Ways of Seeing: Take the long view of this pandemic
On a warm spring morning during my sophomore year of high school, I gathered with my P.E. class to form teams for a softball game. Chatting as we stood in line along the backstop, we watched the boys’ class run laps on the nearby track. Suddenly there was a shifting, a movement, and the ground quite literally began to undulate in visible waves. The strongest earthquake to hit Seattle since just before my birth was rolling through. It was fortunate that our class was outside that morning, because in the gym, sections of the ceiling fell to the floor. We students were allowed to gather up our belongings and were sent home while the building’s integrity was assessed.
It felt weird and exciting. We were told that our school would be closed for the rest of the week. At first, I was gleeful with the unexpected holiday, but then I got concerned. There was talk about what would happen if we could not safely return to our school — maybe for the rest of the year, or maybe not ever. Discussions of split schedules at the nearest high school to complete the year seemed strange, but outright upsetting to me was the possibility of dividing us into a myriad of other schools for my remaining two years.
At 15, I had my friends, my activities, a sort of place in the social and educational structure which I was not keen on losing. In actuality, we were able to return the next week with just a few sections of the building cordoned off, and the needed repairs were completed during the summer.
These memories and feelings come back to me as I think about the students who are now separated from their friends, classmates and teachers. In particular, I think of those who are seniors, preparing to graduate, yes, but without the usual celebrations with friends and family, without the “pomp and circumstance.” Whether one is leaving high school or college, it is generally a time of songs and speeches, parties and hugs. Curtailed also are the weddings, memorial services, reunions and so many celebrations that help us connect with one another and provide our support, love and good wishes with more strength than a card, phone call or Zoom meeting can ever do.
As human beings, we are the sort of mammals who tend to live in social groupings and gain sustenance from our interactions. Small wonder, then, that we chafe at the lack of togetherness. No surprise that some can be easily manipulated to balk and protest at restrictions put in place to support not just me (Hey! I feel fine!) but our whole community.
As that 15-year-old sophomore, my strong desire was to get back into that school so I could be with my friends and have my routine! Perhaps both because of and in spite of our social nature, human beings are one of the most adaptable creatures on earth, an honor we share with ants, cockroaches and rats. As a species, we have managed to survive through plagues and famines, ice ages, floods, and droughts, although our survival increasingly seems to be to the earth’s detriment.
Now we find ourselves having to adapt in new ways which we understand will help each of us be more likely to survive, but which are so counter to our instincts and impulses. Everywhere in the world and all through time, humans have held large group gatherings. Rare are the individuals who regularly avoid close social contact. So how do we make such a counter-intuitive adaptation that may well be necessary for some indefinite period of time?
Somewhere along my way, I learned that I cannot always choose what happens to me, but I can always choose how I think about it, choose my feelings and my responses. Graduations are also commencements, and that very word means beginning. If we use that word in our thinking, it may be easier to look ahead to where we are going rather than bemoan the ways in which the leave-taking is not what we expected.
A wedding is a formal coming together of two people, committing their love to each other, and if they choose, that can take place without a gala event (and they might even save some money!). A 50th reunion or anniversary represents a special span of time, but perhaps 51 or 52 years is even more special.
By waiting for a safer time to do the actual celebration or party for any of these events, we are also helping to have more of the people we want to include be alive, well, and able to participate.
Another way people have survived and connected is through their stories. Especially when things shift out of the usual, a story can take form, helping us handle the event at the moment and shaping it into a bonding experience in the future. When I attended my 50th high school reunion a couple of years ago, the memory everyone was sharing was not the prom or some sports event. In truth, everyone was not even involved in those activities. What we talked about was the earthquake from our sophomore year. Everyone experienced that; everyone was literally moved by that event. For those heading out from high school or college this spring, I can strongly predict their conversations in 50 years.
Sometimes there are things that shake our world, and we are in such a time now, so we need to adjust and adapt. We need to use our brains not just to react but to think and plan and find our new adaptations. We need to tell the story of our humanity, our communities, and how we all took care of each other. That’s a real commencement.
Laurie Cox is a retired school counselor and long-time Ripton selectboard member. Besides occasional writing, she sings with Maiden Vermont, pursues art, takes long hikes with her dog(s) and seasonally gardens. She also is about to become more actively involved in things political, environmental, and just.
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