Smoke and fire performed a duet that left the entire neighborhood in a standing ovation. I wanted to remove myself from the audience but my eyes were glued—it was my house that was putting on the show.

I hadn't seen my neighbors outside their homes in years. Now they stood in front of their overgrown lawns, lining the street. Their worried expressions were catching onto each other like the flames. I remember that night in a series of slow seconds that seemed to drag on until it all ended, suddenly and without any warning.

Second one: I am doing biology homework in my brother’s room and I smell the charcoal of our barbecue. My mom must be grilling some killer steaks for dinner. Second two: The front door swings open, and my dad screeches. By second three, I almost fall down the stairs from moving too quickly. Second four: It wasn’t steaks after all. It was a fire—causing our garage to combust. Second five: Where’s my phone?

Second six: “911. What’s your emergency?” Second seven: “My h–h–h–house is on fire.”

Second eight: I never thought I would be the one saying that.

Nobody ever thinks they're going to be the one saying that.

Second nine: “Mom, where’s Tom?” (Our beloved 35–pound Shih Tzu). Second ten: Dad looks determined. He pulls cars out of the driveway, as far away from the flames as he can.

Second 11: Mom is desperately using the garden hose. Her hair is red like fire, but more beautiful.

It’s no use.

The flames spread faster than the firemen can drive. I’m watching my mom, brave with that hose in hand. The sort of bravery you admire and fear all at once.

Second 12: She tells our frightened neighbor to help. “C’mon, get your hose!” Second 13: Sirens. Second 14: The firefighter grabs mom by the shoulder and pulls her away.

Second 15: Everyone I love is safe and I haven’t thought about the things left inside once.

Second 16: “Stevie, I know you’re at school but I just, umm, wanted to let you know our house burned down.”

Second 17: I probably shouldn’t have called Stevie—but he’s my older brother and he’s strong enough to listen. I needed him to.

Second 18: How am I going to finish my biology homework?

****

The fire marked a definite Before and After in my life. Before the fire, I searched for comfort and peace within the walls where I grew up. I would venture to my aqua–painted room and always find answers. These were the walls that my brother and I marked with ticks to compare heights. One of these walls was the one he pushed me through when we played soccer too aggressively.

When the walls that built my childhood were nothing but soot, I built new meanings out of the word home. Through the tears and the flames, I discovered that home is a feeling. I found it in memories and relationships I had constructed my entire life. I found home in what I'd built. Those walls are inflammable.

The fire happened on a Sunday night, and wanting to be no place else, I went to school on Monday. When I stepped onto Peddie’s campus, the knots in my stomach immediately loosened. Before the fire, Peddie was merely the place I attended high school. After the fire, it was the closest thing to home I had. I felt at home sitting at Harkness tables and seeing the faces I passed on my way to classes. What I had been forging within myself while growing up at Peddie—the courage, the kindness, the work ethic—was still there.

Even though my house wasn’t, I was still standing. The things I had been building were, too.

Since Peddie, I have attended two colleges—first Davidson College, and now Penn after transferring in August. I have found a home in both of them—in the people I love at each and the lessons I learned on both campuses. Home for me is no longer a house, but it's powerful enough to traverse states and long distances.

Meaning lies in what we build. The walls of a house are nothing without the life that resides inside of them. We build things every day. We build relationships with friends and professors, we build networks of kindness, we build self–confidence and appreciation for the world we live in. We make foundations powerful enough to withstand any worry or doubt.

So, the next time that you’re feeling homesick, look at the beautiful skyscrapers that line our campus. You’re building things just as tall and as beautiful as them—but you carry them with you.


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