May 12, 2003

Leaving the struggle behind

Christopher Richardson is a spring 2003 graduate of Emory College with a degree in political science and history.

After four years of torturous classes, sleepless nights and Waffle House runs, May 12 marks my exit from the Emory bubble into the real world of bills, 9 to 5 workdays and rush-hour traffic.

My fellow seniors seem so sad about the prospect of entering this world and transitioning away from college. We all realize, grimly, that there is nothing like college. My friends and I have grown from curious, shy freshmen to seniors at one of the finest institutions in the United States. Many of us have added new friends, lost other friends and grown in different ways. The people I’ve met, the experiences I’ve had and the joys this place has brought me mean that I will always be bonded to Emory University.

The reason I love Emory is far more personal and intimate than I’ve been willing to admit previously. Before college, I lived a fairly troubled life. Born to a low-income mother and abandoned by my father, I knew the harshness of life early on. My childhood was spent reading old books that had been donated to the Salvation Army and Goodwill by people not unlike many of my friends here at Emory. I escaped the world around me through reading history. Reading about the great presidents, kings and wars provided me with relief from what I viewed as a weary and sad existence.

My mom and stepdad are the hardest working people I know. They worked hard to provide a roof and food for my stepbrother, stepsister and me. I remember wearing old clothes, cheap shoes and skimpy jackets but never being ashamed.

To me, my tattered clothes and cheap shoes were symbols of our struggle. I was teased and harassed throughout my early schooling years by bullies who picked on me for “acting white,” “being too black,” “being too smart” or “being too poor.” Reading was my shelter from this bullying. While I had many friends, history books and encyclopedias were really my best friends.

Reading gave me a sense of struggle. I was the heroic warrior against a world of villains, cowards, traitors and weakness; classes, life and school were all struggles, in my mind. Of course I would be teased and called everything from a “dork” to a “nigger,” but in my mind I was exceptional.

At 15, I was diagnosed with bone cancer. Under the weight of cancer and chemotherapy, I gradually wore away. I was cast into a wheelchair. I lost the ability to speak. My nose would bleed for hours, and I would vomit every day.

When given five years to live, everyone in my family was in shock but me. Within my mind and world, it was just another test of wills that would strengthen my soul of steel. The only time I was sad or showed true emotion was when I lost friends to cancer. I saw them as fellow warriors killed by a vicious world. They were fellow fighters who understood the struggle. We were kindred spirits.

I defeated cancer and recovered fully, and I returned to school far more determined to win my life’s struggle. I doubled my concentration on my school work, fighting to reach higher levels of achievement. In my mind, the achievement of Christopher Richardson—and the failure of those around me—was my redemption. I reveled in the defeat of those who bullied me.

I smirked as many of them were carried off to jail, their lives sometimes ruined, as many dropped out of high school. In reality, they were victims of the same poverty I suffered, but at the time, I had no sympathy for them.

I fought, in essence, to prove the world wrong. I fought to prove the father who abandoned me wrong; I fought to prove cancer wrong; I fought to prove life wrong. This is why I accepted the pain of cancer so easily. This is why I barely flinched when given five years to live. This is why I brushed aside those who cried over me, because I felt they were not being strong enough.

This was how I saw the world before entering Emory. The main (and secret) reason I love this school so much is because it showed me that life doesn’t have to be that struggle. I don’t have to fight and struggle against any “forces” set out to destroy me. Emory helped heal me.

It healed me of the bitterness of my past and the sense of injustice inflicted upon my soul. It helped me come to terms with cancer and losing my right knee, but more importantly, gave me chances—not at awards or leadership, but at true friendships and true youth.

I lived my life before Emory like a serious and old man. I confronted a world that would make many adults cringe, thus I felt I had to fight poverty, cancer, death and all that opposed me like a “true” man. When others cried, I could not, because their tears were weak but I was strong, I told myself.

Emory gave me a chance to be young and relaxed and to move beyond the mentality of a struggle. No offense to all the great administrators of this University, but I probably won’t remember any of my meetings with you. I won’t remember my meetings with Brit Katz about the Student Bill of Housing Rights, but I will always remember Dr. Katz’s charm and personality. I won’t remember talking to Tara Frank and Paul Towne, the student activities advisors, about schedules or dates, but I will remember laughing with them about our lives or sharing my personal thoughts and emotions with them.

What I will remember are late-night runs to Waffle House with good friends before finishing an assignment due in a few hours. I will remember the friends I made within the Student Government Association (SGA) and College Council and all the fun we had at our meetings and outside of them. I will remember practically living on the fifth floor of the Dobbs Center with Meredith Honeycutt, SGA Vice President Jason Miller, Treasurer Dan Hauck and a slew of others.

I will remember laughing and debating professors. I will think fondly back on the “secret seven” and how much joy they gave me.

I will remember learning for fun. I will remember class assignments that shocked my senses, that made me happy and made me sad. I will remember living on the bottom floors of libraries writing my thesis about the horrendous subject of lynching. I did not write my thesis for the struggle, but for the want and will of learning.

I did not do my Kenneth Cole fellowship for the struggle, but for the want and will of the experience. I won’t remember the title of president or summa, but I will remember my most important titles: friend and buddy.

I will always be a friend of this University because it gave friends to me. Emory gave me a sense of peace and fellowship long absent from my soul. This is why I have no sadness about entering the real world, because Emory showed me that all things can be confronted with a little determination, but also a little love.