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The pandemic has inculcated in the Class of 2021 a kind of premature nostalgia. Though most of us will remain full-time students this term, we have already begun to experience a longing for the careless past that was supposed to set in only after we had graduated. The undergraduate experience that exists at the intersection of personal freedom and randomness has been eliminated from the last quarter of our degrees.
Three years ago, on a sun-baked morning during McGill University’s freshman orientation week, I sat on football bleachers with thousands of my new peers. I was groggy and seeing the fewest familiar faces I had seen in my lifetime, having spent the day before sprucing up my shoebox dorm room and staring at a map of the campus.
A woman walked gingerly across the grass and onto the podium. To the sea of squinting eyes, she introduced herself as the school’s principal and gave a speech that welcomed us to McGill. What she said for the 10 intervening minutes escapes me, but I distinctly remember her final lines.
Looking out into the crowd, animated by a French-Canadian cadence, she exclaimed, “We chose you, but you chose us. For that, we thank you.”
Over the past six months, I’ve been thinking about those words more often, perhaps because in a pandemic, the making of choices is so often replaced with the awaiting of decisions. That emphasis on agency that kick-started my McGill career was entirely foreign to the Friday evening in March when our school announced that in-person classes would be suspended indefinitely. It was far from my mind on the following Sunday morning, when my father informed me that I had an hour to pack up my things and await pickup from the aunt and uncle who were fleeing Mont Tremblant. And it was similarly absent on an afternoon two monotonous months later, when I rolled out of bed to the news that the upcoming fall semester was to be conducted online.
The e-mail was ambiguous. Though lectures would move online, the protocols regarding smaller discussion sections, seminars and extracurriculars remained unclear. Could our clubs still hold their meetings? What would happen to office hours? Contingent on the answers to those and other questions came the more personal inquiries: “Are you going back?” “I’m not sure … Are you?”
I still find myself wrestling with my decision. On the one hand, the lease on my old apartment ended in May, and having opted not to resign, I am poised to save thousands by staying home, eating my parents’ food and tuning in to remote lectures from the kitchen table. On the other, though, the vast majority of my friends are headed back to Montreal, where we might attempt to cobble together the remaining pieces of our senior year. Considering the broader circumstances of a pandemic, such a dilemma is rather trivial. But in the narrower context of my graduating year, these were scarcely the choices I envisioned myself making during that speech on the field years ago.
In my experience, the privilege of higher education lies in the near-misses and unceremonious moments. It’s in the time I accidentally left my backpack in a classroom and ignited a years-long relationship with a professor I admire. Or the time that waiting in line outside a teaching assistant’s door spurred a friendship that persists today. It’s in having to sit in a library that’s a few degrees too cold until the wee hours of the morning, before emerging onto the street, essay in hand. It’s not in the million lectures and PowerPoints, all of which will be available online, but in the little exchanges that punctuate them.
There is no room for that kind of informality on Zoom. There are no opportunities for improvisation; no lingering after class or whispering to friends. All those little sensations of school will be blunted by screens and passwords, and every action will have to be premeditated and rigidly purposeful. Schools across the continent have assured students that the online format will not compromise the quality of the course delivery (and have, by the same token, refused to lower tuitions), but I remain skeptical. My fear is that the inherent structure of remote schooling will continue to choke off the social freedom, and even intellectual curiosity, that Canadian university life usually enables. I struggle to think of a single student friend of mine who isn’t similarly resigned to that notion.
As I head into my final year, there will be no mass student gathering on a football field in which someone delivers a line that someone else will carry with them through the trials of the years ahead. Much like the cold library, the area around McGill will be wind-chilled and half-empty. And for all the administration’s hazy insistence, there is little doubt that an online semester will pale in comparison to its in-person predecessors. None of this is to say that such measures are unnecessary; only that they yield an inevitable and colossal bummer.
So yes, the loss of a semester – and more likely, a year – of in-person school is certainly a cost worth incurring in our collective bid to beat back this virus. But when it’s your year, and suddenly no longer your choice, sometimes it’s cathartic to just admit that it stings. Perhaps in the months to come, when I’m hunched over my laptop in either Toronto or Montreal, that sting will mature into a more dignified gratitude for school in all its usual, splendid tangibility. For now, though, it’s e-mail updates, CESB applications and simply missing how it used to be.
Sarah Farb lives in Toronto.