This is my office. The place that has been the center of my working life for a decade and a half here at the University of the South in Sewanee. It’s in the basement of Gailor Hall, but it has an attic-like feel, with bits and pieces of Sewaniana mingling with parts of my own life in a haphazard arrangement. Every item you see has a story, or many stories, and taken altogether, they make up the mosaic of my professional life and much of my personal identity as well. There are few places in the world where I feel more myself than here.
Tuesday, March 10th, was the last time I had been in the office. The coronavirus looked troublesome then, and a few universities had–amazingly–shut down and sent their students home. Harvard and Princeton had gone to online instruction, and Berea in Kentucky had gone still further by closing the college altogether. “An overreaction,” I wrote on Facebook. “Outright panic,” I called it. Yet I wondered whether they were right. Sewanee was not shuttered that day. Wednesday would be the last day before spring break, and a message had gone out to faculty and students indicating we would resume classes at the end of break. Things might change, of course, but for now, it looked like it would be business as usual.
It wasn’t to be business as usual, though, as we all came to realize. We had all been instructed to wash our hands frequently, for twenty seconds at a time, now for a week or so. Sing the alphabet as you do it, we were told. I didn’t have a class on Wednesdays, so that morning I tended to some other errands. I took my car to Sewanee Auto, where Harold the mechanic told me this was all overblown. “More people die of flu,” he told me. I begged to differ, but he wasn’t having it. “Well, I wash my hands regularly anyway. I’m just glad everyone else is catching on.” It’s a media scare, Harold assured me. I went off to play raquetball, then to a meeting, and lunch with an old student who was passing through town. All in all, a lovely day, but the sense of doom was getting stronger. “WHO declares global pandemic,” read the Washington Post headline that afternoon, “Dow reaches bear market.” President Trump addressed the nation that night on TV, and something about his unsteady manner was even more unsettling than the frightening message he was delivering. Shortly after he concluded his speech, the Utah Jazz were scheduled to play the Oklahoma City Thunder to a packed arena, but the refs called the game off before it began. The NBA called off its whole season at the end of night.
Not sleeping well that night, I began to feel it was necessary perhaps to prepare. What might that mean? Cured meats, I thought. Rice, pasta, dry beans, canned tomatoes. And, like everyone else in America, perhaps a few more rolls of toilet paper. Below is the aisle in the Winchester Kroger where the TP should be–there were still some rolls left on Thursday, March 12th, though the story would be different in only a few days. Most people were about as anxious as I was, and the nervousness was palpable throughout the store. Not universal, though. One old woman said to a Kroger employee with whom she was clearly friendly, “Why are there so many people here?” “It’s that coronavirus they got going on,” he replied. “Oh!” she replied. “I thought that was only in China.”
Sewanee finally declares that, because of COVID-19, we will be going online, and a host of issues comes cascading down upon us all. How to teach on the web? Can the students get their books? Can they come to campus? If they are not here, do they get a refund on their room and board? If they get a refund, will hourly workers be laid off? The market is collapsing on Monday morning. The President’s now daily press conferences are exercises in spin. What will happen to the airline industry? What will happen to the restaurant industry? What will happen to the hotel industry? What will happen to higher education?
I’ll be honest–the next week passes in a blur of building worry for me. My son Daniel is out of school as well, and wants to hang out with some friends, and I have to be an asshole about it. “I’m sorry,” I tell him. “I’m afraid I don’t know how to manage this. This is uncharted territory for all of us. I don’t think you should go out with your friends.” He wants to know what news I’m watching. “You just seem to be buying into a lot of alarmist stuff,” he tells me. “You should calm down.” Maybe he’s right. The next day, I skip the news and try reading and writing for most of the day. But even as I am being productive, it seems like I’m walking blindfolded over a minefield. Yes, I’m making progress, but where is it I am going? By Friday, even Daniel thinks we need to be more careful.
It occurs to me over the weekend that, as various states and cities begin to lock down, that soon I may not be able to get some materials I need to teach with, or things I may need for the Pontius Pilate book if this turns out to be a long haul. I get in the car and drive up to an eerily deserted campus. All around Sewanee, the daffodils are in bloom, signs of hope for spring. But it is a cold, foggy day, and the flowers look like they’re kidding themselves that the weather is ever going to be any better. Over to Gailor I go, pulling my car into a familiar parking space, I hop out of the car. The hallway is the old hallway, my door is the old door, but none of it is the same. When I turn the key and look into the room in which I never used to feel more myself, it looks strange and even alien to me. All my things are just where I left them, but the man who put them there on March 10th is a very different man than the man who looks at it all on March 22nd.