It was 2:45 on a Thursday morning, and the fire alarm in my apartment building was blaring. I smelled something burning, and I decided that I did not have time to throw sweatpants over the shorts I had worn to sleep. I ran down the stairs and into the chilly Ithaca night as the apartment building flooded onto the street. Collectively, I think everyone wonders the same thing when this happens: is there actually a fire? But of course, until the entire emergency protocol is carried out, fire trucks and all, the answer remains a mystery.
I was shivering and decided to walk over to Collegetown’s notorious 7/11, where I could wait out the fire alarm in the heat. I bumped into another student on the way there, who also lived in my building, and we walked there together even though we had never met before. We had a 40 minute conversation that was just as serendipitous as the two of us meeting in the first place — we covered the differences between cities on the East and West Coasts, what the places that we had grown up in were like, studies at Cornell, Jazz music and so on. When I told this story to my parents and grandparents, they found it funny. Though, I wondered why.
After waking up the next morning not sure of whether or not it was a fever dream (it wasn’t), I can tell you that this kind of experience embodies college in a special way. We all love the possibility that anything is possible and this moment highlights just that. College is probably one of the only places where you can meet someone and befriend them at three in the morning. It’s one of the only places where a sense of limitless opportunity is both a fixture of youth and a fixture of a university with the motto “Any Person, Any Study.” When you are young and impressionable, random occurrences, like this fire alarm, can have life long implications.
This fire alarm experience reminded me of a phenomenon called the butterfly effect. The butterfly effect is essentially a metaphor for chaos theory, the idea that one small event can trigger a series of events that culminate into one large event. It originated from a thought experiment posed by Edward Lorenz, a meteorology professor at MIT. He posed the question: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” The butterfly effect often leads me to the hypothetical game. If this event or that event did or did not happen, would my current reality be different? For example, if my freshman year hadn’t occurred in the middle of the pandemic would I be different? Would I have the same friends? Would I have chosen to study abroad next semester? Had I not accidentally signed up for an actual English class (which I thought was a freshman writing seminar), would I have met one of my great friends, who is sitting across from me as I write this article?
As we approach fall break, the weather starts to get dreary and cold, the days start to get shorter, and the work piles up. It’s easy and even fulfilling to simplify college to a to-do list and some kind of future goal. But I have always marveled at the fact that you can sit in a class that will change your life or even meet the person you are going to marry. How much of life is predictable and how much is left to fate? It is hard to ignore the randomness that sometimes pervades college life. Though with it, I always attribute a form of optimism. It’s a type of optimism that is easy to lose with every club rejection, or class you don’t like, or bad grade, or date gone wrong, or week/weekend that seemed to drag on for too long. But when I look back at that fire alarm conversation, I feel that optimism again, and I see a perfect moment that is now just a dream-like memory.
Maybe we can catch the butterfly before it makes the fire alarm go off, and if we can’t, we can find the silver lining to our lost sleep.
Rebecca Sparacio (she/her) is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]The Space Between runs every other Wednesday this semester.