A few days ago, Dan Chiasson put out a piece in The New Yorker titled “The Coronavirus and the Ruptured Narrative of Campus Life.” He writes: “A college course is a narrative form, a story told collaboratively, over time.”
But this isn’t only true for college courses. The college experience is a story — one intertwined with, comprised of and molded by the innumerable, smaller, but no less important narratives contained within it. Maybe not always so simple, certainly never so smooth, rarely ever so obvious, it is a story that has a beginning, middle and end. Many experiences in life are this way, but the college experience is designed to be so.
Consider the words tossed about throughout the college experience — “orientation,” “first year,” “finals,” “graduation,” “commencement” — that indicate a start or a finish. Today, colleges across the nation are asking students to remain at home for the next several weeks. Yale has not only done this, but announced two nights ago that this policy has been extended for the remainder of the semester.
I have just finished up the first week of my spring break. On Friday, I could not put into words why I felt crushed when boarding a flight I booked last-minute to return home. Why was I so viscerally affected by a premature ending to my second-to-last semester at Yale? Was it that Commencement seemed like it wouldn’t be happening? Or that a Senior Week nearly everyone looks forward to will never take place? (I can safely say it wasn’t because I didn’t have the intuition to purchase Zoom stock).
I think of my peers, their final terms at school now severed in half, a narrative ended before the author and audience have been given a fair warning. What is it like for a poet to write a poem that ends before even they choose to? To read a novel where the final chapters fade in front of you? Or watch a film that cuts short of a promised conclusion? What happens when your middle forcibly becomes your end? Even for me — though I have another semester at Yale — this is my final spring semester, and one that has a special place in my heart. It is a time of lasts for many of my friends, and my last time to spend these lasts with them.
What is college? If you asked me years ago, I would have told you it’s a place to learn. But college isn’t a place, it’s a person — or rather, many of them. I think back to a week and a half ago, days before spring break began, when my English professor David Kastan and I had made plans to catch up over coffee. While I was preoccupied with looming deadlines, I felt obligated to make my way over to the cafe. There, we spoke of academia and politics and politics in academia, of college basketball and the Knicks (we both agreed — a doomed franchise, coronavirus or not), of Kanye West and Shakespeare. Most of all, I left with spirits lifted — invigorated to learn, inspired to be better and touched that someone cared.
Even if we assume the quality and content of our courses do not change (which is wishful thinking more than anything — although I am excited to take finals in my boxers for the first time), what is college without its people? Remove its people from the place and gone with them are friendships and support networks, culture and communities, dialogue and shenanigans; Campus becomes just a set of uninhabited buildings, and a semester becomes just schooling.
And I think it’s undeniable to admit that we are all agents of time. We’re often implored to live every day as if it were our last, but most of us don’t operate this way. And that’s fine. It is because moments that are truly our last are special. Maybe because the remaining two months of college simultaneously felt too short but also like an eternity — to try new things, to cultivate what we have, to rekindle the past — that this loss aches so much. We often wait until the last second to take such a risk, to do things that our inner heart longs for the most or to simply cherish our experiences.
So in this last half of what is the last semester for many on campus, I cannot help but think of the plans that will not happen and the experiences that will not materialize — but ones that could have and should have, that the pandemic has robbed us of.
There is a real sorrow in how experiences that should have been lived are not. They remain stillborn, floating in some warped liminal space. I wonder if they exist in a parallel world. The late-night trips spent trekking to GHeav to purchase a Gobbler (if you do order one, add chipotle mayo) that will unquestionably be regretted the following morning, the endless conversations on rooftops that creep into dawn about both everything and nothing. The final weeks with a sports team you spent four years with, the last evenings of mischief with a group of friends you just made senior year. The love that might have happened with a person you recently met, the relationship that was forming at last between you and that someone you simply met at the wrong place and wrong time in your first year. The friendship that needed eight — or six, maybe just four — more weeks of time.
So I lament the loss of big things — of one last Spring Fling that will not happen, of a Senior Week and Myrtle trip no more, of a Commencement that will likely be canceled — but maybe above all, I lament the loss of small things, of simple things — of friendship, of mentorship, of love, of feeling the opposite of loneliness.
In the coming weeks and months, as we socially distance, loss and loneliness are inevitable. But I am certain that everyone and Yalies in particular will find a way to make the best of these situations. I’m not so sure if there is an ending we like for those of us graduating this year. However, there are many other narratives — not just college ones — with an ending yet to be determined but put under risk by the virus as well. Immunocompromised lives and elderly ones, church communities and political movements. Global economic stability and households struggling to make ends meet, senior proms and peewee leagues. College experiences are just the first of many disrupted by this crisis.
So maybe we all need to be a little more giving, a little more understanding in times like these — and, really, always — to not rupture other narratives. Who knows, maybe we’ll even help write some.
ALLAN WU is a senior in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .