Home > My Oxford Year(2)

My Oxford Year(2)
Author: Julia Whelan

The other finalist selected from my district (a math/econ/classics triple major and Olympic archer who had discovered that applying game theory to negotiations with known terrorists makes the intel 147 percent more reliable), told me, “I’ve been working toward getting a Rhodes since freshman year.” To which I replied, “Me too.” He clarified, “Of high school.” To which I replied, “Me too.”

While, yes, the Rhodes is a golden ticket to Oxford, it’s also a built-in network and the means to my political future. It ensures that people who would have otherwise discounted me—this unconnected girl from the soybean fields of Ohio—will take a second, serious look. People like Gavin Brookdale.

Going after things the way I do, being who I am, has alienated my entire hometown and most of my extended family. My mom hadn’t gone to college and my dad had dropped out after two years because he’d thought it was more important to change the world than learn about it, and there I was, this achievement machine making everyone around me vaguely uncomfortable. She thinks she’s better than everyone else.

Honestly, I don’t. But I do think I’m better than what everyone, besides my dad, told me I was.

I WAKE UP in a moment of panic when the bus I’d boarded back at Heathrow jerks to a stop, sending the book on my lap to the floor. Hastily retrieving it, I force my sleepy eyes to take in the view from the floor-to-ceiling window in front of me. I chose the seat on the upper level at the very front, wanting to devour every bit of English countryside on the way to Oxford. Then I slept through it.

Pushing through the fog in my head, I peer outside. A dingy bus stop in front of a generic cell-phone store. I look for a street sign, trying to get my bearings. My info packet from the college said to get off at the Queens Lane stop on High Street. This can’t be it. I glance behind me and no one on the bus is moving to get off, so I settle back into my seat.

The bus starts up again, and I breathe deeply, trying to wake up. I jam the book into my backpack. I’d wanted to finish it before my first class tomorrow, but I can’t focus. I was too excited to eat or sleep on the plane. My empty stomach and all-nighter are catching up to me. The time difference is catching up to me. The last twelve years spent striving for this moment is catching up to me.

Inside my jacket pocket, my phone vibrates. I pull it out and see the same number from earlier. I take a deep breath and preemptively answer, “Gavin, listen, I was thinking, let’s do a trial period of, say, a month, and if you feel that I need to be there—”

“Not necessary.”

My throat tightens. “Please, just give me thirty days to prove that—”

“It’s fine. I made it work. Just remember who comes first.”

Elation breaks through the fog. My fist clenches in victory and my smile reaches all the way to my temples. “Absolutely,” I say in my most professional voice. “Thank you so much for this opportunity. You won’t be disappointed.”

“I know that. That’s why I hired you. What’s your fee? FYI: there’s no money.”

There’s never any money. I tell him my fee anyway and we settle on something that I can live with. The Rhodes is paying my tuition and lodging and I get a small stipend for living expenses on top of that. I decide right then that what Gavin’s going to pay me will go directly into my travel budget.

“Now go,” he says, “have fun. You’ve clearly earned it. There’s a pub you should visit in the center of town. The Turf. See where one of your fellow Rhodes scholars—a young William Jefferson Clinton—‘didn’t inhale.’”

“Ha, got it. Will do.”

“Just take your phone with you. Your phone is an appendage, not an accessory. Okay?”

I nod even though he can’t see me. “Okay. It’s a plan.” Just as I say this, the bus rounds a bend and there she is:


Beyond a picturesque bridge, the narrow two-lane road continues into a bustling main street, lined on each side by buildings in a hodgepodge of architectural styles, no room to breathe between them. Like the crowd at the finish line of a marathon, these buildings cheer me on, welcoming me to their city. Some are topped with sloped, slate roofs, others with battlements. Some of the larger buildings have huge wooden gates that look as if they were carved in place, a fusion of timeless wood and stone that steals my breath. Maybe those doors lead to some of the thirty-eight individual Oxford colleges? Imagining it, dreaming of it all these years, doesn’t do it justice.

I look skyward. Punctuating the horizon are the tips of other ancient buildings, high points of stone bordering the city like beacons.

“The City of Dreaming Spires,” I murmur to myself.

“Indeed it is,” Gavin says in my ear. I’d forgotten he was still on the line.

That’s what they call Oxford. A title well deserved. Because that means, before it was my dream or Seventeen magazine girl’s dream, it was someone else’s dream as well.

Chapter 2

Light, that never makes you wink;

Memory, that gives no pain;

Love, when, so, you’re loved again.

