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From One, Many: What We’ll Remember from Quarantine

By Isabella C. Aslarus

As a group, we’re scattered. We’re trying, but sometimes our byline — “The Crimson Editorial Board” — feels strained. Talking over Zoom instead of around a table, the diversity and disagreement we thrive on sometimes just feels like distance.

And while our voice and process has continued to hold us together, it might not be enough to fully catalogue and comprehend these strange times. Each of us is experiencing this forced estrangement differently, with our own ups and downs, heartbreaks, lessons, reflections, and silver linings. We traded dining halls for kitchen counters and lecture halls for beds. Our Harvard experiences, once communal, suddenly became isolated.

So with this commencement editorial, we’re stepping back from our collective voice — assessing together our respective times apart. To be sure, we can only record the lives we’re living. But in writing from personal experience, we hope to help document the intimate details of quarantined life.

So, guided by a few prompts we chose together, here is a glimpse of our lives and minds in our own words.

What would you want future generations to remember about this time?

Before all of this, people had already been withdrawing further and further into their homes. The unprecedented convenience of entertainment, the remarkable ease of communication, two-day shipping — all of it started sapping away motivation to go outside long before most people knew what “coronavirus” even meant. So this quarantine feels imbued with an irony exceeding even Dante’s contrapasso. It’s like the devil sporting a sinister grin asked us, “So you like Netflix, eh?”
—Daniel L. Aklog ’21

In those endless, infinitesimal last days on campus, what struck me most was how quickly compassion melted the rules of social and academic life. A professor moved my final and made it significantly easier. A crowded Winthrop Grille (Remember grilles? Remember crowds?) recast casual acquaintances as commiserating tablemates. “Let’s catch a meal” friends became “why haven’t we made time for each other” friends. In every last precious in-person interaction as we counted down to our impending isolation, the veil of interpersonal distance — the will-they-won’t-they guessing game of stopping on the street to chat — dissolved into a chorus of “I’ll miss you’s” and “stay safes.” I hope we remember that feeling when normal life resumes.
—Ari E. Benkler ’21

Sometimes it feels like the world has its own emotions. Buzzing streets are frenzied laughs. Dimmed lights are weary smiles. Rain clouds are eyes welled with tears. Since the pandemic began, the world has been volatile, its emotions vacillating between shades of dejection and euphoria. My first – and only – trip to the supermarket since returning home was sad. The distance between customers felt like loneliness and longing. My dad’s first day returning to work at his hospital was scary. The rain that day seemed to tell a truth that his outward assurance did not. And yet there has been plenty of good. Each night, my entire family is home, and the world feels warm. On sunny days, my whole neighborhood can be found walking outside. We smile, laugh, and wave … and the world feels happy.
—Gemma S. Schneider ’23

A few weeks into quarantine as I tucked my eight-year-old brother into bed, he whispered “this is the best vacation ever.” He is happy that we are all together and excited that after a shortened day of virtual school, he has siblings and parents that are constantly home to play baseball. Sure, my brother misses his friends too. But, he has adapted to our new normal better than anyone. He learned how to bike, planted a garden, and even wrote a short story called “Spy Mouse.” These are his mementos from the coronavirus. As opposed to him, I have struggled with being confined to our home. I haven’t tapped into the vacation vibes. So, my brother pushes me to ask of myself: how can I grow throughout this time? What can I do to turn my quarantine into the best vacation ever?
—Jonathan L. Katzman ’22

In January on my way to Harvard I laughed at pictures of people in China wearing bags on their heads to play mahjong. I couldn’t stop thinking about that when I played my first game in May with a mask on, after living at home for two months. And though I hate that every conversation spirals back to coronavirus now, the real shock is how long we managed to go without talking about it at all, as if it were only happening on the other side of the world. Can’t say this was my most productive semester, but the one lesson I will hold onto: humility.
—Michelle I. Gao ’21

What has broken your heart during this time? What’s kept you sane?

