“Are you ready for in-class persons?” I said.
Wait, that’s not how it goes.
“Are you ready for in-person classes?”
This pathetic attempt to initiate conversation with a fellow student over breakfast at the beginning of Week 4 of winter quarter reminded me of Sept. 17, the first Friday at my on-campus residence. After a leisurely stroll around Tressider Memorial Union, I stepped into the dormitory and heard footsteps other than mine. Peering over the rails of the stairwell that led to the kitchen, I saw a young woman at the bottom carrying a laundry basket. She stopped in her tracks, made direct eye contact with me from below and said, “Why are you always looking down on people, Matthew?”
I smiled, replying, “You know, that’s a good question.” Four additional words popped into my head, but I refused to say them: “And what’s your name?”
The next morning, I crossed paths with her again and tried to make conversation. That’s what people do in college, right?
She vaguely mentioned alcohol and a party last night, about which she was unsure whether it was worth showing up for. Somehow that got me on the topic of simulation theory. She smiled and nodded. I mentioned a book by Nick Bostrom, then cracked a joke in a desperate attempt to humanize myself: “I don’t stand a chance. I don’t stand a chance at being human.”
In any case, that student at breakfast during Week 4 of winter quarter was not ready for in-class persons or in-person classes. His professor, whom he described as “the human representation of a snail,” was planning to keep instruction remote for the time being, notwithstanding that more restrictions had been lifted recently. His professor was going to return to in-person instruction a couple of weeks later. “I’m about to go from not paying attention in class to sleeping in class,” the student said.
Truth and appearance seldom go hand in hand. Well, at least that’s the case when I chat with other students over breakfast. For example, I said, “How are you doing?” to somebody one morning. “Good!” he said. Then, he added, “Actually, I’m not good. I’m not sure why I said that.”
Most aren’t going to make such an admission. I know I won’t. Sure, authenticity is supposed to be a virtue. One could imagine walking down the streets of New York and asking pedestrians, “Is authenticity good?” and receiving many affirmative responses. Is it authenticity, though? Or is it the mere illusion of it that most find palatable in practice? Yes, I see through their lies, if only partially. I can tell someone else is in there, hiding behind the veneer.
A couple of weeks later, on the way to a midday computer science lecture, the sun punished me with its sweltering heat from 93 million miles away. Rude. During my morning run two days later, it was 30ºF outside — either unseasonable or unreasonable for California — and even after defrosting myself in the shower, by the time I got to my 8:30 geophysics class I could not feel my extremities again. I thought I would be done with this mess after leaving my hometown of Chicago.
Gosh, I still remember getting off the plane in December. There truly is no place like home for the holidays. My father was standing right there at the gate. Incidentally, he said, he happened to return from a business trip at the same time that I returned from campus. My mother drove to the airport and brought us home.
Along the way, Mom and Dad bickered about the most efficient route to take. Classic. Then, the attention turned to me. “Are you going to take an economics class next quarter?” Dad asked. “It’ll be interesting. The courses that I took at Stanford were quite modular, but the world is different now.”
“You don’t say?”
“A lot is happening in the economy right now, son,” he said as I distractedly stared out the window. “You’ll have the opportunity to learn about how inflation works in the real world, in real time.”
“Can’t wait,” I said.
“I think he’s already thinking about how to get a ticket back to campus,” he said. I couldn’t help but laugh at that.
Indeed, I obtained a plane ticket back to Stanford as soon as I could. Then, a few days after Christmas and a few days before departure, I received a new email message about my upcoming trip. “Winter storms across the Midwest may cause disruptions to your flight, including possible delays or cancelations,” it read. The words — and the sense of inefficacy that my dwindling agency spurred — immediately reminded me of when I received a notification for my upcoming flight for winter quarter last year, days before the University pulled the rug. Should I buy more tickets, as if improving my odds at a game of Russian roulette, or should I resign to fate?
My parents steadfastly reassure me that things will be alright, but I fail to point to a single recent instance in which they’ve made an optimistic prediction that did not stale. I remember over the summer, before the Delta variant took over, that my mother said, “Soon, you’re going to be on campus, and everything’s going to be in person, and nobody will be wearing a mask. At this point, the only way for that not to happen would be if a complete disaster were to strike.”
Around Thanksgiving, I expressed concern about heightened restrictions at Middlebury College, and my father said, “Vermont’s not doing as well as California, so it won’t be the same. I can’t imagine Stanford would need to make more things remote.”
I could imagine.
Suffice to say, I’m glad to be back. 848 flights were canceled at O’Hare International Airport when I departed Chicago on New Year’s Day, but thankfully mine was not one of them.
Every so often, my mind retreats to the early days of the pandemic, when its scope was not yet known. I was still watching vlogs by Stanford students and hysterically inflating my anticipation for starting college. We had some zest back then. We were “alone together.” It was so romantic. Or, if that’s not the definition of “romantic,” then I’m not sure what is — suspended in a free fall between worlds, lapsing into acquiescence another time.