What’s the best thing in the world?

—Something out of it, I think.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “The Best Thing in the World,” 1862

I wish I could say that Oxford smells like parchment and cinnamon or something poetic, but right now it just smells like city: bus diesel, damp pavement, and the aroma of French roast wafting from the coffee shop across the street.

The sidewalks are narrow on High Street, edged by tall stone walls on one side and low, worn curbs on the other. The narrowness heightens their crowdedness. Students rushing, tourists lingering, the former annoyed by the latter. Those who speak English are almost as incomprehensible to me as those who don’t. My ear hasn’t yet adjusted to the accent and passing dialogue is entirely lost on me.

It’s just another day in Oxford, but to me it’s magical.

As the bus pulls away I gather my luggage and try to sidestep a large family bowed over a map, their voices agitated and overlapping. After a moment, the father’s head pops up and he lifts the map into the air, out of reach, his patience snapping. “Awright, awright, step off it now, wouldya? We’re goin’ this way!”

Before I can steer clear of the family, a flock of bicycles, a veritable swarm, goes flying past, grazing my luggage and whipping my hair in its wake. Their riders wear some kind of sporting attire (rugby, maybe?), smelling of boy-sweat and new-mown grass as they go by, hooting and hollering. Boys are boys in any country, apparently. The last rider snatches the map right out of the father’s hand, lifting it victoriously, crying out, “Et in Arcadia ego!”

Oxford: where even the jocks speak Latin.

THERE’S NOTHING I have to do for the Rhodes, per se. It’s not a degree or title in its own right. What I do—or don’t do—at Oxford is between my academic department and me. Also, between my college and me.

The college I’ll be affiliated with is Magdalen, which, for reasons unknown to me, is pronounced “maudlin.” Founded in 1458, it boasts a great hall, a deer park, an iconic bell tower, medieval cloisters, and approximately six hundred students. I did not request Magdalen because of some heavily considered academic reason; I requested Magdalen because it was Oscar Wilde’s college.

I approach the gate, carefully navigating the people streaming in and out, and lug my baggage into a portico. In front of me, straight out an open Gothic-style door, I glimpse a cobblestone courtyard with a charming three-story sand-colored dormered building in the distance. On the portico’s flagstones, sandwich boards announce the times of day the college is open to visitors and advertise a tour of the fifteenth-century kitchens. To my left are glass-enclosed bulletin boards with notices and reminders posted haphazardly: “Have you paid your battels?” “Get all your uni gear! New Student Discount at Summer Eights on Broad, show your Bod card.” “Fancy a nip before Hilary’s first OKB bop? 8, Friday noughth week, JCR.” Seeing the words in writing, I realize the accent isn’t the only obstacle. To my right, wood paneling and two arched glass windows cordon off a sort of office, like an Old West bank just asking to be held up.

I round the corner and spy, behind the glass, an older man in a red, pilled sweater, white collared shirt, and tie. He stands over an archaic copier the size of an SUV, his shoulders hunched in consternation, long neck and mostly bald head giving him the appearance of a Galápagos tortoise. He mutters something and kicks the bottom of the machine. It whirs like a propjet engine and slowly spits out sheets of green paper.

“Hi!” I chirp.

“Help you?” he asks, not looking up, paging methodically through another stack of papers, occasionally licking his finger.

“I’m . . .” I hesitate. “Checking in? I guess?”

“Student?” he asks.

“Yeah. Yes.”


I have no idea what he just said. “What?”


I don’t answer. I’m afraid to answer.

Finally he looks up, exasperated, and I realize he’s been counting the papers and, more, that I’ve interrupted him. “First year. Are you a first year?”

“I’m a graduate student. But I’m flattered, sir.”

He sighs. “American. Name?” He goes back to counting.

“Eleanor Durran. But, please, call me Ella.”

He does no such thing. He moves to a long wooden desk and hands me a piece of paper and a pen. I glance at it. It’s a contract that says I can’t burn down my room. I sign. He slides an envelope the size of a playing card across the counter to me, my initials written on the front. He walks around the long desk and comes out a side door, moving to a wall of small cubbyholes, similar to the kind in a kindergarten classroom. As he speaks, he bends one green paper into each hole.

“This is your pidge. Check it daily for post. You’re room thirteen, staircase four. That’s Swithuns staircase four, mind you. We don’t make a habit of housing graduate students inside walls, but there’s a shortage in graduate housing this year. Besides, I’ve found Americans rather enjoy being ‘behind the gates.’ Something to do with that boy wizard?”

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