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Growing up on The Commons - The Vanderbilt Hustler: Life

Growing up on The Commons

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Posted: Wednesday, November 20, 2013 12:06 am | Updated: 9:44 pm, Mon Dec 30, 2013.

A framed photograph, roughly 3 feet wide, hangs above the couches in the Lims’ living room. Within the frame, more than 1,000 tiny figures clad in light yellow T-shirts stand in a formation resembling the number 2012 — the graduating year of The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons’ inaugural class. The smallest of these figures, rounding out the bottom right-hand corner of the “0,” is 3-year-old Christian Lim. His T-shirt, light yellow like everyone else’s, fits like a nightgown and nearly touches his feet.

Now 9 years old, Christian is a third grader who plays baseball on a local youth team. His penchant for America’s pastime runs in the family: Paul Lim, Christian’s father and Crawford House’s faculty head, played second base on Yale’s varsity team as a student. Depending on the weather, those traversing The Commons may likely find the father-son duo playing catch on the Upper Quad or Peabody Esplanade.

For nearly six years, these two lawns have served as backyards for the Lim family — Christian, Paul and his wife Mikky — and for them, this academic year marks the last during which The Commons serves as home.

“I think this is … somewhat poignant for me,” said Lim, an associate professor in the Divinity School. “The size of the backyard cannot be replaced, so I think we’ll have to get settled with the fact that we’ll move into a house with a smaller yard.”

Besides lawn size, the Lim family’s impending departure from The Commons bears other ramifications. When asked about what he’ll miss most about living on campus, Christian quickly responded: “Free food. No paying bills.” While unusually practical for a 9-year-old, Christian’s considerations aren’t arbitrary. Having spent two-thirds of his life with direct access to dining hall cuisine and mortgage-free housing (compliments of the university), Christian’s upbringing is inextricably tied to The Commons.

The 9-year-old’s favorite meal in The Commons Center dining hall is the ginger orange chicken, served at The Wok station on Mondays. When that’s not available, however, he’ll settle for the grilled cheese from The Grill, the spaghetti or a specialty burrito dish from The Chef’s Table — in his words, “this burrito thingy, it’s got carnitas.”

“He’s been staring at the menu for five years, six years — so he’s got the thing figured out,” Lim said.

The Lim family lived in Ipswich, a town located on the north shore of Boston, before they moved to Nashville in 2006. Though Christian was still a toddler when his family left the East Coast, he visits the area every so often on vacations and considers himself a Boston Red Sox fan.

Christian’s comparisons between the East Coast and the South deal similarly with sports. “Down here, they’re like really wild about baseball and football,” he said. “But in that Mid-Atlantic, New England part, it’s like one of the most competitive parts of lacrosse, so that’s one big difference.”

The elder Lim took a more humanistic approach to comparing the two regions. According to him, “people generally seem nicer” at Vanderbilt and Nashville in general.

“I’ve lived in Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Old England since I was 15. From birth ’til 15 I was living in Seoul, Korea,” he said. “I would say that Nashville has been the best place in terms of … just hospitality of people, and I’m starting to feel that this is my home. I really am starting to feel that a lot.”

Speaking specifically to living in Crawford House, the faculty head commented that “one of the biggest differences is, believe it or not, the sense of security and safety one feels living on campus.” Despite the occasional crime alert, Lim feels less worried about theft than he did living in more traditional neighborhoods. “We can leave this place for two, three months on end and never worry about whether this place will be broken into,” he said.

And yet, when danger strikes the Vanderbilt community, it hits closer to home. Christian cites the Oct. 7 bomb threat as the single craziest experience living on a college campus.

“At first I was wondering, ‘Is it going to be on Peabody, the Upper Quad, the Lower Quad, or is it just going to blow up the whole entire thing?’ I was really freaked out,” he said.

The Lim family’s living space, known as “The Lodge,” sits on the second floor of Crawford House. The residence has its fair share of homey touches: plush couches, Christian’s art projects, a glass vase full of chocolates, a fall-themed wreath outside the front door.

“The Lodge,” on top of being the place the Lims will call home until summer 2014, is a part-time educational venue. Once every three weeks, Lim hosts “Why I Do What I Do” dinners — catered conversations between students and various guest speakers from the Nashville area. Christian often joins his dad and the students present to listen in on the first half of the evening, the guest speaker’s presentation. Afterward, as would befit a 9-year-old boy, Christian returns to his room to play.

