Thoughts on what it will be like to walk to class in 2021, as many students took more online classes than in person classes in the academic year 2020-2021. Contemplating a year without walking to class, while celebrating its return.
I lugged my two suitcases up the stairs of Low Rise 8, sweating so profusely that it dripped from my forehead onto the wooden floor before evaporating into the August heat. I took a seat at the chair that tilted back so unexpectedly that I almost fell off and propped my feet upon the desk that would be “mine” for the year, though without a good cluttering of papers it felt far from something I could call my own. I thought of the extra-long Q-tip that passed the protective barrier of my car window and protruded into my nostril earlier that morning. I flipped through a magazine, read a few pages of a book that I couldn’t concentrate on, and stared out the window imagining myself meandering through campus. My first full day at Cornell was a sedentary one, spent awaiting an email informing me of a negative COVID-19 test.
That sweaty August day marked the beginning of a most unprecedented freshmen year; a year full of Q-tip COVID tests, zoom classes, mask wearing and an unfettered hatred for the word unprecedented. New codes of conduct and behavioral contracts created what was deemed the “new normal” which fostered the creation of many new habits among the student body. For many students the walk to class no longer existed. Some replaced it by rolling out of bed, some by listening to class in bed, others by creating a walk of their own whether that be to their favorite study spot or to a building where the echoes of everyone’s zoom conversations bounced off the walls, an amalgamation of different subject matters that enlivened our senses.
Fast forward to the end of that crazy year, when Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me led me to another collection of her essays,Wanderlust, a history of walking. In the book she quotes, “Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.”
I understand what we missed by sitting at our desks and moving the cursor from one zoom link to the next. We missed the gush of fresh air in between classes, where we could stretch our legs or have conversations in the hallways. We missed trudging from one class to the next. We missed the walk to that last Friday class where, for a minute, we became “wholly lost in our thoughts” until the bustle of a classroom swiftly transported us back to reality.
Ironically, I took a freshman writing seminar where I read Virginia Woolf’s The Docks of London and Charles Dickens’ Night Walks. Both have protagonists who wander the streets of London while simultaneously observing their surroundings in detail. Somehow, I became so lost in their footsteps that I didn’t realize the more interesting question at stake. Why are writers always walking? From Virginia Woolf to Charles Dickens, who walked the streets of London, to more modern-day writers like Fran Lebowitz, Joan Didion, and even Cheryl Strayed (who writes a memoir, Wild, about a hike that leads her to introspection); Walking and writing seem to go hand in hand.
Something happens to us students when we walk whether it’s learning or reflecting which is why I decided to write this column. What classes we walk to this semester will shape us for years to come, what ideas we walk away from or walk towards will define us. This semester Cornellians will go back to walking to class, but that doesn’t mean we can walk back in time to a pre-covid world. Cornellians will walk into classes wearing masks, incessantly hand sanitizing and contemplating the delta variant; a steady reminder that the pandemic is not over. It continues to fracture the world, taking space in our personal histories.
According to Solnit, “The history of walking is everyone’s history, and any written version can only hope to indicate some of the more well-trodden paths in the author’s vicinity — which is to say, the paths I trace are not the only paths.” As we walk together and alone this semester, I urge Cornellians to think about their paths. The walk to class is a privilege that can only be maintained through a collective effort; meaning that in maintaining a safe and healthy campus our paths will inevitably collide. So, as I kick my feet up on my west campus desk, I invite you to walk with me through a semester that I’ll be talking step-by-step, word-by-word, thought-by-thought.
Rebecca Sparacio is a sophomore in the Dyson School. She can be reached at [email protected]. The Space Between runs every other Wednesday this semester.