Last week, I was shocked when a pack of Marlboros fell out of the pocket of a boy sitting in front of me in class. I actually recoiled in surprise at the sight of the red box on the floor. Clearly, two decades of “Just Say No” education hadn’t had any effect on my classmate.
Over fall break of my freshman year, I visited friends at the University of North Carolina and at East Carolina University. At both schools, the cigarette butts jammed in sidewalk cracks, the overflowing ashtrays, and the smelly side entrances to buildings appalled me. Around the time of my visit, the big news on campus at UNC was the newly instated ban on smoking within 100 feet of buildings. Despite signs and posters announcing the new policy, it seemed like everywhere I looked, students were flagrantly violating the ban.
Nobody smokes at Notre Dame. Well, there are probably a handful of “I only smoke when I drink” types, but they certainly aren’t in my circle of friends. I like to think that Notre Dame students don’t smoke because they are smart enough to realize the consequences of such a dangerous habit, but maybe it’s just that people don’t have cars to get to gas stations. The students at UNC and ECU went through the same D.A.R.E programs, watched the same creepy “Truth” commercials with smokers who had lost their vocal cords, and sat through the same high school health classes that the Notre Dame students did. So what’s the difference?
I’m proud to say that I haven’t ever smoked. Anything. Ever. I almost did this summer, but I was reverse peer-pressured. The health teachers and D.A.R.E. police officers don’t ever seem to mention the odd situation I found myself in this summer, but here’s the story of The Time I Wanted to Try A Cigarette, But The Other People Who Were Smoking Wouldn’t Let Me.
I’ve already written about the fun rooftop parties I went to at a hostel in Kolkata this summer. The parties were nighttime gatherings of the most culturally diverse group of people I’ve ever been privileged to encounter. The attendees were mostly students, all volunteers in their twenties. My new friends hailed from France, Ireland, Germany, Australia, Mexico, and Italy. As we sat in a loose circle, perched on wobbly chairs and window ledges, one of the French girls asked for a smoke. An Irish guy obliged, pulling out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter and offering them to the group. The cigarettes made their way around the circle, and in turn, everyone lit up. When the small box got to me, I hesitated and said, “I’ve never smoked before…will someone show me how?”
“You’ve never smoked? Why start now?” an Italian boy asked me. “Well, I’m sitting on a rooftop in India. What better time is there to try something new? It’s just one,” I replied. I really wanted to try a cigarette. I wasn’t planning on making it a habit, but the moment seemed right for me to try something new and a tiny bit reckless. I tipped the box to shake a cigarette out, but the Irish guy next to me snatched the package out of my hand. “You don’t need that. Really. You don’t,” he said. “No! I want to try. Give those back,” I demanded. The others around me chimed in, “Don’t worry about it.” “Seriously, it’s not a big deal.”
My peers on the roof of the Modern Lodge were a particularly selfless bunch—many of them were in the midst of months-long volunteer stints in schools, health centers, and railroad stations in India—but many of them also hailed from countries where smoking is an ingrained part of the culture.
Until that moment, every health class and anti-smoking campaign I had experienced had prepared me for the inevitable time when my peers would pressure me to smoke.
That night, I didn’t have my first cigarette.