Youth: Meet a College Student in North Massachusetts
Interviewer: Freya Gulamali; April 13, 2020
Interviewee's name has been removed for privacy.
"They seemed...like little bits of beauty sprouting up toward the sun" (Interviewee).
Could you tell us about how the pandemic has affected your life?
The day our college president told us to leave, little purple flowers were poking through the ground in front of her house, though everything else still felt like winter. Having taken several semesters’ worth of literature classes, I of course ascribed great representational value to them. They seemed the earthly manifestation of our unbreakable humanity; despite it all, we students maintained our sense of humor and our love for each other, like little bits of beauty sprouting up toward the sun. Or so I told myself as I speed-walked to my last in-person comp lit class of the semester.
We had known it was coming. First there were the rumors; everyone had a friend who had a friend who had a professor who had gotten an email from administrators who warned that in-person classes would be cancelled. For a while, we dismissed that outcome as an impossibility. But then, as events and institutions across the country shut down, as our college president warned us not to gather in groups of over 100 people, we started to worry.
The Monday before we got the email from the president was the day I started to understand that we had to leave. It was also the most beautiful day of the year so far. I took my reading out to a picnic table. My friend passed by the table and decided to join me, so we sat and talked and didn’t do our readings and basked in the sun. As early afternoon turned to late afternoon, I took a photo of my friend. I wanted to capture the last moment of peace.
Two tense, hazy days later, I had breakfast with my brilliant, lugubrious friend. We sat and were sad together. Since that has always been our dynamic, I felt the most normal I had felt in days. When he, for some reason, pulled up his dream diary on his iPhone, I caught a glimpse of an entry that said only, “3/7: Ping pong with Foucault.” It was so classically him, and it made me laugh, and so it made me sad. At 10:40 a.m., the expected email from the president finally appeared; the semester was over. We both just sighed. A few minutes later, I left to go to class.
The girl sitting across from me in class was wiping her eyes with a handkerchief. It occurred to me that she had to have been carrying it around even before the email, since class began so soon after we received it. Surely she didn’t have time to go back to her dorm and pick it up. This college student must therefore have been carrying an honest-to-goodness handkerchief around in her bag, like her betrothed had gone off to sea to fight in the Napoleonic Wars and she needed it on hand in case she had a feminine fit of the hysterics. I gazed at her. All the while, the professor was saying words about online classes.
The rest of the day slid by. We all knew on some level that there would be life after this, but for us dramatic young adults, it felt like we had a few days left to live. We referred to our situation as the “apocalypse” and began sentences with, “Now that the world’s ending.” The word “nihilism” was bandied about. Being the progressive college students we are, we made sure to tag on a pious, “Of course, there are people suffering much worse than we are!” to every exclamation of despair. It was true, and it was good for us to remember. Yet it didn’t take away from the fact that we were sad. I’m not much of a crier—I didn’t cry in 2019, a fact I find more concerning than impressive—yet in that half a week, I broke down a few times a day. Sure, I was sad about leaving college. But also, as the hours and days passed, it was dawning on me what was happening to the world, what the next few months might look like.
"I washed my hands so often they started to bleed."
Students kept their sense of humor. The college’s meme page on Facebook exploded; several seniors focused on the silver lining of being able to escape the swim test requirement for graduation. These seniors, as they lost their senior spring of college in the midst of a global pandemic and headed into a shrinking job market, were rejoicing at not having to swim a lap of backstroke. I felt that there was no higher form of comedy than swim test memes.
Another way of coping, perhaps a predictable one given that we were on a college campus, was alcohol. The liquor store offered a deal on Corona: Buy 18 bottles, get one free, and you have COVID-19. It seemed funny then, less so now. Parties would later take on a disturbing significance once we learned that the first student who tested positive for the virus had gone to one, perhaps infecting other attendees, but at the time, they were almost mundane. It felt hard to grasp, except on an intellectual level, that anyone on campus could really have the virus.
I was with my friends constantly. I made my suitemate sit on my bed as I took my posters down from the wall, some of the more brittle ones breaking from the force of having the poster putty peeled away. With all my homework postponed until who-knew-when, I lingered over meals in the dining hall for a long time. My friends and I cooked pasta in the dorm kitchen we had continually sworn to make use of more often. All this socializing was hardly fun, because there was little to talk about that wasn’t gloomy. We did it out of a sense of obligation. Who knew when we would see each other again?
As I look back on all the activity of that half week, it feels less like a sign of the irrepressible will of youth, as I liked to think of it then, and more like desperation. It was silly for us to be spending so much time together. We were being sent home exactly because it was dangerous for us to be around each other. The parties and pasta nights were ways for us to try to heal, to fight back against the strange circumstances we found ourselves in. We were scared of being alone.
"...It feels less like a sign of the irrepressible will of youth, as I liked to think of it then, and more like desperation."
Those days after the president’s email felt like weeks, but I left on the Friday, after only two days of chaos. I went back to my safe home with my lovely family, and, as people kept saying in those last few days on campus, it could be much, much worse. That was almost four weeks ago. It seems even more frivolous now, all the madness of those few days, all the anarchy and togetherness and tears. But back then, the virus didn’t feel as real. Of course, some of us had friends and family in the areas most affected, and it felt very real for them. For many of us, though, the virus was something that happened in cities far away, to people we read about in New York Times articles. We felt safe at our campus tucked among the mountains. There we felt free.
Now, thousands upon thousands of people have died in the U.S. I have to use two hands to count the number of people I know who have the virus, and I’m sure by next week I’ll have to start using my feet. Meanwhile, the economy is crumbling; businesses are collapsing; millions and millions of people are going to lose their jobs. It’s hard to conceive of the future.
I wonder about those purple flowers sometimes. Not that it matters, but I’d like to think they’re still blooming. More likely, they’ve started to decay; after all, it has been weeks since I last saw them. Maybe the spring snow killed them first.