By Allison Thompson (’18)

Photo of Allison Thompson giving her Senior Oration.

The public library in my hometown is the center of everything. When I was younger, the library was in the perfect location – 5 minutes away from my dad’s job and 5 minutes from my mom’s. As my parents worked long hours, the building where I waited to be picked up transformed into a wonderland. I learned how to spend time in libraries. I learned to perfect the art of playing hide and seek behind extra-large copies of Where the Wild Things Are. And I learned that the heftier Junie B. Jones books would bring me much closer to the star reader award than my beloved picture books…and of course I had to be the star reader. The children’s section of the public library with its Lysol scented whiff of Welcome Back was my impromptu after-school program and my refuge. So when mom dropped me off for my first semester at wake forest and whispered, “Tell me what the library is like.” Well, I understood.

I was immediately transfixed by the inner workings of ZSR. I was entranced by the way the light of the vibrant sunrises and sunsets bounced off every surface in the atrium. I valued the prompt and helpful advice of Hu Womack, who always seemed to pop! up out of thin air anytime he was needed. In the library, I discovered a space that cultivated my curiosity without restrictions, but when I stepped outside of the library’s walls I entered another strange world. I felt the weight of this world closing in on me, like the first time you lose your parents in a department store and you are left alone — aimlessly searching the aisles for a familiar face. Here, I attempted to grasp onto any sense of identity or security. Here, phantoms of a persistent struggle greeted me with scrawled words on the pavement beneath my feet. As the realities of racial discrimination permeated campus conversations, I continued to search for understanding in my own Wake Forest experience.

In response to the discord ringing throughout campus, President Hatch implored our community, to talk to someone with a Wake Forest experience different from your own. At first, I did not know what to make of this statement. How could I simultaneously abandon my own comfort in efforts to reach out to a stranger?  Talking to someone with a Wake Forest experience different than my own occurred haphazardly on my way to a late night study session in yes, you called it, ZSR. The beginning of one of my greatest friendships is when Cindy Shultz, the security guard at the front entrance of the library, routinely asked to see my student id.

Cindy rode show horses. I once rode a pony for three whole minutes and begged, no begged to be taken down. Cindy is a white woman from North Carolina who loves the great outdoors. I am a black girl from the northeast who prefers vibrant cities. But for all of our differences, Cindy and I see ourselves in each other. I see now that I have found purpose in my friendship with Cindy and the many others who have taught me the importance of being the most authentic version of yourself.

I spent much of my time here feeling what we call — out of place. The challenge of finding a home in the midst of the unfamiliar terrified me. This challenge caused me to run to faculty, staff and peers with questions of belonging. Where do you obtain it? How do you create it? What if I never find it? I would continue to ask people all of these things without realizing the most essential part…in my inquiries, I had stumbled upon place.

At Wake Forest, we are called to question this space, our time, and our narratives without passing judgment. In this Wake Forest, when it would be easier to walk away from conversations regarding racism or mental health, we meet for coffee. When opinions are in opposition with the beliefs of others, we debate. But friends, this is the balance or rather the…imbalance of it all. Feeling frightened and choosing to speak up. Feeling intimidated and deciding to listen. These are the acts that make us whole. We must learn to consider Wake Forest experiences different than our own. And today, we must ask ourselves; what is my library? What is my safety?

When I stepped outside of the library’s walls, place found me in the small town of Selma, Alabama. Between sips of sweet tea and bites of buttered biscuits, a Wake alternative break became a community of students who longed to understand the past to better navigate the future. I have found solace written between the lines of poetry and philosophy. I have found enlightenment in conversations about protest and advocacy. I have found place at Wake Forest. And I am certain that understanding, truth, and unexpected friendships will continue to find me over and over and over just as they did in my first year at the front entrance of the ZSR

When I tell people that I have a locker in the library they laugh. I say it’s a convenient place to stash the extra layers for those indecisive North Carolina winters. My peers understand this rationale, but I remiss in telling them the true reasoning behind my locker…it’s my own hideaway for the very best books. Since my freshman year I have been renewing one of my favorites, Life Doesn’t Frighten Me – a Maya Angelou poem paired with illustrations by artist Basquiat. When I am forced to return the book to the trusty stacks the last lines of the poem still replay in my memory;

I’ve got a magic charm

That I keep up my sleeve

I can walk the ocean floor

And never have to breathe

Life doesn’t frighten me at all

Not at all.

Not at all.

Life doesn’t frighten me at all.

May we all set sail to our own land of Max’s Wild Things in search of that magic charm.