By Melanie Datz Sirof (Engl’95)
Here’s a confession. I still wear my college sweatshirt. The one I picked out in 1992 at the beginning of my freshman year. The one I’m wearing while I stand in the sidelines in my MudFest pictures. The grey hoodie still splattered with the paint my roommate and I used to graffiti the walls of our Farrand Hall room. That sweatshirt. The sleeves are shredded, lettering cracked, drawstring missing — it shows every day of its 20 years, but I just can’t let it go. A trip to Boulder last summer reminds me why.
In 1992, before the internet made the world smaller, I came to Boulder, a site unseen. I was a freshman with a bad Long Island perm, wearing my gold block letter nameplate (until a sophomore tower-dweller, clearly born west of the Mississippi, asked “WHAT is THAT?”). I was making friends the only way a New Yorker knows how: by spewing sarcasm and chalking IDs. Only this was Boulder and instead of making you older so you could drink, everyone wanted to be 17 again so they could get their Vail ski passes at a student rate.
In August 2011, through happy circumstance, a bit of indulgence and a fantastically generous husband, I returned to Boulder with no agenda. I was flying in to visit a CU friend, Kirsten Compton (Engl’96) and planning to spend two days solo in Boulder before heading back home. I wanted to see my old college stomping grounds — the house on Goss Street I shared with a Calista Flockhart-look-alike and a Boulder High School football coach who predicted my marriage would last three years when I told him I was engaged. My place on Pleasant Street directly across from Sigma Nu, some of whose members ran Ralphie on game days. Farrand Hall. The UMC. I wanted to drive up Flagstaff Road and remember my first time looking out over the city. I had a lot to see and precious little time in which to see it.
And then fate stepped in.
Nearly 19 years to the day of my original pilgrimage to Boulder, Hurricane Irene was barreling up the Eastern Seaboard. At Kirsten’s house in Parker, Colo., I watched coverage on CNN as the newscast showed CGI imaging of the Lincoln Tunnel flooding over and isolating Manhattan. I should have felt panicked, frightened for my family and feeling guilty for the blue endless sky under which I was sitting. But Boulder gave me many gifts between 1992 and 1996 and one was the ability to enjoy the sweet meditation of flying solo — of being just me and the world. It gave me strength and independence. When I left Long Island and moved into the dorms, I recognized the opportunity to reinvent myself — starting with a blank slate and choosing my friends solely on who I believed I was and who I wanted to be — does not present itself often in a lifetime.
So when JetBlue Airways called and told me my Sunday red-eye home was cancelled and they could get me on a Wednesday noon flight, I was suddenly unleashed. A four-day weekend turned into a week’s vacation with no mouths to feed but mine, no schedule to maintain, no alarm clock to set — just me, my mountains and precious, precious time.
On Friday night I drove (you know it) on Hwy-36 from Denver to Boulder. As I dropped in on that final downhill to the first CU exits, I knew I was home again and the city rose to meet me.
At 9 a.m. on Saturday I woke, showered, dressed and packed my backpack (why oh why did I ever stop carrying a backpack?). I walked up Folsom to enter campus by the stadium and with the first look of the Flatirons, I was awestruck. Silent and still. I went to school there, saw those mountains every day and had the honor of being part of a place often voted one of the best places to live. It was not the last time I was caught breathless on the trip.
I crossed campus to the Bursar’s Office and Farrand Field, where I wished the band was playing, and then over to Farrand Hall, my home for two years. I come from a place where “country” wasn’t even a genre of music in the early ’90s. When someone asked back then, “What kind of music do you listen to?” and you answered “Everything,” that did not include country music. Yet in 1992 a Garth Brooks poster hung proudly in the dorm office and I’d heard some of the guys describe their night line dancing at the Grizzly Rose in Denver. Though I would never be mistaken for a student now, some things never change. The guy with the guitar was still sitting on the steps of Farrand making friends and fans. I wondered if he, too, would play in the basement like Nina Storey and Lost Generation did.
My 2011 campus tour included a conversation with one of the only two professors whose names I recalled, Bill McKinley. He was my first education professor who had us read How Porcupines Make Love. He put me on the path to educating today’s teenagers. His passion and honesty for his subject informs my teaching today. We talked shop, swapped professional titles and discussed the current state of education. When I was standing in his office, looking out over the Mary Rippon Theatre, I was struck by the sadness of leaving Boulder again.
I am someone who still talks about college unlike my husband who has never been back to visit his alma mater. I can feel the connection to CU more than most of my friends do to their schools — CU is in my blood. This place transformed me. Friends who came out to visit while I was there, stayed. My brother, a new college grad the year I started CU, took one look around campus and moved to an apartment on The Hill. There is a draw here. You can spot a Boulderite while she’s standing in the New York airport. She is carrying a backpack, wearing Tevas. She is quick to smile, strike up conversation and share her homemade trail mix.
I told my family when I chose Colorado as my home away from home, “If I can spend four years out West, even if I never go back, it will be enough.” Twenty years, a career, a husband and three kids later, I know I will never get enough of Colorado. I will always talk of my time there wistfully. I will always encourage my family, friends, strangers on the street and students as they open their college acceptance letters to go West, to spend time in Boulder and to never come back.
After graduating from CU with a creative writing degree, Melanie returned to New York, began teaching and married the man she met when she was 16. She is the mother of three elementary school-aged children. She is passionate about teaching English to freshmen and AP Literature at Mepham High School on Long Island, N.Y., and hopes to foster in her students a lifelong love of reading and an appreciation for the written word. Continuing her Boulder-born love for hiking, Melanie and her husband have hiked in Hawaii, Maine and Alaska. She looks forward to one day hiking in Chautauqua with her family.