. Atlanta was also the place I found my faith as a Christian. It was where I decided I wanted to be a teacher. It was where I truly started blossoming as a writer.

What I realize is it’s not about the place. It’s about the people. The people influenced me much more than the environment did, but all matter at the end of the day.

I sat in a friend’s car as we marveled at our old college campus. We saw what changed and what didn’t, and even in the two years I’ve been out of college, there seems to be a lot more construction. I saw some of my younger friends, many of whom still graduated, some of whom are still in school, who reminded me of the trivial aspects of school I used to care about, like grades and drama.

I realize this reads like a simple story when the reality of the lived experiences felt like anything but. Most of it was pretty messy, stories I’m reluctant to tell on the Internet.

I recalled a time when a friend and I were stranded on a busy road. We had a group of four people on the run, and he had rolled his ankle so badly he couldn’t walk anymore. The other two guys went back, and I stayed. We stayed for almost three hours on the side of a busy road. I tried to stop people at intersections, begging to use their phones so I could call for help while my friend limped around.

Maybe one out of 15 people rolled down their window, and the light was so short that that person couldn’t stop to help us anyway. Then, it started pouring, so we were wet, cold, and stranded. Our team had a bunch of white vans rented, and every time a white van drove by, we tried to wave it down, praying it was our coach. About 10 white vans drove by, and we had zero luck. Finally, one of them happened to be our coach.

That was a story where we ended up okay, that we laughed off. Despite attending a near-Ivy League University in Emory University, it’s not like people didn’t have problems.

Some of the darker stories include the friends who confided in me as they were in the hospital under suicide watch. I held in confidence the stories I heard while working for my school’s mental health hotline, from the times I just listened to someone about academic stress to the times we had to call in more direct interventions.

There were people in college that knew almost everything about me. And I can’t say the same for the real world outside that bubble because we spent more time together than not.

And I remember my own darkest moments as well. There was one day so bad, in December of my senior year, when I got some terrible news, where my personal life was in such turmoil and shambles I cut all my classes, laid in my room all day, panicking. I did nothing productive all day. I started drinking around 1 p.m., and my roommates came home a couple of hours later to see me have a breakdown where I started sobbing and complaining about how unfair the world was.

Yeah, it was certainly not my finest moment. Having four other guys try to cheer you up and comfort you while you’re drunk and crying is embarrassing no matter who you are. But it showed I wasn’t immune from those emotions and simply being a human being no matter how prideful I was or no matter how much I tried to display a stoic, unperturbed exterior.

Going back was a reminder to me that I moved past this time in my life, the good, bad, and the ugly. I went back to that same room I lived for two years and recalled that memory among many. Many of my friends showed me God’s gift of unconditional love in human form, and I hope I returned the favor. College was fun and a time of astronomical growth. I know a lot of people who still miss and cling to those years, and as much as I miss it, it’s over, and a large part of me is glad it’s over.

I don’t miss the place. But I was really glad to see the people again.

We all have places that made very lasting imprints on our identities. My current home in Baltimore is one I’ve been in for the past two years, where I’ve made my career and my mark as a teacher. It is my current home and place where I’ve transitioned from college into true adulthood.

But Atlanta feels like home more than anywhere else, even more than where I grew up in New York. I realize it’s the place I just felt the most, well, safe. This isn’t a knock on Baltimore or New York, but I just lived in these places at different phases of my life.

It was the group of people I felt the safest around, with who I suffered, toiled, and went from hell and back. I will always remember the times we went on 17 mile runs through rainy and wet trails. Last weekend, my friends and I tried to go on a 24 mile, extremely hilly run at Kennesaw Mountain. I only made it 18.5 miles, having to walk the way back and nearly passing out along the way. It was the most pain I’d felt in a long time in the Atlanta humidity and heat, but I relived a large portion of my time in college.

We all have a place where we felt safer than at any other time in our lives. For me, that’s Atlanta because my best friends who know me better than anyone else were there. Places are fixed. People are not.

So I am grateful to Atlanta. But I’m grateful to my friends from college even more, above all else.

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

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Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me:

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