One Year Later: Back to School

Chronicle Editor-in-Chief Hannah Han ’21 reflects on the differences between her last day on campus before the shut down and her first day back, exactly one year later.

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Hannah Han

Hannah Han ’21 takes a selfie outside Weiler Hall on March 20.

Hannah Han

March 11, 2020. Weiler Hall 106.

Whispered rumors rushed through the Chalmers classrooms, wound through the lounge and tripped down the narrow flight of stairs to Weiler Hall. The thrum of voices built slowly, an uneasy crescendo, before bursting into a triumphant uproar. On the quad, seniors danced as an amorphous mass, and in Weiler Hall, I hugged my friends, our smiles mirrored on each other’s faces.

School had been canceled for the rest of the week and would be held virtually until spring break.

At the time, I was a junior, barely functioning in my sleep-deprived state. I had stayed up the night before studying for my chemistry exam about buffers, and when I received President Rick Commons’s email, I selfishly saw it as a miracle. I could almost see it: a semi-normal sleep routine, dinners with my family, classes taken in the comfort of my house using an innovative platform called “Zoom.” (Oh, how ignorant I was back then).

Naively, I believed that quarantine would last for two weeks at most. I spent those first weeks energized—Snapchatting friends, FaceTiming between classes, preparing elaborate lunches for myself during break.

Yet as quarantine stretched on, it soon lost its novelty, and I was plunged into an uneasy stasis. Hours of Zoom classes melted together, and when I stood up at the end of the day, a field of blurred rectangles had been imprinted on my eyelids. I missed my friends, and I felt myself growing numb. I forgot what walking around campus was like. Speaking to someone, let alone hugging them, seemed unthinkable. And then junior year ended.

March 11, 2021. Rugby Hall 207.

A security guard and a nurse tested my temperature and motioned me toward the quad. I drifted toward the cluster of picnic tables, slightly dazed, with only the unfamiliar weight of my backpack grounding me.

As the figures moving across the quad grew more distinct, I tried to determine which pair of eyes belonged to which person underneath the cone-shaped masks. That must be Matty Ice; that was Ethan with his blue water bottle; there was Ford in his pink shirt. I took another step, and the crackling, sparkling energy of the crowd enveloped me. As I spoke with friends whom I hadn’t seen in a year, I thought: This is what real school feels like.

By 10 a.m., we dispersed and found our respective classrooms. In Rugby 207, I logged into Art History Honors as members of my cohort joined their respective Zoom classes 6 feet away. The room was quiet, beyond the occasional murmurs when we participated in class. Midway through the art history lecture, it began to hail, and my cohort lapsed into silence and gazed beyond the water-streaked windows at the monochrome landscape billowing with clouds.

At 11:15 a.m., we entered the cafeteria in small groups, monitored by faculty members. Everything seemed different: the freshly painted cafeteria annex space overlooking the quad, the thrumming vending machines stocked with Harvard-Westlake-branded water bottles (pH-balanced with electrolytes, of course) and the newly planted cherry blossom trees smelling of petrichor. But it was the familiar interactions that I missed the most. After a year, I finally elbow-bumped Phairot at the cash register and said “hi” to June in the lounge. It felt at once so normal and so exhilarating.

When we returned to the classroom, a nurse swabbed all of our noses. The samples were taken anonymously, so we understood that if one person tested positive in our cohort, we would all be sent home. Classes resumed uneventfully, and at 3:25 p.m., I logged out of Chronicle class and stood to collect my things.

My cohort members and I headed out of Rugby Hall into the blinding afternoon, the sky swollen with light. It was disorientingly similar to junior year, when my friends and I emerged from intense discussions about the American Dream in our English class. But now our actions were clouded by the lingering reminder that our high school careers were almost over.

As I turned to leave, I wondered: How many more times will I sit in a classroom on this campus? How many more times will I venture into the science office for Starbursts and stay for a conversation with my teachers? How many more times will I wander through the cafeteria with my friends, only to leave empty-handed? But I’ve realized that counting only causes me to dwell more on the time we have lost. Now I can only hope to make the most of every moment we’ve been given. See you on campus soon, Class of 2021.