I woke up late one night during my first year as a Resident Assistant to loud voices in the corridor. Laughter erupted from a group of students, followed by the harsh “Shush!” of someone who was hoping to not be caught. As I made my way to my door, I heard people scatter and the metal fire door leading to the stairwell slammed shut. I walked down the hall, blinking in the florescent lights, trying to make sense of what I saw.
Blue liquid dish soap covered the white-painted cinder block walls. Construction paper from my recently decorated bulletin board was torn down and scattered on the floor. The community trashcans from the restroom were emptied into the sinks and toilets.
I spent the next several hours cleaning the mess myself, charged with the energy of frustration. Before returning to my room, I hung signs in the bathroom that outlined the damages and explained that I chose to handle the mess rather than let the floor be billed for damages. The note ended with, “I hope it was worth it.” It was my 19-year-old passive aggressive attempt at imposing guilt.
Years later, one of my residents from that floor confessed to me that it was her sorority sisters and their boyfriends who vandalized the hallway after a night uptown. She assured me it wasn’t a personal affront to me or the job I did as a Resident Assistant. It was a spur of the moment decision to create a memory.
It was, she told me, one of the best nights of her college experience.
And it was during that conversation that I realized there is an opposite side to memory.
For every memory we hold in our minds and hearts, there is someone who knows a completely different version of that moment. More than ten years later, I tell that story to my staff when they are frustrated and exhausted by their residents’ behavior. What is an inconvenience to us as a staff may be a fond memory to someone else.
What the RA staff remembers as a shrieking duty phone at 3:00 a.m. for an after hours lockout may be the only kindness shown to that resident on that day. What student leaders remembers as a program that didn’t meet their own expectations may be the first time a student connected with someone else in the campus community. What the student staff remembers as their obligatory 30 minutes in my office during the week may be what I needed to refocus my energy back on them.
There are opposite sides to every memory, to every moment. While we don’t always get to know who holds them or what they look like, it can be enough to know that they are out there. I don’t use this approach to excuse student behavior; I use it to re-frame it in a way that makes sense for moving forward. I can laugh at more and hold on to less knowing that the moments that get to me may be the moments that changed a student’s entire experience.
I took pictures of the vandalism of my hallway that night in 1999. At the time, I thought they may be used for a conduct meeting. I mailed them, instead, to the woman who admitted responsibility to me years later. They were hers, really. It was her memory to hold on to.