The Performed Normalcy of Fall Trimester at Oberlin

In late September, about a month into this historic Fall Trimester, The Grape published an article of mine entitled “Insomniacs, Quarangirlfriends, and Our Newly Honed Skill: Aloneness.” The article was written both in mourning of a spring and summer season lost to COVID-19—the former being my first in Oberlin as a then-First Year, now-Second-Year, still pining for Big Parade: an almost mythological source of Spring Semester joy for all those before me—and with a certain degree of optimistic humor for a strange semester ahead. It is arguably a forced optimism, a dark humor, but optimism and humor nonetheless. 

I write that my peers and I have adapted, at least somewhat, to the challenges of COVID-19 and that, because of this “Newly Honed Skill” that is being alone and and learning to be ok with it, we were ready to take on even the strangest of semesters. And hey, if we’re all suffering as a unit, we can have some beautiful and harmonious, reasonably distanced, commiserization sessions, right? Our humanity has seeped through even the direst of circumstances, I seem to cry from the Opinions section. We all have terrible isolation dye-jobs and sleep schedules that more resemble those of possums than of undergraduate students, so we can find unity in this comically awful year! It is a spry, hopeful piece that I received equally warm feedback on from friends, classmates, and strangers alike.

  Reading it now, however, the article comes across as though I am trying to convince even myself that it was okay that I was starting another semester—sorry, trimester—of college during one of the most tumultuous years in recent history. And, standing on the other side of this exhausting, frankly, merciless, fall trimester at Oberlin, I’m wondering if such optimism was the helpful sort or the naive, desperate, grasping-at-straws sort.

 There is, of course, also the fact that as I reflect on this, I am less than two weeks away from boarding my flight out of Cleveland from which, as a Second-Year college student, I will not complete the roundtrip until the Summer Trimester in May. I am as predictably haggard, caffeine-addicted, and emotionally fried as my peers. Indeed, considering what I knew of this semester before I came back to school, I am baffled by the high regard I held for our looming predicament that was and is Pandemic College. For, on top of every other crisis 2020 has sent our way, the Me that wrote that September article also quietly anticipated being shipped back to South Texas mid-semester on three days notice because of some terrifying college grime-induced COVID outbreak. Such is a harrowing concern I had almost forgotten about until sitting down to write this new iteration of COVID College Thinkpiece (low-hanging, though topical, fruit). Perhaps my humor, my optimism, in the former piece stemmed from simply willing things to be ok…a sort of preemptive gratefulness. And now, as a gloomy holiday season leers at me from a couple weeks away, on the other side of deadlines and airport security, I feel that familiar wintertime urge to be, well, thankful

And I was thankful a couple months ago. I think we all had to be to some extent, considering the effort it took to move in and start classes amid every necessary precaution and the trials that accompanied them. Especially since a lot of colleges had completely closed their doors. Oberlin students, as opposed to most others, had the option of performing some degree of normalcy. But, you don’t just casually go back to college during a plague. It takes effort and preparation; consideration for things that never before needed consideration. Nothing is normal. 

It isn’t just about physical health either. While some professors shaved down syllabi, crafted empathic Blackboard notifications, and preached “self care”, other professors opted instead to act as though a pandemic were just another slight obstacle that, if dedicated enough, one should excel in the face of, in pursuit of some skewed ideal of academic or creative excellence. I’ve yet to hear from any fellow student that all their professors have been as flexible and accommodating as any rational person would expect at a time of not only widespread illness, but societal unrest. This denial of the depth of widespread struggle is also one that denies the diversity of struggle. For, though this campus is united in masks and sanitized wipes and Zoom links, not all of us face that same obstacles created by COVID-19. Our lives before the pandemic were not placed on a level socioeconomic, ability-based, or societal playing field, so why would this universal struggle even things out suddenly? I’m unsure what I expected from Oberlin as far as ensuring the psychological wellbeing of its students, but one would be hard-pressed to find a person who find the claim that the atmosphere on campus has been that of overwhelming stress and frustration to be a divisive one. It is difficult to feel thankful for a place that has been so apathetic toward the plight of its students during a time such as this. I am, however, still thankful I was able to participate in this era of Oberlin. 

Perhaps, though, that initial thankfulness we all had just to be here has receded significantly as our rooms have become more and more uninhabitable amid strewn clutter and unwashed dishes; our final project worries mingling with our moving worries and travel worries and (some of) our financial worries, and constant exclamations of profanity over the state of our workload amid the collapse of modern civilization—Jesus, that’s still due? It was election week! We were all in bed being upset, remember? And, for Christ’s sake, we’re in a pandemic!–Yet, reflecting on a semester where it seemed hardly any of us ever had a moment to catch our breath, I’m still thinking about how many colleges didn’t even open this fall like Oberlin did—to our benefit or detriment—and despite every additional wet blanket heaped on this merry fall semester, I, like most of us, was just happy to be here in August. 

But, if not for the time capsule that was my own article from a couple months ago; happy to move, once more, far from my scantily-masked Trumpian hometown in pursuit of my dearly missed, now masked, close friends and the beloved town in which we grew acquainted, I might have forgotten I’d ever felt so eager to be alive and kicking in Oberlin, Ohio. This trimester at Oberlin has been a rough one. I’ve yet to speak with someone who has claimed otherwise. 

Yet, even amid the great physical, mental, and emotional pressure that has been the product of Oberlin’s first COVID trimester, I think I can speak for most college students on campus right now in saying: we just came here to be here. That, in itself, is thankfulness and hope for the place that is Oberlin, well-informed or otherwise. And, while I’m still thankful for being able to reside in the liberal arts college postcard that is this town and campus, I don’t know if I’m as purely happy to be here as I was upon moving in. Grateful, yes; happy…that’s a stretch.