It’s about 5 p.m. on a Tuesday in August, and I am sitting in a big, empty, dim room. Medieval-looking chandeliers hang above my head. Stationed around me at a long, rectangular table are other first-year Swarthmore students in my social justice pre-orientation program, all with varying levels of the same nervous, dazed feeling of being somewhere totally unfamiliar. I am too busy worrying (about whether or not I will be able to figure out how to unlock my door after dinner, about where I am meant to put my plate when I finish eating, about ever finding my way around this campus) to taste the pasta and marinara sauce on my plate. I am too busy worrying about the pasta and marinara sauce on my plate to realize that I am sitting next to and across from (respectively) two people who will become two of my closest friends.
That week I eat nectarines in Sharples and granola bars in my room. I discover that breakfast is the quietest time of day to be in the dining hall.
One week later. I am standing in the last stall of the women’s bathroom in Sharples having a panic attack. I have just finished eating a meal with my hallmates — an encouraged, if not obligatory, part of orientation week. I don’t know if I can do this for four years.
Skip to early November. It’s past 11 p.m. when two of my friends and I get out of an Uber by the rose garden. We have just been to a concert in Philadelphia. I did not know the band, but I knew I wanted to be friends with the girl next to me who did, that I wanted to share this experience with her. We are high on post-concert adrenaline and we are hungry. We half-walk, half-run to Sharples and order milkshakes from Crumb Cafe (mine: vanilla ice cream with strawberry syrup and chocolate chips). We sit in the middle room, drinking our milkshakes and exchanging music recommendations, until after midnight. The students who work at the cafe have to ask us to leave.
It is a Saturday in early December, and I have my first college final on Sunday morning. My parents are on their way to an annual Christmas party. I feel more homesick than I ever have before. All I want to do is go home. But in the evening, I meet my friends at Sharples. We eat and commiserate. Things feel just a little bit more manageable again.
I finish my last final on Wednesday morning, and I meet my friends in the dining hall for lunch before my dad comes to pick me up. I eat an Asian pear. I say goodbye, but just for a couple of months.
It is the first Saturday back after Winter break, and I have spent most of the day in the DK second lounge, doing homework with my friends who live on the hall. We make plans to go hiking in May, when it is warm out. In the evening we walk to Sharples. I eat paella and corn pudding and we laugh together.
It is a Wednesday, and I get dinner with two friends (the same two friends who had attended the concert with me just a few months earlier) before our evening class in Singer. We never leave Sharples soon enough to get to the class on time.
It is a Sunday, and I am eating oatmeal for the first time in my life with my DK friends. I like it (the oatmeal and the moment).
I go to the dining hall every day for breakfast. I go on Tuesdays and Thursdays for lunch. I bring Ensure nutrition shakes with me to stay alive.
It is the first week of March, and I have a physics midterm at 7 p.m.. It is tostada bar, but I eat tofu and rice. I worry about my exam. I leave Sharples quickly. I go home for Spring break later that night. I don’t come back until September.
It is September, and I am a sophomore. I have online classes and a room to myself on the same hall as my friends. Every day we go to Sharples together to get our takeout dinners. We sit on the Magill walk stairs or the Old Tarble stairs, and we eat dinner in the warm late summer and the cooling early autumn. We watch the sun descend over Sharples day after day after day.
A year later, and it is a Saturday in October. I am wearing a costume and I am being followed by my friend, who is intently pointing her phone camera at me. I find my Screw date, and we eat fake Indian bar and talk about education and burnout and what it’s like to figure out who you are.
I learn how to feel okay eating dinner by myself.
It is April, and I am in the middle room of Sharples eating ramen with someone who will hold my hand when we watch Lord of the Rings. He will go back for seconds. He will only ever know this dining hall in connection to me. Later that night, I go back to the dining hall to meet my friends at Crumb. I drink a berry smoothie and read poetry for my English class and laugh until I cannot breathe.
It is Sunday again, but now I am a senior. I sit at a circle table by the windows in the big room of Sharples, and I talk with others at the table about peanut butter and poverty and what the future might hold. I try my first cup of coffee (decaf), and I hate to admit that I like it. I go back to get more food. I am learning how to take care of my body.
It is a Thursday, and I have to leave for wind ensemble rehearsal soon. I have finished my Indian bar rice and samosas. I ask my friends if we can take a picture. It’s the last time I will eat in this dining hall. I sit at a circle table in the big room, with my back to the stone wall. If I look straight ahead, I can see the table where I sat that first night, eating pasta at a bizarrely early hour in the afternoon, wondering and worrying about what would come next. As I walk out, I feel like I am leaving part of myself behind. I don’t know how to say goodbye. I just leave.
In the grand scheme of things, it seems silly for me to mourn the loss of an old, dark dining hall built for a student population only half the size of our current enrollment. I am not here to romanticize Sharples; after all, approximately 73% of the conversations I have had on this campus involved some kind of complaint about the establishment. I am not here to say that things should not change or that change cannot be good. What I am trying to say is simply this: the places we inhabit have a profound effect on our lives. Sharples is connected to so many memories for me — good, bad, strange, mundane, beautiful memories. It was where I got to know my first and closest friends at Swarthmore. It was where I learned the two-body problem for my analytical dynamics class. It was where I ate my first pear. It was where I went on good days, bad days, normal days, and strange days, for more than three years of my life. And when I think about all of the moments, all of the memories that have become entangled with the building, I cannot blame myself for feeling a loss at its closure.
This is my small tribute to Sharples dining hall. For all of its strengths and all of its flaws, it has shaped my college experience, and I will miss it. So here, for the last time:
Goodbye small tables in the quiet room
Goodbye window circle tables in the big room
Goodbye salad bar
Goodbye tiny fridge in the salad bar where I got my vegan cream cheese
Goodbye weird buckets of water for dirty utensils
Goodbye conveyor belt toaster that semi-regularly caught on fire
Goodbye medieval chandeliers
Goodbye bench by the sink and the small army of lost water bottles that lived there
Goodbye colorful plates and bowls
Goodbye tray with the Dumbledore quote on it
Goodbye traditions and routines we had built in these spaces, with these things