Art of Writing is pleased to announce this year's winner of the Art of Rewriting Essay Contest. Caitlyn Jordan, a senior English major from Granite Bay, CA, is double-minoring in human rights and creative writing. She works as a writing tutor in the Student Learning Center, contributes to the student publication Caliber, and teaches health education to local high school students through the campus organization Peer Health Exchange.
Jordan’s prize-winning essay, which draws upon her experience studying abroad, was sparked by a discussion in one of the courses she took as a visiting student at Kings College London. The essay is below.
Bridging the Gap
In 1942, despite delayed construction, uncertainty, and the largest war faced by London, a new bridge opens from the rubble of Strand Bridge. It is a precarious structure—beams have been forced into arches; the footway is supported by slabs of metal. Beneath it, the River Thames, the longest river in England, runs dangerously quickly. Yet, from the bridge, travelers can see London in all directions, can watch the way the river curves endlessly around the city. The new bridge is named after the victorious Battle of Waterloo, the battle in which the British ended the Napoleonic Wars. A few years later, it becomes the only Thames bridge to be hit by German bombers. Waterloo Bridge—fashioned from war, made into a casualty of its violence.
Four days of the week, I walk across Waterloo Bridge to reach the central campus of King’s College London. This is a newly familiar route. According to my passport, I am a six-month, short-term student. That is, I am a study abroad student. I am a visitor who can give directions to tourists. Every time I reenter the UK, I lug a folder to the passport control desk, checking to ensure it’s all printed inside: transcripts, letters of acceptance, bank statements, everything which proves I am only temporary.
No one makes eye contact on the bridge, reminding me of our British study abroad advisor’s warning: “For Heaven’s sake, don’t smile at strangers!” Unable to completely relinquish my American interest in interacting with strangers, I watch them instead: new couples taking photos, businesspeople walking with earphones fastened tightly, the occasional person wrapped in blankets who asks me for money. Waterloo Bridge, rebuilt and improved, serves as one of the major bridges across the Thames. No matter the hour, there are always people on Waterloo, and every time I cross the bridge, I’m reminded of London’s size, how its traffic and people never seem to pause.
Waterloo Bridge gained a reputation for suicides in the 1840’s, before its demolition and reconstruction in 1942, when it was still known as Strand Bridge. Poet Thomas Hood named the bridge the “Bridge of Sighs”, and even accidental deaths happened on Waterloo—a daredevil attempting to perform a trick hung himself in front of his horrified audience. But even a few years ago, sixteen-year-old Rebekah Legg-Mead threw herself off of Waterloo Bridge after continuous bullying. A passerby jumped into the water to try to save her, but he couldn’t. I know this. Each time I cross the bridge, I’m struck by a sense of wonder, but I’m always afraid. Afraid that I’ll pass someone holding onto the edge and not be able to help, or worse, not notice at all.
Some days, especially cold days, I stop to look at the river. The wind is an incessant attack. Stray bits of hair catch in my mouth and the dampness seems to enter every part of my body, even the corners of my eyes. I imagine hurtling towards the grey water, not because I want to but because my mind can’t let me forget it—that people have thrown themselves off this very bridge, that people have tried to save each other and sometimes failed.
There are so many people in London, and I know none of them. None of my friends from Berkeley studied abroad. I know no one in this country, and no one in the countries touching this one. Living abroad, everything becomes reduced to increments: carefully plotted phone calls between classes, work shifts, and meetings; hour-long coffee chats with people seen only in passing. I wonder if this is how it will be after college, when my friends and I scatter across the world. I wonder if this is what being an adult is—loving people who are never close enough.
If I threw myself off Waterloo Bridge who would be the first to know, to recognize me? London time is eight hours before California. If it happened at noon, it would be four in the morning back home. It would be dark there; the day would not have started. I would leave unnoticed.
One day, I walk across Waterloo, and everything has changed. There are police vehicles clustered around the barriers; there are uniformed officers in bowler hats I still find charmingly ridiculous. There are no busses, no cars. I continue, and as I reach the middle of the bridge, I see that Waterloo is blocked with people. There are trees tied to the divider. There is a parked truck, opened to reveal a band strumming on the guitar. On one side of the bridge, I see a daycare in which children paint each other’s faces and sit on bales of hay. It’s an environmental protest, the Extinction Rebellion, and soon it will dominate headlines. But in this moment, I just see a bridge transformed.
It’s warmer at this time of year, and the people are kinder. Protesters offer me pamphlets about climate change, and encourage people passing by to jump over the traffic dividers and join them. I pause, and someone shouts to me to come in. The bridge is consumed with us: people writing messages in chalk, skateboarders performing tricks, people holding hands. We listen as a person perched on a box speaks into a megaphone. She chants and we respond: “Whose streets?” “Our streets!” I am still temporary, an outsider in transit, but in this moment, it feels as if we all belong to Waterloo Bridge. It is ours, just as the planet is ours to save.
A few days later everything is shut down. I leave my apartment to get groceries and the streets are emptied of people. Tape barricades us from crossing the bridge. Eventually, traffic resumes. On my daily route across Waterloo Bridge, I pause by the barrier. Instead of imaging myself in the water, I remember what was once there: two children, lit by sun, unfolding a banner between them, holding it proudly above their heads.