12/08/2010 04:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Whatever Got Me Through That Night


Monday night. University of Pennsylvania. Van Pelt Library, Rosengarten Reserve Room. Ground floor study center. Students everywhere. We live here now. At desks, at tables, on the floor. Textbooks, notebooks, soda cans, gum wrappers. If we talk, it's in hushed whispers. There is no noise during Finals Week. The stakes are too high. We are all different, but we all agree: don't disturb my Future and I won't interrupt yours.

Suddenly there is a sound. Everyone turns. A big, bearded student has entered the room, shouting. He is followed by a group of other students, all of them male, all of them wearing bedsheets. "Togas." They stand on tables and belt out "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." The Springsteen version. Bruce is the Patron Saint of the University of Pennsylvania. As acolytes, we accept this intrusion, laughing and applauding at this annual fraternity stunt. Comic relief. Rock therapy.

The room settles back into quiet intensity. Minutes pass, hours blend. History, English, Econ, Psychology. They all merge into one big subject: Everything You Need to Know. We are all exhausted. This is tempered by the feeling that We Have Just Gotten Started.

There is another noise. Another student has entered the room. No one pays much attention. He is not a big, burly guy, like the fraternity brother who led the Springsteen song. He is thin and slight. Clearly not a performer. But he is walking from table to table, desk to desk. Slowly, deliberately. Talking to everyone.

I can't hear what he's saying, but it doesn't seem that important. He seems to be moving in slow motion. I've never seen someone walk this slowly. What is he doing, exactly? I'm a freshman. Maybe this is some tradition I'm not aware of.

However, the vibe of the room has changed. Academic intensity has given way to something else. Students look disturbed. A room that was already quiet to begin with has gotten quieter. Whatever good feeling the fraternity brothers brought has gone.

Now he's within earshot. I hear him say, ". . . was just shot. I just think you all should know . . . John Lennon was just shot." He repeats this, over and over.

In my mind's eye, I can still see him. The look on his face. The look on everyone else's face. I am grateful that in my memory, I can't see mine.

For the past thirty years, I have graduated from college student to Lennon student. A John and Yoko double major. I have immersed myself in everything he's ever done - music, writings, drawings, interviews. I won't go into all of it here. (One thing I can tell you is you got to be free.)

In his final Playboy interview, Lennon refused to see the Beatles as any more important than anyone else. The interviewer says the Beatles moved more people than anyone else. "But what moved the Beatles?" says John, adding that the Beatles may have been in the crow's nest, shouting "Land ho," but the "whole boat was moving."

On December 8, 1980, when that student walked into the library to quietly announce that the Future had been disturbed, it felt like the whole boat stopped.

So when I think about that night, I try not to focus on the messenger and instead imagine the raucous fraternity brothers. With their rock and roll "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," they embodied the essence of what John Lennon stood for.

I hope one day that's all I remember.