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“How’s freshman year going?”
This question, though innocent enough in years past, has developed a whole new meaning in the era of COVID, quarantine, and Zoom classes. Most of the people asking me this question — family, friends from home, and, in particular, upperclassmen — want to know exactly that: how I feel with the exigent fear of COVID hanging over me, existing in a state of perpetual quarantine, and taking all of my classes online, where, wonderfully, I get to stare at blank gray squares for hours on end instead of seeing my classmates’ faces.
These facts of student life, though, are not what come to mind when I’m asked this question. When I hear those four words, the answer my brain immediately drums together is not necessarily a coherent response filled with thoughtful reflections or understandable frustrations. When I’m asked this question, I think of a noise.
A very specific noise. A wrinkly, raucous noise. A noise only the class of 2024 will truly understand.
This noise is the sound of a brown paper bag wrinkling. To be more precise, the sound of a comically oversized, somehow extremely feeble takeout bag. As we freshmen scurried across the Science Center Plaza, anxious to reheat our plastic cartons of chili, we gawked and buried our heads — the awkwardness of Annenberg’s traditional musical chairs displaced onto the cacophony of a paper bag. How, in fact, did our paper bags create an entire orchestra at the merest rustle of wind or knock against the knee? I may never know.
What I do know, though, is what our paper bags represent: Though we might be in Annenberg, we would never have the classic Annenberg experience many Harvard students keep so fondly in their memories. Before quarantine began in March, when I imagined myself at Harvard, I pictured a future me seated around a glossy wooden table in a Harry Potter-looking dining hall, laughing with friends while eating Veritas-stamped waffles. But instead of delving into existential discussions with classmates or pressing gossip with friends over trays of hot food, I selected from an assortment of plastic-encased dishes and hurried back to my dorm.
Throughout the fall, as I climbed four flights of stairs with my takeout bag, the noise created by the wrinkling of paper left me wondering what might have been: What would my life have been like if we were able to eat inside Annenberg? Would I know different people? Would I know the same people, but somehow know them better?
These questions are, unfortunately, unanswerable — and they are exactly what I think of when I’m asked how my freshman year is going. I’ve tried convincing myself there may be something poignant in the sound of a takeout bag, but I’m only reminded of what I’m missing. I try to imagine that our class is stronger because of our unique, shared experience in the era of Annenberg takeout, but I keep resorting to the belief that our “Berg bags” have fundamentally robbed us of a quintessential Harvard experience.
But, as these thoughts all circulate after being asked how freshman year is going, I start feeling guilty: We were lucky to be on campus. We were lucky to even have our paper takeout bags. We were lucky to feel embarrassed at that awful, ubiquitous wrinkling. I shouldn’t feel anything but grateful.
I don’t explain my Annenberg-takeout woes to the posers of this question; I know they really only care to hear that I’m grateful, if not a bit annoyed with Zoom breakout rooms. I also think people may expect me to have more extensive complaints beyond the sound of a paper bag: Aren’t I lonely? Am I not tired of virtual social events? Isn’t it annoying not being able to recognize people with their masks on?
I offer them the answers I think they want to hear only because it makes everyone’s day easier. But, in reality, taking courses in the era of COVID isn’t just my new normal — it’s my only normal. I don’t know any different; I don’t know what it’s like to have an in-person seminar discussing Kierkegaard or an in-person comp meeting. I only know what I’ve experienced, and much of this experience was filled with the wrinkling of a paper bag.
Gabrielle C. McClellan ’24 lives in Canaday Hall.
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