It was six years ago when my small group of friends and I were about to start our first year of college. As if the future burden of student loans wasn’t daunting enough, this milestone would be the first time in our lives the four of us wouldn’t be passing each other notes in the hallway or eating lunch together. Two of us would be living at home and commuting to school, and the other two would be packing up their lives to experience college with a roommate in a dorm. Growing up, our childhood homes were all within a five block radius of each other. College would be the first time we couldn’t make it to each other’s front doorstep after a brisk walk.
The four of us have never had the type of friendship filled with emotional heart-to-hearts or impromptu hugs. Our bond, forged in elementary school, was so resolute and familiar that any reminders about the importance our friendship would have felt like warm and fuzzy overkill. We were best friends in the effortless way that required no matching bracelets or redundant acknowledgements. We had traditions and history — all the sacred things that only time and trust can establish between people. Yet, in those last weeks before college started, I found myself thinking more and more about everything I’d left unacknowledged throughout the years. I wondered about all the conveniences of our friendship that we might have been taking for granted. I suddenly felt like I needed to hold tightly onto something that I never feared losing grip of before.
I feared college was going to break us.
What if our proximity was all that’s been holding us together? What if we grow apart? What if college changes us into different people? What if we all make new friends and our memories are all we have in common once graduation rolls around? Who am I without them?
We each went our separate ways, and our relationships did change, but it turned out it wasn’t such a bad thing in the long run. Our college diaspora required us to have experiences as individuals in unfamiliar places — which is something that couldn’t have been said if we had we gone through our college years side-by-side Saved By The Bell-style. As a lost freshman, I went into each of my classes knowing that none of my best friends’ familiar faces were going to be there. For as much as I missed them, it was oddly liberating to be meeting so many different people. But it felt like a weird betrayal to be excited about it. When you’ve had the same friends for a long time, you fall into familiar patterns. You go the same places, do the same things. In the ensemble cast of your existence, each friend starts to play a specific part. Those important friendships can’t help but define you. So when life obligates you to function outside of your familiar bubble, you get the exciting opportunity to try your hand at being whoever you want to be, free of expectations and your friendship-defined comfort zone.
Throughout our college years, there were many parts of each other’s everyday lives that were left undiscussed. Our inconvenient schedules forced a firewall of privacy upon us that we’d never had before. For the first time, we were significantly less involved in each other’s lives. We didn’t know the details about every awful professor, awkward encounter, or turkey sandwich. It was equal parts freeing and frightening.
What I came to understand was that your oldest friendships will always be your roots. They’re what will literally keep you down to earth in your familiar place in the world. But sometimes that stability can start to feel like an anchor. I think we’ve all gotten tangled in our own safety networks at least once in our lives. Even the best, most fulfilling friendships have ways of holding us back, and admitting that truth to yourself doesn’t mean you have bad friends or that you’re a bad friend. After all, none of us could experiment with growth or even a little blooming without our roots there to hold us up.
Each of my friends changed throughout college and even after graduation. I did, too. College and the new experiences it brought may have distanced us in more ways than one, but it didn’t drive us apart. The different undergrad lives we lived mostly on own actually provided the diversity our old friendship needed to keep us close as we became adults facing the real world with four distinct points of view. Letting your friends go for any reason is never easy, but never feel threatened by the benefits of splitting up so each of you can walk your own path for a little while; you’re going to end up at the same destination with all the inside jokes and love (yes, love) that have always been there.