The Purple Badge of Courage

I will never forget the first time it happened.  It was a Monday morning during JA training, the day that the First Generation students began arriving for their special orientation.  None of my kids had moved in yet, but I could sense the electric energy on campus nevertheless.  Everyone I saw, it seemed, could be a new freshman, could be one of the people that my fellow JAs had dreamt about and worried about for weeks.  My Co and I had stopped by Paresky that morning, and I was innocently checking my mail when I noticed two girls huddled together, whispering anxiously.  Suddenly one of them looked up and pointed at me.  “Hey,” she said to her companion, “Ask her… she’s a JA”.

For a split second I was startled, wondering what it was about my demeanor that had given me away.  And then I looked down and realized that I was finally wearing it- the iconic purple shirt.  With “Williams JA” emblazoned in gold on my chest (and, for what it’s worth, the name “Tiny Dancer” spelled out on my back), I finally looked the part of a REAL JA, even if I didn’t feel like one.

Donning the purple shirt that first morning had been exhilarating- the shirt is, after all, the ultimate symbol of a position I have wanted for so long- but it had also been completely terrifying.

I couldn’t hide anymore.

It’s not that I’ve ever really tried to hide at Williams. I can often be found bouncing around campus in brightly colored knee socks or strange sunglasses or even, on special occasions, in my eponymous tutu.  But I don’t think I realized how anonymous I really was until, all of a sudden, I wasn’t.  In Williams culture, the JA shirt is a marker; I might as well be wearing a billboard that says “Hey! I’m a JA! I’m bubbly and outgoing and a good listener and really quite exhausted at the moment, thank you very much!”  Mostly I like the attention, and nothing makes me smile quite like the blob of purple that results from any mass-JA gathering.  But at the same time, it can make me feel downright vulnerable.  For under all of its fun exclamations, the shirt carries a more serious epitaph- “Trust me, rely on me, listen to me… I know what I’m doing”.

Do I really know what I’m doing?

For two weeks, we wore our JA shirts every day.  For fourteen days, I was immediately recognizable as someone who knew what was going on.  Even when I wasn’t busy ferrying my own Frosh around to First Days events, or honing my bed-lofting skills, or explaining for the fiftieth time how to get to the Science Quad, I was visible.  Once, my co and I had a rare moment of alone time and decided to make the trek to the 1914 Library to get our books- because, oh yeah, we’re students too.  There was a funeral going on at the church on the corner of Water St, and as my Co and I passed the small crowd that was milling about, an older man, one of the mourners, approached us.  “So,” he said, “You guys are JAs?”  As long as we wore the shirts, there was no escaping it.

At this point in time, we are no longer required to wear our shirts daily.  I successfully survived that two-week period, and my two JA shirts have been retired for the time being, tucked safe and clean (!) in my drawer.  Yet, I was surprised to learn, not wearing the shirt has proven to be an even more difficult adjustment.  During First Days, my life was 100% about being a JA.  That was draining, sure, and yet my purpose was clear.  I was a JA- my shirt said so.  But now- now I am a JA, and a student, and an athlete, and a friend, and a thousand other things.  Balancing all of these things, it turns out, is even more exhausting than making small talk with nineteen strangers.

So, I’m learning to balance, and learning to reconcile the needs of my Frosh with my own needs.  This whole thing is a learning process.  I have been back on campus for exactly one month today, and I am still just as excited (and maybe just as terrified) about being a JA as I was 31 days ago.  Yet it seems like my life has changed entirely in such a short period of time.

I’ve already helped my Frosh though orientation, and class registration, and first-day jitters, and auditions, and break-ups, and hook-ups, and more break-ups, and colds, and vomiting spells, and hospital visits, and birthdays.  I’ve already become close enough to my nineteen Frosh that hanging out with them doesn’t feel like an obligation.  I’ve already had so much fun, and I’ve already decided that I made the right decision in coming back to entry life.

Still, I am aware that this is all just the beginning.  I might not wear my purple shirt all the time, but the title doesn’t change.  I’m a JA, and I’m starting to believe it.

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