School began again here in Northern Virginia this week. It’s the strangest “Back to School” ever, with all classes taught remotely. Last year I wrote about the poignancy of those “First Day” pictures that flood social media sites every fall. (See here.) The current photos have a different sort of heart-wrenching quality about them. Gone are the signs of jittery anxiety about bus-riding, lunch in the cafeteria, fitting in socially, and spending hours away from home. Largely vanished, too, is that hopeful excitement that comes with a new adventure and the opportunity for a fresh start. This school year drags with it a melancholy unease, heavy with the loss of what should have been. There will be no fun school-sponsored group events, no band, orchestra or choral concerts, no in-person drama productions, at least for months, and no fall sports. But without a doubt, there will be the ongoing annoyances of Internet and WiFi outages, tech complications, and occasional widespread system failures. Frequent parental intervention will be required, a serious problem for working moms and dads. There is the issue of space, especially in smaller households, the difficulty arising from an entire family working and schooling at home. And then, when things are progressing as intended, there is the dull sameness of hours sitting in front of a screen staring at a Zoom gallery.
For college kids, the situation isn’t much different. Our daughter’s spring break last March slid into online classes at home. After a summer that involved unprecedented amounts of time with her family and too little with friends, she began her fourth year again at home. The University of Virginia encouraged students not to return to grounds until after Labor Day. Now she’s once again in Charlottesville, in the apartment she shares with three friends. It’s not the final college year they had anticipated, that’s for sure.
This new school year feels anything but new. It’s already tired, burdened by the same frustrations we experienced in spring and summer. Is it really September? Does it matter? The months have ticked by with alarming speed, yet each day is much like any other.
In the alternative reality of our Covid world, time has become slippery, looping and uncertain. I’m reminded of the red plastic cassette recorder I enjoyed as kid. My closest friends and I used it to tape variety shows modeled on The Carol Burnette Show and soap opera parodies (Another World in Hay City). Our talent for comedy, if little appreciated by a wider audience, kept us in stitches. I can see my finger on the rewind button, hear the whir of fast forward, the loud sudden clunk of the stop. I recall the baffling emptiness when an expected song or bit of dialogue had somehow disappeared. Sometimes we hit the wrong button and accidentally recorded over a prized skit or hilarious duet. Since March, 2020 has moved with a similarly lurching, erratic randomness. Some aspects of life that we cherish most have simply been erased. Many people are grieving lost loved ones. As I write, nearly 192,000 Americans have died from the novel coronavirus. Sometimes it feels as though a cloud of semi-mourning shadows the entire country. We plod along, uncertainly. And we keep ending up where we started, in a place we never wanted to be.
Happy “Back to School”? Not particularly. Not this year.