By Troy Headrick
About two weeks ago, I physically returned to my workplace, a community college, Mondays through Thursdays. On Fridays, we stay home and work remotely exactly as we’ve been doing since mid-March of 2020.
Of course, there are health protocols in place now that we’ve gone back in person. For example, each morning, before going to either of the two writing centers I manage, I have to get my temperature checked, answer a brief health questionnaire, and receive and don a colored wristband that indicates I’ve been screened. Additionally, I wear a mask and am required to get my nostrils swabbed once a week to make sure I remain uninfected.
Shortly before returning to work, those in power published a document claiming that good times were here again, and therefore it was perfectly reasonable for us to return to work just like in the good old days. However, if you’ve looked at the infection rates in Texas, you can easily understand how such a declaration took many of us by surprise.
Here’s the thing: Since returning to campus, I’ve been having these odd, daily feelings. All this was intended to create the impression that things were back to normal. In fact, the opposite has occurred. As it turns out, few students registered for in-person classes, so the campus is like a ghost town. I sit in my empty writing center and note how unoccupied the building is. From time to time, I see a member of the janitorial crew push a mop in one of two possible directions in the hallway. The few people who do reach out for help come to us via Zoom. Of course, there is an absurdity to all this. I drive to a campus, enter a deserted building, get on my computer, and then help people who are sitting in their bedrooms at home. When I occasionally walk across a bit of campus, I see no one. The college looks like a setting for a sci-fi movie that might be entitled The Last Earthling.
The other day, I told one of my tutors—I am occasionally accompanied by one or two—that I couldn’t shake this feeling we were living in a post-apocalyptic world, and that I expected, at any moment, to hear the shuffling footsteps of a horde of zombies moving down the corridor toward us. She shivered and said, “I was just thinking that exact same thing.”
I’m now left with the impression that things really have changed in very profound (and perhaps irreversible) ways. There’s likely no going back to what our world once was because people have been changed by this life-altering pandemic. Reality does not exist separately from people and human behavior no matter how much we try to shape it with proclamations.
Our writing center used to be an amazingly vibrant place. It was a gathering of students and writers and friends. It was a place of contemplation and conversation. Today, none of that exists, and it’s hard to imagine any of that returning any time soon (if ever). In fact, it could be that sort of place now because the campus is very much open. There is nothing keeping people from coming back in droves other than their own desire to stay away. And the longer people stay away, the less likely they’ll return. New norms are developing. Human beings are very adaptable creatures.
Don’t get me wrong. I get why the attempt was made. Many of us feel nostalgia for a world that was. But we have to be courageous enough to realize that the future may never look like the past. Of course, this might sadden us for a time, but we mustn’t wallow in self-pity. There’s a future that needs shaping, and it is our job to do the shaping.
I look forward to reading your comments. Thanks very much for giving me your time and attention.
Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.
If you’d like to see some of Troy’s art, have a look.