March 11, 2020

JOHNS | When Cornell Ends

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Like most Cornellians, I have not experienced summer in Ithaca. I have, however, experienced the next best thing: the festive and joyful seasons that mark the beginning and end of the school year, during which returning students and graduating seniors, respectively, celebrate the seam of time between their leaving or returning to campus. It is a period defined by its rituals, made up of only one to two weeks of totally disordered time, during which students enjoy the fleeting sunlight and the weeknights without assignments to follow. It is a well understood and near-universally practiced squandering of youth, and a unique and memorable time for any undergraduate.

And then, suddenly, it vanishes. Where there once was total freedom, students are quickly burdened with responsibilities; where there were once raucous porches of fraternity brothers and bewildered crowds of freshmen in a vibrant Collegetown, there is suddenly silence. The focus of social life on campus always remains firmly between Cascadilla Gorge and East State Street, but it is only a fragment of what it used to be — the nights get colder, the parties peter out and the university schedule becomes infinitely more demanding. The energetic spirit of Orientation Week soon fades into fond memory, buried under dead leaves and fallen snow.

Much sooner than anticipated, we now find ourselves on the cusp of a truly special moment at Cornell. With yesterday’s coronavirus-related directive to students to leave campus permanently at the start of Spring Break on March 28, and the guidance to “start transitioning to online learning immediately,” the University has given students — especially seniors — an unexpected and rattling deadline by which to say goodbye to this institution. We have lost so much time in just an afternoon.

Some students undoubtedly will stay in Collegetown residences to live out the eerie ghost town existence that will soon be imposed on Ithaca. But in the intervening time, the vast majority of Collegetown will likely devote itself to its graduating seniors, gone too soon from what was supposed to be their best semester at Cornell. Already the feeling is at once present and past; being a graduating senior in 2020 is like being cut out of time, like the world has been frozen around you, situated in some form of eternity. Every instant now could be preserved forever, like an insect in amber.

Barring some creative rescheduling, we will most likely miss out on Cornell’s much-anticipated senior week. Regardless, its spirit has been brought immediately to the present. The wistful goodbyes, the last nights out, the festive guys and girls — soon, men and women — clutching red plastic cups full of beer; scores of students sitting on wooden porches, front lawns and rooftops, chatting and telling stories of their younger Cornell selves. This will soon all fade into the past — and yet, here it is! — a moment we know is already lost in time.

What a strange world this was and is — this little floating island of culture, unconcerned with time or timing, which passes through and quickly fades from our lives as it transitions suddenly to postgraduate reality. It is peculiar and beautiful to be in Collegetown today. There is now a strange sense of unanticipated urgency — to capture our visualized final memories and say our goodbyes — with the semester’s rapidly approaching finality.

Jorge Luis Borges, my favorite essayist, noted in Ficciones that “we all live by leaving behind,” a wise observation, especially for us seniors mourning the abrupt end of our college years. I am now preparing to leave behind something very precious, an eternal moment in my existence that was Collegetown. It is here where I tripped and fell into adulthood; it is where I fought my hardest battles at Cornell and where I enjoyed my proudest achievements. It is where I celebrated, where I struggled, where I came home for one of the most significant periods of my formative years. Importantly, it is where a group of Cornell’s conservatives, in heated midnight debate, rejected the notion that these are the “best years of our lives” — that instead, there is more to life than mere freedom, bigger things to hope for than sitting on rooftops and drinking from red plastic cups forever. Collegetown was the venue that provided much of the inspiration for this column and for much of my dedicated work at Cornell.

So maybe time running out is a gift; to live, we must leave behind. The fact remains: Collegetown exists, and will exist, in a perfect instant — just as all history, past and future, is situated in its purest moments. Caesar is still, and will forever be — at least in the eyes of history — crossing the Rubicon; East Germans are still, and will forever be laying sledgehammers to the Berlin Wall; and somewhat less significantly, we are still, and will forever be on our way to a Slope Day party down the street. All of life’s acts are simultaneously permanent and irrevocable, echoing through time as small contributions to the history of this great institution. Some details undoubtedly have been forgotten through the years, but the experience is still shared in this remarkable, unspoken way. The University and its surroundings was and is, and yet will be; although this season undoubtedly is different, its farewells remain the common experience of generations of Cornellians, and its buildings the traditional locales of countless “best years.” It is an extraordinary illusion that we all took part in together, even if we must now let it go.

Bigger things await us, and we have done all there is to do here. But we will never forget how incredible it was to be here in our time. After all, a boy who has truly seen Cornell inevitably becomes a man who goes his own way.

Michael Johns, Jr. is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Athwart History runs every other Wednesday this semester.