There were lights, I remember lights—street lights, walking path through the Diag lights, and those blue 'safety' lights that they tell you about on every college tour. The most memorable were the natural lights, peaking through the darkened sky.
I remember the stars because I remember thinking how far we were from a large city. In reality we weren't that far. We were close to Detroit which, by many accounts, is (or at least was) a large city. And I was standing among great buildings and restaurants, bars and coffee shops.
But in that moment, the town and the university appeared free from urban hustle. All was beautifully calm and silent. The entire university sprawled before us. The view was our own and it felt like with it came the keys to the castle.
State Street lay in front of me. To my right, I traced the straight line that was South University until it hit Washtenaw. Craning my head, I looked further to the right, a very large—some would just say Big—house emerged.
In 1902, a group of seniors at the University of Michigan formed an organization, Michigamua, in coordination with University president James Burrill Angell. The organization has been defined in many ways throughout its existence. The most commonly associated term is ‘secret society’—a group of senior leaders 'tapped' in (relative) secrecy, brought together to 'fight like hell for Michigan'. You might know them from the name that the group took in 2007: Order of Angell.
But this isn't a story about the Order of Angell. At least not exactly.
In 1932, the Order of Angell was granted a permanent lease on space in the tower of the University of Michigan's Union. Fast forward to the year 2000, a group of students occupied that tower location for 37 days in protest of the Order's alleged misuse of Native American artifacts.
Two accounts emerged from the protest. In one version: artifacts were discovered in the meeting space. In a second version: those artifacts were planted in the tower as a part of the sit-in.
Neither version has been confirmed. And for the sake of this story, only one detail matters:
After the protest, the Order of Angell vacated its space in the Union…since 2000, the tower has remained locked and unoccupied.
I loved many classes during my time at Michigan. But I loved clubs, student organizations, and meeting people just a bit more.
Phrased another way: I spent a lot of time in the Michigan Student Union.
Through student organizations I had the opportunity to work with some amazing people, and those people spent the majority of their time in the Union. Office hours, committee meetings, one-on-one meetings…any meeting you could think of, really. Back to back meetings throughout the day that continued deep into the night.
Benjamin Franklin once said that if you need to get something done, ask a busy person. I don't think I've ever been more productive in my entire life. I wouldn't trade those years (and the stress of fitting a last minute essay into a 30 minutes of free time in between meetings and events) for anything.
Late one spring night, I was sitting on the fourth floor of the Union with a group of friends that I had grown closer with throughout the year—leaders of various student organizations. We were discussing the latest political party at the University (yep, those exist) or efforts to stop the University's desire to raise tuition. The meeting details are neither here nor there.
I remember that the Union was empty. It must have been a Thursday night—not the ideal time to host a meeting on a college campus—and the building was quiet.
We had moved on from anything resembling a serious, productive conversation and Sarah* posed a question to the group. Has anyone been to the top of the Union?
After a brief discussion, Sarah swore that: 1) Despite the tower remaining locked, one could still get to the top of the Union and 2) She had done this before and knew the path up.
I remember feeling strangely nervous.
At this point our group numbered four. Sarah pointed to two hallways, both of which led to stairwells: we need one person to stand at each entrance…to warn us if you see campus security.
Just behind the SORC (Student Organization Resource Center), on the fourth floor of the Michigan Union, there are a set of elevators. These are the Union's central elevators. They run from the basement to the fourth floor (but do not continue up to the tower.)
To the left of the elevators, just before a hallway full of offices for various student orgs, sits a small, raised set of windows. They're too high to reach alone, but with a boost it's possible to open them.
Sarah is a small woman who must have lived a previous life as a gymnast, because with two of us ‘guarding’ the fourth floor landings, she pushed through the tiny (and shockingly unlocked) windows and landed on a small section of the third floor roof.
To preserve some elements of the night and adventure I'll keep the next few steps a secret. However, within 5 minutes (and without needing to climb through the impossibly small windows) the three of us were standing by Sarah’s side.
Moving slowly to avoid detection and certain injury, we snaked our away back and forth among the curves of the Union roof. We jumped a ridge to reach a higher section. We climbed a staircase to move closer towards, and finally up to, the side of the tower.
At Michigan many students sneak into the Big House and onto the famed football field before they graduate. Others sneak around the stacks at the Library to act as young couples will when sneaking around deserted corners of a collegiate library. But I didn't know anyone who had ever broken onto the roof of the Union.
Each step brought greater excitement. We were climbing above one of the most historic buildings in Ann Arbor, trying at once to not kill ourselves and to avoid detection. Eventually we reached the tower. I peered in, searching for any sign of activity.
I also peered out and around. The roof undoubtedly had been walked on before (Sarah knew the path up, after all) but it felt like exploring untouched territory, unlocking old mysteries.
I didn't take a single picture that night on top of the Union's roof. No tweets or texts, either. There's something nice about that--living in the moment rather than documenting it for the future.
I don't think that I realized how unique of a night it would be. I don't think that I realized it would be my last real memory of the Union before graduating a few months later. There was no over-analysis, no nostalgic emotion. Just the excitement of the moment.
But I remember thinking a few cliche thoughts up on that roof. I remember thinking how free I felt. I remember that it was a bit warmer than it should have been that night. Still jacket weather, but more pleasant than Ann Arbor typically is before Winter fully turns into Spring.
I remember looking out and seeing the lights. And as the campus lay before me I remember thinking how remarkable it was that in four short years, a school that was so big could feel so small.
*Obviously, not her real name
This piece was originally posted here.