Christian’s interactions with Crawford residents are usually limited to RAs and floor representatives, and in many cases those interactions involve talking about MLB teams or throwing a baseball around.

“I think he relates with his fellow Crawfordians primarily by way of sports,” Lim said. “I mean, he’s not that much of a chatterbox. He asks some great questions to me about life and theology and history and stuff, but I don’t really think he talks with the other folks about that.”

Christian can and does bring friends over to his home, whether they be of a different age bracket, like his mentor and former Crawford House resident Rachel King, or peers like Alec, one of his baseball teammates.

Still, Lim finds the Crawford House community, effectively his neighborhood, distinct by virtue of scale. “Christian basically has 150 potential babysitters, or child-sitters — he’s not a baby anymore — 150 Crawfordians,” he said. “I mean, if I send out an email, I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to do it, although he hasn’t really needed it that much recently.”

“It’s unbelievable how quickly time flew,” Lim said, both of his term as faculty head and his son’s growth. While Christian’s feet don’t quite reach the floor when he sits with his father on their living room couch, he’s matured to the point where he’s talking about future professions.

When Lim asked Christian, “Would you do that yourself — would you like to be a professor?” the 9-year-old replied instantaneously, “I have other career plans.”

Christian is currently between two options, baseball player and sports medic, both of which unsurprisingly eschew cubicles for athletic fields. “Probably I’d be interested in driving those carts,” he said of becoming a sports medic. Christian acted out an on-field trauma scenario shortly after, complete with the revving noises of an ambulance.

To this, his father responded, “You gotta do what you gotta do, man.”

Balancing his roles as professor, faculty head and dad, Lim finds that his life’s many circles tend to converge. Teaching in the Divinity School and the graduate Department of Religion, most of his exposure to undergraduates comes from being Crawford’s faculty head.

Though he’s maintaining his position as a tenured professor despite moving out of The Commons, Lim said he’d miss “being with undergrads and really kind of being able to enter into their life.” Christian chimed in, adding “ … and overgrads.”

His dad got a good laugh out of the invented term. “Yeah, under- and overgrads, undergrads and overgrads … Hey, that’s pretty good, man,” Lim said, proceeding to give his son a fist bump. “That’s a great new lexicon.”

Maintaining his son’s diction, Lim continued: “The overgrads have been really … set in their way of thinking about their future and training to be professors, whereas the undergrads … they’re a lot more open. Life is still in the process of formation, it is in flux … so to be able to talk to them about their fears and aspirations, their desires and delights and also disappointments. (Being faculty head has) been really a fabulous experience of transformation for me, not just for them, and I think I’ll miss that.”

Christian’s home also happens to be his father’s workplace, which makes for some unique encounters. “He’s been to my classes … he sees his daddy interacting with students, RAs and other staff and faculty colleagues,” Lim said. “He can say to his friends, ‘I know what my dad does,’ and that was probably sufficient antidote for him not to choose this particular career path.”

While Lim has enjoyed being an integral part of The Commons since its inception, he admitted that being a faculty head is taxing — both for himself and his family. “I think for (Christian), from his vantage point, he may not have always liked the fact that he’s sharing his daddy with so many other people. I … I think about that a lot,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why, at least for me, moving out of The Commons has become more of a pressing reality.”

Less than a month ago, Professor Lim received the 2013 Roland H. Bainton Book Prize for his book “Mystery Unveiled: The Crisis of the Trinity in Early Modern England.” He dedicated the book to Christian and Mikky.

“Certainly we didn’t plan this,” Lim said of his life at Vanderbilt, complete with gaining tenure, living on campus and touring the country to speak as a religious scholar. “But as I look back, I hope I’ve been able to give this gift of sharing Daddy’s life with Christian.”

Indeed, though time’s a scarce commodity for the father and son, it’s also a precious commodity. The two baseball aficionados sometimes take time out of their night to play a game of indoor catch in “The Lodge,” with Christian standing, baseball mitt in hand, on the far side of the living room and Lim in the apartment’s hallway. They both have good form.

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