Editors at The Daily Tar Heel tasked senior writer Bob Bryan with answering one question: Why do you love UNC? Bryan is a senior journalism major from Charlotte. His answer to his editors’ impossible question is below.
I am woefully undeserving of the challenge of encapsulating the Carolina experience in one essay. I’ve never taken a sip out of the Old Well on the first day of class. I’ve never been in the risers for a basketball game. I’ve never protested anything, danced for the kids or have even been to a soccer game. Despite my lack of active participation in these seminal, and no doubt wonderfully enriching, activities on campus, I still feel I’ve lived enough of the Carolina life to write about it. The part I’ve struggled with — and my editors can assure you there have been struggles — is wrestling that feeling into coherent words. So excuse me again, because for all my attempts, coherence still escapes me.
The first trip I ever made to UNC was probably for a football game sometime around my eighth birthday. As memories from that age are wont to do, most of the trip has melted away into a multicolored swirl of brief moments and twisted sentimentalities. There is one bit that does stick. It was this odd, bubbling feeling of giddy freedom and possibility in the face of every student I saw as I gaped, wide-eyed at all of these people donned in blue and white. My little brain couldn’t comprehend what it was experiencing at the time, but it was captivating and overwhelming and exhilarating and exactly what I wanted to feel every day when I grew up to the size of all these students around me. This was my first brush with the feeling, a day-long flash that has since wonderfully enveloped my past four years.
It’s easy to get this feeling from going to the big-name events. I went to my first game against the school down the road at the Dean Dome two years ago. You would have to be heartless not to get swept up in the bombast and celebration of the day and the game. The sheer fervor of the feeling surrounding a Carolina-Duke game has led me to break three chairs, nearly end a two-year relationship and wind up under the table from tears or drink numerous times.
The feeling also gets conjured from unlikely places, surprising you like running into a long lost elementary school classmate when you walk into a bathroom at a party (true story). I’ve gotten it studying at 3 a.m. in the corner table on the seventh floor of Davis Library. Floundering hopelessly to explain the Mormon movement across the country in the early 19th century, I looked out to see the Pit, Bell Tower and campus sleeping beneath me. Seeing a few lights still shining in dorm windows and classrooms, I realized I was not the only Tar Heel bent over his or her laptop, drowning in exhaustion and cold sweat in a pitiful pursuit of some kernel of knowledge.
I get the feeling simply from walking around campus, especially when it’s warm outside. I’ve always had a preference for warm weather, and it seems that every time the campus shakes off the winter, it becomes the epitome of seasonal renewal. I’m late to class frequently, to which my professors can attest, but it’s not always my need for naps that gets me in trouble. I typically realize that I need to leave for class somewhere between just-in-time and not-going-to-make-it-on-time-even-if I-were-faster-than-Ty-Lawson. Moving at such breakneck speeds, it’s hard not to stumble on an uneven brick, pick myself up off the ground slightly embarrassed and all of a sudden have that epiphany, just like on that first tour I ever took, that this campus is deeply beautiful.
I’ve gotten into a habit of walking off the pathways around the quads (only partly due to the aforementioned brick trippings), and it seems to me that the campus itself stirs the feeling. Everything is steeped in possibility when it’s warm outside. It’s draped on every tree, building and banner. I suppose that plays into the feeling — every part of campus has a constant gaze toward the future.
The feeling strikes me every now and then in Carroll Hall. Though the feeling might be mixed in with the overbearing fear of finding a job in journalism, it seems that I get it every time I turn in a story I can feel satisfied with — one that says something honest and gives voice to the voiceless. When I know I’ve learned something and done my best with that knowledge, I get that uniquely Carolina feeling.
While I’m sure many will roll their eyes, I get that feeling looking at my fraternity house. For me, the stone turret and seemingly always-in-need-of-repair interior of 303 E. Franklin St. represent a tradition that not only extends back to the history of the building, built in 1929, but to the history of my own family as well . My dad was in my fraternity before me and occasionally likes to pretend he still is when he comes to visit. Our relationship has grown from father and son to something more because of this. It has made him realize I’m more than just his kid, I’m a brother and an adult, someone who has also felt the Carolina feeling.
This family tradition goes beyond the Greek system. My great-great-great grandfather Robert Kedar Bryan Sr. (I am the fourth proprietor of this admittedly Southern bourgeois name) graduated from UNC in 1847 and went on to be a newspaperman. Sure, tradition isn’t necessary for a student to get a hold of the feeling, but it permeates our campus, and the history of the place lets us know we aren’t the only ones who have felt what we have felt. It lets me meet someone who graduated decades before me and recognize a Carolina Blue glimmer in their eyes.
I get the feeling even when I’m away from campus. Sure, closing down a bar at 2 a.m. after a Carolina victory — and really, any win in any sport is a good enough excuse to do so on most nights — will stir up the feeling in a frothy concoction of emotion and cheap, watery beer. Of course it’s easy to come by during those frantic, ecstatic few hours at He’s Not. (Or was it Bob’s? Or La Res? Or TOPO? Can anyone remember in all the chaos?) More surprising is when I get that feeling during the hungover Sunday trip to Sutton’s Drug Store or Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe. Drowning the headache and general resentment of all things alcoholic in grease or syrup is a therapeutic way to spend a Sunday morning — or more likely afternoon — after rolling out of bed. That wonderful sensation of the night before comes as easily when laughing and recounting the previous night’s shenanigans as it did during the late-night festivities.
Meals have a unique ability to bring the feeling bubbling to the surface. The gift from God to this Earth that is the combination of Mama Dip’s fried chicken, collard greens and cornbread is an automatic trigger for me. Until the age of 16, I had no idea that Chapel Hill contained any other restaurant, and I’ll still swear under threat of perjury that it is the best. The rocking chairs sitting on the wraparound porch, the simple red-topped tables and the faces of the staff whom I recognize from that first trip over a decade ago wrap the experience together in a perfectly Chapel Hill way.
Sometimes it’s been hard for me to drum up the feeling. These past few years have undoubtedly provided reason enough for that. We’ve been duped by people the University trusted, and our institutions have failed students who needed them the most. The notable shortcomings play a part in the feeling too. It’s in the fact that, as a campus, we acknowledge UNC’s imperfections and simultaneously take pride in the collective desire to improve them.
This is the point where I’m supposed to transition seamlessly into explaining this unexplainable feeling I’ve been hinting at and dragging out. If I did this right, I’ve got everyone sitting wistfully, thinking of their time at UNC — from the goodbyes to parents as freshmen to the cap throw at graduation. Perhaps I have, perhaps I haven’t. When I first drafted this essay, I told my editor I didn’t have a conclusion. I told her this was two times too long, 10 times too short, incoherent, sloppy, heartfelt and honest. As obvious as the cliche of sudden inspiration on a deadline is, I realized this was the right way to describe the feeling. It’s terrible, beautiful, wild, cynical and heartfelt. It’s overwhelming, scary, comfortable and easy. I know these are a bunch of vague platitudes that could either describe UNC or eating a Big Mac too fast, but that’s the problem. The feeling among people who’ve been a part of Carolina is universally specific and impossible to describe but easy for any of us to get. Maybe I’ve failed at truly articulating what it feels like to be a part of this family — I probably have. But I’m happy with that because if you could pin it down, it wouldn’t be that unique Carolina feeling.