Back in 2012, I was a newly declared English major in my second year at Central College. The novelty of college life had yet to wear off, but I was quite confident and comfortable in my role as “college student.” I loved almost everything about my life at the time.
Like many of my peers, I was busy. Classes and various music ensembles — A Cappella Choir, Chamber Singers and Combos (now ALMA) — filled my schedule. Any free time I had was dedicated to sleep and homework. So, I did what any stretched-thin college student would do: I unashamedly enrolled in a couple of classes I thought wouldn’t require much work from me.
One of those classes was Personal Essay with Keith Ratzlaff, emeritus professor of English. After all, I was an English major! Writing essays about myself? Easy. I still laugh at my naiveté.
Perhaps the class was easy for other students. For me, it was one of the hardest courses I ever completed — and that’s counting British Literature at 8 o’clock in the morning.
At first, the class seemed simple and easygoing. We sat in a circle, as English students are wont to do. We talked, we laughed, we got to know each other. The syllabus wasn’t filled with the dense reading assignments or complex literature analyses of my other classes. No, those things I expected. Those were familiar. Personal Essay was difficult for a surprising reason: the depth it required of me.
You see, Ratzlaff wasn’t satisfied with surface-level essays, nor should he have been. He encouraged us to think critically and with great self-awareness. We were asked to hold up a mirror, so to speak, and write about what we saw. In other words, not what I signed up for.
One such assignment was defining “home.” I thought the answer was obvious and submitted drafts centered on memories of my childhood, the house I lived in with my parents and sisters, even how my home grew to encompass Central. To my dismay, each draft came back with comments to try again, look harder, go deeper — even when I thought I had.
Eventually, after much hair pulling, I submitted my final draft. The essay defined “home” as more than a place, but rather a sense of peace and a form of contentedness. It explained that, perhaps, home can be several places and people all at once. It can follow you through any house you inhabit, friends you meet and family you love.
Memories of this essay have followed me as I graduated, married and moved away. My husband, Lucas Hamilton ’16, and I have rebuilt and redefined “home” many times over the years. Now, our home has grown to cover not just Central, but also Iowa, Ohio and Indiana. It includes people we’ve known for decades and those we’ve just met. It involves family trips to the library, endless episodes of “Paw Patrol” and too many loads of laundry.
These homes are never easy to leave. But I know, thanks to a class I thought would be simple and a professor who made me look more closely at that mirror, I can, in fact, take them with me wherever I go.