running the race to 21

As for every race, there is a finish line.

When you are young, everything seems like a race to adulthood. Time is marked by a series of metaphorical monuments that we use as guiding points on the trail of life. The first day of adulthood for many is the first day of college. And for many, drinking alcohol is the first fallen tree branch on the trail to an education. Yet any runner can learn to jump over or go around the hurdles that slow us down.

When I confirmed my spot as a Mountaineer for the 2008-2009 school year, my teachers, friends and family warned me in jest or with apprehension that West Virginia University was a party school. Having never consumed alcohol, I looked at the collegiate race I was about to run as almost impossible. How could I prepare for a lifestyle change so quickly? How could I make the decision to disobey the law to have a good time?

Although I was nervous about the pressure to drink I might encounter at WVU, I found that the race to my first drink at 21 was easy and well worth the run.

On September 4, 2011, my 21st birthday fell on the football home opener, the Marshall vs. WVU game. As if having one of the greatest football rivalries compete on my birthday wasn’t awesome enough, I was turning 21 in Morgantown on Labor Day weekend. For the many students (and Beyonce) who share this birthday, this weekend was monumental.

But what was unique about this day for me was that it would be the first day I ever had anything to drink.
It had been an interesting journey. As a first-year student beginning the race, I knew the rocks and tree branches in the road would be the people asking me if I wanted a drink. And I did. I didn’t want to be asocial and lock myself in my dorm room; I wanted to meet people, make friends and relax. But when offered a drink, I responded with a polite “No, thank you,” or “I am the DD,” and people shrugged their shoulders and moved on.

To those who persisted, I explained that I wasn’t going to drink till I was 21. Hearing that often sobered up those who offered long enough to say they respected my actions and wished that they, too, had done so. That might have been the alcohol talking. But over four years I went to many birthday, end-of-the-year, beginning-of-the-year, passed-a-tough-class, and graduation parties, and the response was always the same, suggesting that many students drank simply because it was what other students were doing.

It was a means of looking like a serious runner but never having run the race.

In retrospect, the twists and turns around the hurdles in the road that should have slowed my pace in fact increased my mileage.

Waiting for my 21st birthday made me stronger. I didn’t want alcohol to be my weekend “good time.” I didn’t want to depend on it, if I had a bad day or got in a fight with a friend or girlfriend. I wanted to establish good study habits and form real relationships with real people. The people you think are your friends when you’re drunk aren’t always your friends in reality. They might end up being the tree branch you trip and break your ankle on, halting the race when your goal is to continue running.

As with every race, there was a finish line. After the game and dinner with my family, who bought my first drink, I proceeded to the birthday party of every 21-year-old’s dream. But what was most exciting was that my friends had waited for me to drink with them. They had gathered not to witness someone take 21 shots or drink till he threw up but to honor someone who would drink when he chose, with friends, not hiding or being ashamed of his choice. I entered into the adult world with a beer my hand, confidently.

So, as I learned, waiting till you’re 21 to drink doesn’t mean you have to be asocial. College provides an excellent feeding ground both for those who hunger for knowledge and thirst for beer. You don’t have to drink and party, but you also don’t have stay in your dorm room because the library closes at 8 p.m. I have yet to find a student disrespectful enough to ignore another person’s request to remain sober. Sobriety isn’t a sin—it is a way of knowing that when you turn 21 your real friends will celebrate not the number but the fact that you remained on course, despite the branches, dips and turns that can take you off the trail.
Sometimes, It’s not who wins the race but how you finish it.