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Spring 2020

What is Left: An Essay by Fourth-Year Student Derrick Wang

Mar 23, 2020 |

Editor’s note: Fourth-year University of Virginia student Derrick Wang, a Lawn resident and student member of the Board of Visitors, wrote the following essay after his final semester on Grounds was abruptly cut short by the spread of the novel coronavirus. It was originally published on Medium.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, “Lord of the Rings”

I.

It’s 7:30 p.m. on a Tuesday evening. Today was a lovely and sunny spring day – on a day like this, I might be out on the Lawn watching the sunset after a day of classes. I might be watching the last rays of sunlight glance off the top of the Rotunda and enjoying the last warm breezes of the day before night falls. I would probably then head inside and lock the door and spend the rest of the night responding to emails. Or maybe I would make small talk with a friend, leaned up against the brick walls, saying nothing much about nothing in particular. These little moments pass us by each and every day, and we think nothing of them.

But of course, we are not living in normal days anymore.

This is a letter to my fellow students in the Class of 2020. It’s also an essay about what it’s like to lose something important. I need to warn you now that this will not make you feel better about having the last and most precious moments of college suddenly taken away. I can’t do that; no one can do that. I don’t have the language or the art to put the depth of this loss in mere words. But I think we have to say something, anything at all, to fill the sudden void in our lives. Maybe you can think of this as an obituary for the time that we will never get to have again at the University. Or maybe just think of this as a one person’s attempt at a coping mechanism for disappointment.

I’ll try not to be too melodramatic, but if there was ever a time for it, here we are.

II.

Just a few weeks ago, I joked that I would be going into retirement after spring break. I was transitioning out of all my extracurricular involvements, passing leadership roles to other students, and wrapping up my classes for the final time. I imagined that I could spend the final eight weeks before graduation lounging around in spring weather, catching up with friends, and making my last college memories. I think many students have this kind of experience at academically intense institutions, where you hunker down for the middle part of college and come up for air at the very end, when you finally have an opportunity to let go of some of your achievement anxiety and focus just on deepening relationships with those around you. I was hoping, as many students were, that I could finally have the chance to savor the last moments of my college experience.

“This abrupt break in our lives has upended these “last” moments. Suddenly, we are closed off from those defining “last” experiences, which stay with us for the rest of our lives.”

As a fourth-year, you look forward to every “last” experience with a bittersweet mix of sorrow and joy. Every one of these moments is precious, even in the most mundane situations. The last time walking down this particular path, the last time eating at this particular restaurant, the last time saying goodbye to these people at this time in your life – these are irreplaceable. You will never be who you are in this exact moment ever again. This abrupt break in our lives has upended these “last” moments. Suddenly, we are closed off from those defining “last” experiences, which stay with us for the rest of our lives.

When I drove away from Grounds just over a week ago, I wasn’t prepared for those memories to be my “last” moments. I didn’t know that my defining memories of the end of college would be those final few hours. I left the men’s basketball game against Louisville in high spirits (although my blood pressure was through the roof, as usual). I didn’t know that it was the last time they’d play this season. I hugged my friends and jumped in my car, not knowing that I would never have the chance to tell them goodbye in person.

A lot of life is about expectations. As long as everything is what we expected it to be, we can cope. We have time to prepare mentally and emotionally for pain and loss. But when expectations are disrupted and disasters strike suddenly, it’s like wandering off the map in a foreign land. So many students feel lost, left hanging, uncertain of what their next few months will look like. All the rites of passage that we expected, big and small, are suddenly washed away in a tide of bad news. In its place are dashed hopes and an uncertain void.

So, what is left for us? Online classes, a canceled graduation, telephone calls and video chats with friends – not how any of us envisioned the end of this semester. It is what it is – we must all make individual sacrifices now to protect our community. Incidentally, it’s probably the least of my problems right now, but I did make a commitment at the beginning of the year to spend less time on screens. I wasn’t doing very well up until now, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen this year. Oh well.

III.

Imagine trying to explain commencement to an alien. They’re beamed down onto a college campus in May, sometime within the last couple of decades.

“Hi,” you say. “Welcome to Earth.”

“Wow,” says the alien. “This seems like a lot. Why are you dressed like that?”

You patiently explain. “Well, to celebrate the fact that I’m done being a student, I’m going to put on black robes and walk down a long strip of grass in 80-degree heat and direct sunlight. A lot of us are going to carry shiny helium-filled plastic globes even though it’s not great for the environment. Then I’m going to sit for a very long time and listen to some famous people tell us that we need to live each day like it’s the first day of the rest of our lives, or maybe live every day like it’s our last day (I’m not certain which one it is). Then I’m going to walk across a stage as someone mispronounces my name and shake hands with someone else before receiving a blank sheet of paper. Lots of people will be taking lots of photos and I’ll look good in approximately three of them. Most people will be extremely emotional about the walking and the blank scroll. I won’t get a real certificate for learning anything until a few weeks later in the mail. The whole process is kind of expensive, too.”

“Oh – interesting!”

The alien is tactful, because in my imaginary world aliens are conventionally polite. But in their mind, they’re probably thinking something like: “Wow. That sounds very silly.”

In many ways, it does seem like such a silly and small thing. And yet, the pain for so many is real. I wish I had the language to adequately convey why this matters so much to so many people. Words fail to capture the sense of disruption and angst for graduating students – a mix of resignation, disappointment and despair. How can we grasp it all?

IV.

