February 9, 2022

WILK | Winter Breaking Bad

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Every interlude between semesters starts and ends the same: with the stress of doing it right. Coming face to face in class and on campus means tiny talk about big plans. That’s something I understood after just my first season of breaks, and in anticipation, I’ve been sharpening my reflexes to kick away questions of how I spent it — like a single dollar I couldn’t stretch. 

I still don’t know how to break like a Cornellian, people whose pauses come only with the promise we’ll get busy again. So many of my pauses have left things in a pile to be picked up where they were left, a load no less precarious or heavy. Even without the rigor of academics or internships, relaxation can’t find its way in. I get stuck in the tense stillness of trying to rest on a bed without waking any of the mess covering it. 

Last semester, my laptop quit on me right before fall break; it lost its pulse during my last class of the day. I took it to IT, just to hear that it was overheated, overworked and its battery-cooling system had given up screaming and had resigned to failure. In small talks leading up to fall break, I’d said I was going to use it to catch up on work, but then my perseverance — eroding from where it had chipped away steadily over time — crumbled. 

The laptop was my last straw. I spent the next hours sitting, waiting impatiently for my friends to shed their school clothes so we could go somewhere to wash the week off each other, as is ritual. And as we held hands, walking through Collegetown, I thought about what to do with the study time that had collapsed into a break against my will. Defeat dragged my eyes from window to window and finally to an apartment whose inhabitants had abandoned it for late night plans. I pictured its renters coming back some time after midnight, falling into their mattresses, and fighting through a hangover to follow their binge-drinking with a morning of binge-working. In my imagination, they were better than me — striking the work-hard-play-hard balance I could never manage. But all the light showed me was this: an open floor plan, two stories and a net. A big black web secured around a second floor ledge. 

What in a vacuum might have been an interesting interior design choice held morbid associations here – scattered under other vantage points on campus, such nets form solutions to tie together the loose ends of structural oversights. The trademark mesh around gorges and bridges and the reasons behind it are a forever-hot-topic. 

But around the time I made that walk, we were buzzing about other things. Namely, a bomb threat and then a gunman within a single week. Outside threats made the spin cycle of college life even more turbulent, and many students on campus felt that Cornell had left us high and dry. The University wasn’t prepared to help us brace for the mental and emotional impact of that week, and I don’t think that there was a right way for it to respond. Resources, outreach, and mental health awareness are as good as nonexistent when getting better is only a means of getting us busy again.

Urgently following the events, students rushed to vocalize our need to recalibrate and rest. Groupchats and GroupMes and Google Docs were going off, condemning what we already knew was coming from administration — insufficiency. We have been trained so well to be vigilant in victimhood, always finding the energy we don’t have when it’s time to spring to our own defense. This is a pattern that we participate in now, too, going with the grain of a system that only takes action around ledges. And though I’m thankful we’re watching each other’s steps as well as our own, there are enough safety nets on campus. Seeing them, alone, is a reminder that edges are near.

Resources are not much more than seasoning in the pot when crises mix. They are the salt which gives administration another degree of room before everything boils over into a scorching mess. So many nights, weeks and whole semesters have this sad way of sizzling out and in again. A break, whenever it comes, doesn’t allow for recovery when you don’t spend it. Sometimes, you need one so bad you can’t help but try hoarding it, holding onto it like a breath, trying to hibernate in it until it’s gone too soon.

When my laptop waved the white flag, I thought maybe it was school that was incompatible with life. The support I wanted didn’t take the form of a polite reminder on how to access loaner laptops or a 30 minute therapy appointment scheduled so far out I forget what I was thinking when I booked it. It’s the very practice of centering school which makes attempts at student wellness unsustainable — we are only worth the help it will take to get us back on track with a syllabi.

Before break, my roommate and I had joked that we’d become part-time students. On a walk just because we had the time or a lunch trip that made us the youngest customers at Chili’s, my lungs let something go like they’d suddenly felt the air get better. I have yet to come across any offices or inboxes where you’re invited to forget that you’re behind if it means remembering what it’s like to love how living feels. 

The things I should have done and didn’t do over break will stay secrets to both of us. I spent it, finally, for the first time in forever. And with a little help from my friends, coming back has me looking forward to living as significantly less, yet so much more, than a full time student.

Alecia Wilk is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]Girl, Uninterrupted runs every other Tuesday this semester.