Breathing the Same Air

As I write, this whole campus is exhaling—spring break has arrived. In a week’s time, the steady pace of spring semester will resume… breathe in, breathe out, feel the flow, before huffing and puffing through final presentations and exams.

John Syme and Buster on campus

John Syme ’85 and Buster

As a student, I was viscerally aware of this communal respiration. As a campus reporter, I sense it more consciously, too. I see it in the way people here still stop in serendipitous greeting and conversation on the brick sidewalks, in addition to the more structured and scheduled conversations of academics and activities.

There is indeed something uniquely “liberating” and even “artistic” about breathing the same air on this small, residential, liberal arts college campus. It’s why most students respond to my interview questions about how they decided on Davidson with some version of, “When I visited campus, I just knew.”

In the beginning, a semester inflates as easily as filling a balloon, bigger and bigger with moments sublimeand intervals hilarious.

Then the balloon stops getting so much bigger, but keeps getting tighter and tighter. Exams loom.

Finally, Reading Day’s ritual “midnight scream” sends the balloon flapping and blabbering around the tree canopy for one extremely caffeinated week before it drops, spent, on an empty sidewalk.

Then in the space between semesters, there is a different kind of breathing room, for faculty and staff to pause and chat, leaning in office doorways a tad longer than necessary.

In this roomier span of December time, I recall that my grandfather once offered some perspective to my frenetic student self by citing Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life”:

“Let us then be up and doing
With a heart for any fate,
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.”

It’s the pausing on the sidewalk — “and to wait” — that undergirds the rest of it. I know that now. Thanks, Pa-Paw.

In the 1950s, Davidson students were officially required to greet upperclassmen in a precisely prescribed manner as they passed on the sidewalk. It is a comically quaint and even freighted custom in today’s view, yet one that carried in its baggage the finest intentions and expectation: actively shared civility.

In more recent times, an expected look-in-the-eye and nod, word or wave of greeting came to represent this civility of shared humanity. Even under assault from smart-phone culture, I hope we won’t lose that.

I do know that the finest intentions and expectations remain on this campus toward the civility of an actively shared humanity.

So long may we wave, pausing now and then just to chat and breathe the same air, in real time and space.


About Author

John Syme '85

Senior Writer John Syme graduated from Davidson with a French degree in 1985. After gigs in newspaper, advertising, translation in France and cross-country travel writing in the United States, he returned to alma mater in 2001. He has no immediate plans to graduate again.

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