The Encapsulating Bubble of the Sophomore Retreat

Music flowed, eyes watched, and gods sang in the middle of Camden, the poorest city in New Jersey.


Will Du

Fingers loose, back straight, eyes closed, I sat there as the heavy melody of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” 3rd movement took up the room. Keys moved. Strings sung. Wood groaned. Page after annotated page burned through my mind as I concentrated on making a broken instrument beautiful. To be fair, the piano in front of me wasn’t broken, but the haphazardly replaced keys, off-tune notes, and dysfunctional pedal made it seem close. Nevertheless, music flowed, eyes watched, and gods sang in the middle of Camden, the poorest city in America.

A few days ago, green pastures turned into concrete buildings outside the bus window as we passed a “Welcome to Camden” sign that seemed like a portal to a different world. The distinct feeling of “I can’t wait for this to end” passed through my mind, and I began counting the days until I would return to my world. But 8 hours later, seeing a relic of a seemingly distant world, the wall between the two worlds began to dissolve. Seeing not 1 but 3 of the most inaccessible instruments in a school that was underfunded made me view the city in a different light—hearing beautiful music in a place that was supposed to be anything but made me realize that even in a place like Camden, people appreciated beautiful things and would be willing to pay their cost.

I can’t say everyone on the sophomore retreat found meaning in a piano. At the conclusion of the retreat, when we were asked what thing or event made the retreat memorable, some replied that helping out at the soup kitchen, saving a school administrator hundreds of hours of work, and working with kids was the most meaningful part of their journey. Some talked about the close brotherhood formed during the retreat, while others remarked about the day we had $3 to buy our meals. Regardless of what everyone thought, though, sitting in a college dorm setting with traces of candle smoke drifting through the air as we discussed how we grew as people, the moment felt truly authentic.

After everything was almost packed up for the buses, I relaxed in the lounge of the Neighborhood House with a few of my peers. In the corner was another piano, glossy black with perfectly white keys. After some coaxing, I sat down at its bench and began to play the same piece that had worked so well at the Urban Center. Needless to say, the music worked the same in both worlds.