I was in the middle of a lecture on the politics of East Asia when the announcement came. It arrived through the ether, a buzz on a student’s phone. “It’s here,” he blurted out. I asked him to read the email to the entire class.
The president of Colby, a small liberal arts college in Maine where I teach, was informing the campus community that, after agonizing deliberations over the threat posed by COVID-19, the college would shut down. Students had just a couple days to pack up and leave campus.
Our class would meet again in the future, but not here. Not in person. We would try to gather together from around the world in virtual space.
Most of us had anticipated something like this; the peer-school dominoes had been falling for days: Amherst, Middlebury, Williams, Bowdoin. But Colby administrators, encouraged by our isolated location in a small town in a sparsely populated state with (then) no reported cases of infection, had floated a proposal to soldier on and end the semester early, without a spring break. Overnight, they had abandoned that idea and endorsed a more dramatic move.
The class was stunned. One international student immediately began sobbing. How would she get home? A student from Baltimore looked anxious; she might be even less safe there. A senior, choking back tears, hastily exited the room. She may have been lamenting the abrupt end of her intensely communal life as an undergraduate, and mourning the likely loss of caps, gowns and goodbyes at graduation.
I told them all to take a minute or two to text their families, to let them know the news we had been anticipating for what felt like months but in fact had only been hours. Time had become impossibly elastic.
Suddenly, a student sitting near the front leaned toward me and asked: “What about you, Professor Hatch? Are you still going to fly back to Seattle?”
My students know I divide my time between the two coasts. They know I remain tethered tightly to that rainy, faraway place, the place where I was born and raised. I probably talk about it a lot.
The question stumped me. I had a plane ticket, but no clear answer. Older people with chronic health conditions like me shouldn’t fly, especially to a place with more reported cases of the virus than anywhere else in the U.S. But my wife and other family members live there. Seattle is where I always go when I am not in the classroom.
But the question also touched me. We often think of young people as self-absorbed; but here was a young man genuinely curious about me. Maybe even worried for me.
It was an emotional reminder that, especially in this moment of “social distancing,” we cannot live without compassion. Sure, we can stock up on food, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and face masks. But what we really need is community, a thick web of connections to one another across the social distance.
I thought about the folks in towns across Italy — from Naples to Siena, from Turin to Sicily — throwing open their windows or standing on balconies, serenading one another. Sharing songs across the distance.
I may never get to hug the seniors in my class. I may not be able to bid farewell in person. But when we gather next in our virtual classroom, I will let them know that I care about them. And I will tell them how much I appreciate their concern for me.