When Whitman was my playground

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Remnants of my tongue may still remain on the giant paperclip on the Whitman College campus.

I have lived on or near the campus the majority of my life. As a young child my mom was the head resident at North Hall and later at Jewett Hall. My older brother and I had a glorious childhood living amid college kids in the early 1980s.

Of course, being an older brother, he couldn’t let me grow up unscathed, which was probably why he encouraged me to stick my tongue on to the frozen paperclip sculpture on a very cold day. And of course, like Ralphie’s in the movie “A Christmas Story,” my tongue froze to the metal.

My mom likes to tell the story of my brother and our good friend Jay Van Dyke running into the dining hall right at dinner to inform my mom of my mishap. Of course all the college students had to run out and see, since I was like everyone’s little sister.

By the time they got outside I was running in, blood dripping all over my winter coat. The only consolation was getting to see that little piece of my tongue stuck to the sculpture for weeks after.

Despite this one lapse of judgment I loved living there; we had so many exciting things going on at all times. People throwing coins from windows! Food fights in the cafeteria! Sorority girls dressed like Pink Ladies!

I was lucky enough to live at Jewett until I was 6 and I really enjoyed it. My mom always had cookies in her antique, apple-shaped cookie jars, so the college students would often stop by for a visit. At that point the students were adults to me, but as time passes and I get older they stay the same age.

Our first residence hall was North Hall, previously known as General Hospital. To say North Hall was creepy is an understatement. We had to enter in the dark basement and work our way upstairs past endless doors and flickering fluorescent lights, past old operating rooms and dark stairwells.

It seems appropriate that, years later, North Hall was the site of a successful Haunted Hospital at Halloween. It was put on by Whitman students and included a doctor with a chain saw, scary people in masks and a lot of creepy sounds.

But as a place to live North Hall was amazing. We had the top floor, full of windows and huge ceilings. I had an X-ray screen in my room. There was a ramp for our Big Wheels, and we even had a roof — which my mom says I jumped off, but I don’t remember ....

Soon after my 7th birthday we moved to a house near Whitman College, so I still felt like I was still part of the campus. My best friend, Erin Johnson, and I spent many happy afternoons hiding in trees and bushes all over campus, pretending to be abandoned orphans. My friends and I also fed the ducks, played Capture the Flag, and went on scavenger hunts around the college. It was our own park; the students, weddings, and academic pursuits were just background noise to us.

As a college student I would come home and — amazing! — these college students were suddenly my age. I snuck into a couple of large parties at the Tau Kappa Epsilon house and other fraternities during weekend visits home. As a lifelong townie, my main focus at these parties was admiring the houses, since I had rarely been inside any building on the campus.

To this day I pay attention to these beautiful houses on campus. In fact I noticed the big white and blue Sigma Chi house was just repainted.

Now the college kids are ... kids. I still live very close to campus and they walk by my house at all hours. I see them now as studious, creative, responsible kids, completely different from how I saw them a few decades ago.

No longer do I chase them around and try to meet them. Or holler at them from bushes. Or try to get invited to their parties. No, now they are just students, young people beginning their lives.

But Whitman’s campus remains relatively the same. Sure, it continuously evolves and changes and the grounds and buildings are kept up and improved at an impressive rate. But it is still my own private park, my jogging path, a playground for my own children.

Thanks for being there Whitman, you make Walla Walla even more beautiful.

Sara Van Donge is a Walla Walla native and middle school dual language teacher. She can be reached at saravandonge@gmail.com .

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