My roommate left me with his red 10-speed bicycle when he packed up and flew home. He gave me the two locks, their keys, the grease and hex wrenches, lights, pump, and helmet. He walked me through its features, its weaknesses, and its care rituals. It had sentimental value, he told me — a source of great solace through a long, lonely year in an unfamiliar city. I almost remember him saying it was like a friend. Now, I ride it incessantly — all over this unfamiliar town, through the pandemically quiet streets, feeling I’m with him at every turn and peak.
—Isaac O. Longobardi ’21

In my Zoom window, I glimpse parents not-so-slyly peeking their heads into view, catch echoes of little siblings’ giggles and shrieks, and smile as pets sniff the camera with big, wet noses. I can make out photos pasted on brightly colored bedroom walls of best friends from high school: the people who knew and loved my classmates and friends before I did. These spaces — our bedrooms, our households, our hometowns, and the people in them — paint an intimate story of who we were before we came to Harvard. At school, it seems like we know our peers’ next essay deadline before their home state, their political leaning before their number of siblings, and their exam grade before their high school sport. I’m grateful for this chance to view my classmates, friends, and blockmates in a new way. To know their lives outside of Harvard’s gates.
—Chloe A. Shawah ’22

It became a running joke with my friends that I give “half-arsed” hugs. Using my lankiness to complete one-armed lazy stretches around their torsos wasn’t the wholehearted, compassionate embrace they desired. But I ran with my bit and continued putting all my compassion into my one limp arm in the name of good banter. But before the bit could get old, we were leaving campus. That swell of emotion was too overwhelming for any embrace, no matter how tight the squeeze … Now it has been in excess of two months since I have embraced a thing. A crushing thought. What I would give for another half-arsed hug.
—Marcus B. Montague-Mfuni ’23

“Know that the worldly life is but play, a means of boasting and competition among you for wealth and children...” I read the Quran verse several times, and thought back to life on campus just a few weeks ago where I spent entire days running back and forth between classes, the library, and numerous extracurricular activities. As I sat on my prayer rug that night, I realized that while I had promised myself not to get lost in the competitive nature of school, I had failed. Observing Ramadan during quarantine has been grounding and given me plenty of time to self-reflect on what really matters in life.
—Salma I. Elsayed ’23

Walking down the streets of Waikiki — social distancing with every step — I couldn’t help but be angry. Angry that, in their own land, there were so many Native Hawaiian homeless people in just the two blocks I had walked. Angry at all the tourists that were taking advantage of cheap flights to sit at the beach and visit their favorite “vacation spot.” But most of all, angry that, in my race to get home before the borders to American Samoa closed, I was also being complicit in displacing Indigenous people in their own homeland. That night, I tossed and turned until finally finding myself lost in a nightmare, where COVID-19 had decimated Indigenous Pacific Islander populations. Only when I woke up, I realized that nightmare could very well be a soon reality.
—Gabrielle T. Langkilde ’21

“As far as I’m concerned, the semester is over,” a classmate said to me the night of March 10. Our engagement with learning has always been what connects us. It is one of the reasons why I wanted to be a part of this community. The pandemic has, at least temporarily, interfered with that. Gone are the spontaneous conversations with professors after class that teach us as much as the material itself does. Gone are the hours spent discovering books in Widener. To see how difficult it has been to stay invested in the education we have worked so hard for is heartbreaking.
—Orlee G. S. Marini-Rappoport ’23

In my first two weeks under quarantine, I revisited old photos on my phone from last semester, reminiscing — the fond steps of Widener, the selfies I took with graduating seniors, the Kung Fu Tea runs with Korean friends about to enroll in the military, all leading up to the final sunless day on Weeks bridge. Scrolling further, I recounted my travels last summer to the beautiful seascape of Cape Town, the vibrant clutters of Hong Kong, the strobe-lighted karaoke bars of Shanghai — my screen brimming with bright faces and places. But when I scrolled further down, my recent photos devolved into jarring white screenshots of memes, poetry, and puppies — much needed albeit lacking the same memory-spurring, unsullied reminiscence of the photos shot outside the screen. Though this made me feel trapped in my room, I’ve been coping by exploring worlds and stories beyond mine, by watching K-dramas and reading short articles, a way of traveling without traveling.
—Woojin Lim ’22

This pandemic undermined the myth of American individualism and has shown us that we cannot rely on ourselves, but that we must rely on others – to help out, wear masks, and stay home. And we can. While volunteering at a food distribution, I noticed that many of my fellow volunteers were elderly or unemployed – putting themselves at risk and giving their time when many of us needed that help, too. I’m kept sane by hoping that we emerge with a new vision for this country, defined not by the success of individuals, but by the strength, health, and safety of our communities. After this virus, I hope we remember that we are only strong when we stand together.
—Patrick C. Barham Quesada ’21

