Phoning home

Duke will start to feel like home slowly at first. Then, all at once, you offhandedly refer to going ‘back home’ during winter break of your first year, to which your mom casts you a look of confusion and disappointment. “You are at home,” she says. 

As a senior, I ache for home more than I did as a first-year. I’m looking at jobs in cities far away and I’m consumed by the feeling of needing to be back in the familiar territory of my hometown, cushioned by the safety net of my parents, sisters and friends. 

What’s the opposite of wanting wide open spaces? Of wanting to be returned to what is comfortable so much that it hurts?  Is it just homesickness? 

I left my home in Charlotte, North Carolina on a muggy day in August of 2015. 18-year-old me wanted adventure. I craved wide open spaces big enough to make mistakes, ready to leave behind what was comfortable in favor of Duke’s big, scary campus. 

19-year-old me wanted more. So I packed my bags again and took off to South Africa for a summer on a DukeEngage program, in search of adventure with every mile I put between me and home: 7,978 miles, to be exact. 

I wrote in my journal that summer about finding home unexpectedly in the winding streets of my neighborhood of Tamboerskloof; in a coffee shop; in a new job. Even on a quest to go as far as I had ever been away from home, I kept searching for it. For the familiar. 

Was it that I found a new home, or just that I wanted to taste what leaving home felt like? Planting my flag on a different planet, just for a little while, to see what the view is like from over there?

I arrived back in North Carolina two months later to a “Welcome Home” sign resting on the kitchen table, but without clarity over if home can be two places at once. 

21-year-old me has enough. I call home almost daily. I don’t even think about it, I just reach for my phone absentmindedly and press the dial button to connect to the landline on School House Lane, the street where I grew up and my parents still live.

I’m learning that calling a place home isn’t the same as calling home. Even when all the paperwork— a college diploma, tax returns, and a heavily stamped passport—clearly indicates that I no longer live at home, all the same, there I am, clutching my phone and hoping that someone still picks up on the same landline I’ve called my whole life. 

And that’s what this whole thing is about. The places we call home. The home we call to instinctively. 

As a head orientation counselor, it’s been my job to make this campus feel like home for incoming first-years from their very first week. As we feverishly unpack cars in 100-degree heat, I shout the phrase  “Welcome home” to every first-year and their families over and over until my voice is hoarse. 

The orientation programming centers around the idea that Duke will become home for every first-year student as long as they immerse themselves in clubs and organizations and use the resources to their fullest extent. To do this successfully, though, we ask one thing: forget about your home. The other one, the home you came here from. 

The mentality we hear as college students is that home isn’t a place, it’s the people you surround yourself with. That home can be folded up and packed up into a few suitcases. That Duke can become a home to all if you try hard enough. 

But as I am beginning the slow descent into leaving the home I’ve made here and trading it for another strange place, I’m realizing that home isn’t so easy to take with you. 

Maybe the reason we are quick to label other places home is that we are running away from the places that raised us: the asphalt that scraped my knees as I learned how to ride a bike, the basketball hoop with the frayed net still in the driveway, the doorway with pencil marks measuring my height every year until I stopped growing. 

Four years at Duke has shown me that I can call many places home, but there’s still only one home I dial to when I need a reminder of what raised me. 

Janie Booth is a Trinity senior. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. 


Share and discuss “Phoning home” on social media.