My gaze once traveled in between the backs of anonymous heads toward the professor lecturing on stage. Today it lands on rows of faces illuminated on Zoom. Ignoring the powerpoint, I instead indulge in the study of expressions.
I glance at the girl who goes to great lengths to suppress the laugh bubbling up her throat, and even raises her mug to obscure her Cheshire Cat grin, feigning a sip. I wonder what meme she was likely just tagged in, as I surreptitiously tag my own distant friends, suspended in another virtual classroom we still call Yale.
I gaze at the girl in the hoodie who yawns behind an oversized sleeve and nestles into the corner of her screen, chastising her eyelids to remain open with a frenetic flurry of blinks. I wonder what time it is for her. I wonder whether she’s risen for class in the middle of the night, when it seems the only light in the world emanates from her fluorescent Zoom screen. Or if she, like me, is just unable to sleep much these days.
I observe the boy who constantly glances over his shoulder at the closed door with anxious, imploring eyes. I wonder what lies behind it. What sounds make him turn so warily, and who makes them? Who does he fear will barge through the door and broach the fragile boundary between home and school, established the moment he plugs in his headphones? What symphony of familial cohabitation buzzes behind his muted mic? I think about the noises that have hid behind my elusive smile and locked door in virtual lectures past. The “It’s your turn to do the dishes!” and “Who took my shirt?” jeering through the household while I sign into Neuroscience, sporting my sister’s top. The hiss of the frying pan escaping from the kitchen as my mother sheepishly crawls out of bed, having awoken to my 6 a.m. alarm, and insists on cooking me breakfast. The sound of a coughing sibling, and then two.
I look at my TF as she lectures, and softly nod to communicate my understanding. Not of the material (wouldn’t that be nice) — just understanding. It’s remarkable how young she looks, almost child-like, in the washed-out hue of the computer and these vulnerable times. Her nondescript background attempts to present professionality, though I imagine a life’s worth of posters and pictures blooming across her wall just beyond the frame of her screen. Isn’t it funny how across the world, so many of us — first years and Ph.Ds alike — have somehow ended up in our childhood bedrooms?
These days, we can’t help but lament how distant we’ve grown from one another. We mourn the immediate loss of those closest to us — those with whom we spent endless hours each day, accompanying one another in our pushes of productivity, procrastinating together in our suites, delightfully doing nothing at all. We feel robbed of the casual friendships, the someday friendships. The girl we always run into at the Payne Whitney Gym and vow we’ll grab a meal with soon. (The prospect, itself, of endless meals ahead: each one a promise of potential connection.) That smiley girl with the blue hair. That cute boy that always studies on the bottom floor of Bass. The gathering of people — so many wonderful people — speckled like sunshine across the grass of Cross Campus on the day that none of us knew would be the last. I miss it all — I miss you all — and ache with ghost pains from all that we are missing.
But today I log into my lecture and I see your faces. Today I see your faces and your names and instead of the usual “to piggyback off of that,” you say: “I agree with Jackson’s point, and…” Today in seminar our teacher asks how we’re doing and instead of the perfunctory chorus of “good” that used to chime through every Yale classroom like the Harkness bells, today we all pause. Our eyes travel around, flitting across each others’ squares and reaching for eye contact we can only imagine is received on the other end. And a common hum of “Okay” and “Not the best” and an unstifled yawn pour from the speakers of our laptops. And our professor takes a breath, and tells us it’s okay to not be okay. And today, we all call each other by our names.
I look at you and think about how far we are from each other at this moment. But it strikes me that in some ways, even when we’re on campus, this is always so. We all have sleepless nights, tortured by the stressors at Yale we fear we can’t overcome and by conflicts at home we fear we can’t reach. We all have our private cacophonies of family life roaring behind metaphorical doors that we can never fully shut, even when grinding in Yale libraries and procrastinating in common rooms. Loved ones fall ill on clocks uncalibrated to the Yale schedule. Sentiments of intense isolation enclose us even when there is no quarantine to demand and justify our solitude. On holidays, we still return to childhood bedrooms and to the vulnerability that inhabits them — though at Yale we only see each others’ uniform dorm rooms. We are constantly thrusted back into our worlds of diverse responsibilities, familial makeups, love and hardship — though at Yale we only see each others’ academic facades.
The other day at my Zoom lab meeting, instead of sharing professional updates, we went around the virtual circle of faces and each took a moment to share how we were feeling. Our lab manager proudly held up the evidence of her new knitting abilities. With a chuckle, our principle investigator candidly disclosed she’s surpassed level 100 of Candy Crush. Another researcher offered to send around his weekly bread recipe newsletter. And each of us, in turn, also began sharing tips for how we’ve managed to push through personal adversity in the past, before we all opened our emails with “I hope you are holding up okay.” One researcher shared how he coped when his mother passed away suddenly in the middle of the academic year; another described his struggle navigating lab work amidst a mental health crisis. In the context of shared conflict, we could suddenly all tell stories of the personal hardships that hit us when nobody was looking. Gazing at the gathering of people from a smattering of countries across the globe, we had never felt closer.
So I’m very happy to see your face today. Though I long to return to Yale so intensely; though each night I wade into the wave of a dream and I wash up on the shores of L-Dub courtyard; and though I feel so far, so small, so disconnected — in this moment, I feel like we can actually see each other. Screen to screen. Face to face. Yalie to Yalie. Because these days, it seems, we’re all actually looking.
Mina Caraccio | firstname.lastname@example.org