I’ve been thinking about my bike that lay abandoned on the streets of Amsterdam. With less than a week’s notice, I had to evacuate the city that was supposed to be my home for the whole semester. I hated that stupid bike for all the times I fell in busy streets or it broke down on the way to class, but thinking that I never got to learn its rhythms and truly integrate into a new culture breaks my heart. Without the time necessary to sell it, I was forced to leave it at the last location I biked to: my University. I hope it finds its way to a safe home like I have.
—Romy Dolgin ’21

In April, my twin and I celebrated our birthday together for the first time since we left to attend college on separate continents. Being back home during the pandemic has afforded me opportunities to reconnect with my family, normally spread across three time zones, in ways that would otherwise not have been possible: celebrating birthdays and anniversaries in-person, lively dinner table conversation, movie nights, even the occasional bickering and leg-pulling.
—Shreyvardhan Sharma ’22

During our last days on campus we all spoke of the apocalypse. Joking, but not exactly; leaving it all really felt that upending. But waking up to the latest horrors of police violence, to videos of endless black death, now dodged for my sanity, has reminded me that the world has been ending for some time now. It just keeps ending.
—Hana M. Kiros ’22

The night before leaving campus, my friend Noah and I ran to The Coop and purchased matching “Harvard” hoodies. Now, every Saturday, we share a morning coffee over Zoom and more often than not we’ll both be wearing them as we chat. The hoodie pulls me back to the physical community I love, reassuring me that I still belong to this elusive place called Harvard, that the past two years weren’t just a dream. I close my eyes. I’m back brushing my teeth next to my roommate as we deliver feminist manifestos before bed; I’m exiting Lamont at 3:30 a.m., my feet forming craters in the fresh, moonlit snow. Sitting in my childhood bedroom on this Zoom call, I’m overcome with longing and with gratitude. For a moment, I feel at home.
—Aysha L. J. Emmerson ’22

At what moment did this all become ‘real’ for you?

It was Monday night and we knew what was coming. Not the specifics, the million logistical intricacies on everything from grading to financial refunds. But schools had started shutting down- Amherst had done so the night before. A major University announcement was expected the following morning and we knew (or we feared we knew) what that meant. And so that night I helped my roommate drag our mattresses into our common room, and we crashed there with a few friends. We had perfected normalcy, slipped into new habits — a combo of Domino's, Netlflix, and debating the validity of astrology until 4 a.m. When I woke up the next morning to an email from University President Lawrence S. Bacow I felt the instant urge to wake them up. To hear them complaining, joking, crying; to have them be there. But I decided to let them sleep. There was no need to rush them into our new reality.
—Guillermo S. Hava ’23

When I returned to Hong Kong, I was given a quarantine bracelet for the two weeks of mandatory quarantine. The bracelet, a flimsy plastic tag with a QR code and a non-removable clip, seemed insignificant until the moment it was snapped onto my wrist. Suddenly, the pandemic became real — a camera sharply reeled into focus, revealing the cracks in my once optimistically expanding world. The confusing blur of rushed goodbyes, lingering hugs and see-you-sometime-soon-?’s from last week faded into distant memory, and evening news brought new taunts, new restrictions, and the confirmation that the days of simple, welcoming and open embraces are very far off. An international student from a self-proclaimed international city, I saw the world outside shrinking into intolerable factions from within my room.
—Justin Y. C. Wong ’22

When I got home in the middle of March, I refused to settle. Life at home was temporary, in my mind. This was a time to plan for the future. I found myself constantly thinking about what I’ll do when “it’s all over.” Concerts, outings, travel, anything to get me away from the monotony of today. It was intoxicating to daydream about the future. Yet, slowly, the rush has subsided. At first with indignation, and now with peace, I have settled. The dog walks and conversations over coffee are becoming something to cherish rather than something to distract. I just grew tired of wasting all of my “todays” waiting for potential tomorrows.
—Carine M. Hajjar ’21

Grateful. That is, surprisingly, the single word that comes to mind when I think back to my last days on campus. A final coffee with my Visitas hosts; a last J.P. Licks with a senior who’d traveled with me to three continents; a final hurrah with suitemates who’d lived with me for years—in some cases, since opening days. Being forced to leave was a costly but important reminder of what I often took for granted—and how Fair Harvard always was. The sudden farewells imparted, in the end, a magnificent clarity; those closing days became a time for recognizing the true value of years spent in the Yard. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.” To know — in one’s heart — a home like Harvard is a wonderful thing, for which I’m incredibly grateful.
—Andrew W. Liang ‘21

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