Today’s version of Final Exercises at the University was started in the 20th century by Edwin Alderman, the first president of UVA. In Jefferson’s time, there was no grand commencement ceremony or procession down the Lawn – that was Alderman’s invention. He thought that there should be more pomp and circumstance for graduating students. So, he made everyone put on their full academic regalia and marched them down the Lawn; over a hundred years later, we’re still walking. People often say that UVA is deeply rooted in its traditions, for better and for worse.

College is a story with a beginning, middle and end. Its rhythms and routines are carved in bricks, columns and traditions. Each chapter of this story is marked by rituals and ceremonies – symbolic markers that we are making progress in the narrative of our own young lives. We need these bookends for the volumes of our lives, because they tell us that we’re headed somewhere. The last chapter of college is the most important one – it is our last chance to solidify memories and relationships, lessons learned and struggles survived, for the next part of our story. It is our opportunity to join together, one last time, to reflect on how far we have come since the beginning of our story.

Commencement, as a ceremony, is a funeral with the dressings of a birthday party. We mourn the closing of this chapter of our lives by celebrating the hurdles overcome and the accomplishments achieved. We cope with the sadness of separating from our friends and ending our lives as college students by cheering for each other at the gateway to the real world. We proudly mark our progress into the next section of our narrative, leaving behind both the successes and the failures. We have all struggled at some points, some more so than others; we all have triumphs and stories of joy as well. At graduation, all of that is left behind. For those who are the first in their families to graduate from college, this is the capstone of their aspirations – a celebration and a symbol of hope for the next generation to rise higher and live a better life. As graduates, we are freed from that strange space between childhood and adulthood – too young to be taken seriously and too old to be coddled. There is laughter, there is cheering, there are tears, there is pain. Above all, there is closure.

I used to scoff at adults who claimed that college was the best four years of a person’s life. (I used to scoff at a lot of things, because I thought cynicism was the same as maturity.) I still don’t think it’s true, or at least I hope it’s not true, for all our sakes. But for most of us, this is the last time we will truly be “students,” with everything that entails. Those “last” moments – you can’t get those back. It’s on us now to make the most of the times we live in. All we can do is look out for one another and protect the most vulnerable in our society. This means following the guidance of public health experts, practicing social distancing, washing our hands and hoping that this illness eventually passes.

Understand that I am not asking for sympathy – there will be great demand for that in the coming days. Save it for the vulnerable who will suffer from this illness and the health care workers who are battling it each day. I certainly know that it will seem self-indulgent to some for college students to complain about losing their spring semester and their commencement in the face of a public health crisis. But I feel the need to give you a sense of the depth of this loss, to put it in language. When we can grasp something with words, we can place it back in a narrative that we can understand. So much of what we do is make sense of the senseless – putting together something coherent out of the disparate pieces of life that just happen to us. I’m trying to do that. You can let me know whether I’ve succeeded or not.

V.

The Class of 2020 has been together through triumphs, trials and trauma. We won national championships; we witnessed the cruelty and tragedy of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017; we watched unprecedented changes in our politics and our country; we stood together in the cold during Lighting of the Lawn; we sat together in the blazing heat of Convocation. Yes – we have been through more than our fair share of troubles, even among the brightest memories. And we will persevere together through this as well, because we have no other choice. I am not the first to note the cruel irony that in order to defeat this virus, we have to unite together by socially distancing ourselves. At a time when we need the support of our friends and family the most, we have to remain physically apart. It will take all our creativity and compassion to pull each other up in circumstances like these.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m straining my eyes in a dark tunnel to see if there’s a pinpoint of light at the end. I don’t know what’s coming next, and I don’t know how all this will end. Perhaps we’ll see each other again at the end of all this, and perhaps not. Maybe there will be some kind of a graduation somewhere in the future. But we’ve already lost the narrative that we expected to have; those pages have been torn out of the book by forces outside our control. We will have to write something new in the margins, and hope that it suffices.

So, what is left? I warned you that I could not make you feel better, and this isn’t meant to do that. But there is more left to this life than computer screens and emails. You may have lost your “last” moments, but we have a rich trove of memories, friendships, experiences, lessons and stories from our whole journey. Treasure it all, and remember how fleeting these things can be in the face of the unknowable future. You can’t get this time back, but nobody can take away the time you already spent, good and bad, in the past three years. In this case, more than ever, the joy really is in the journey. Graduates like to quote the last line of “The Honor Men” poem, which states, “I have worn the honors of Honor. I graduated from Virginia.” If you’ve actually read the full poem, you know that you can only say those words after having lived a full life of integrity and character, long after graduation. We will go on, all of us, with or without commencement, and let the world know where we came from.

“You can’t get this time back, but nobody can take away the time you already spent, good and bad, in the past three years. In this case, more than ever, the joy really is in the journey.”

Tick, tock. It’s past midnight now and I can hear the moments ticking by (or at least I would if I owned an analog clock – it’s 2020. Who has a clock that ticks?). Time feels cheap when you think you have more of it than you do. It’s dark outside, and on a night like this I’d be working at my desk with the lamp gently casting a glow over a stack of shuffled papers and unread books. Under normal circumstances, I might consider going to bed soon, or I might waste some time scrolling through social media, or maybe I would chat with some friends. But instead, I’m trying to put a loss into words, and I’m running out quickly.

Maybe I could have saved a couple thousand words and just said: Class of 2020, I am sorry. Stay safe, and see you on the other side.

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