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This was a Facebook post (Facebook is where they keep grownups on the internet) I made on the evening of what now seems like an eon ago: Friday, March 13, 2020, the last day we had school all together for, well, who knows for how long?
Because I am friends with many alums on FB, some of whom are siblings of current students, and my writing sometimes reaches those students, I originally changed student names in this piece, but because this will be published in The Egerian, I have changed them back.
It is remarkable to me how much has changed since that day, even though most of what we have done has been to stay in our houses. This little essay is a reminder of that last day of what used to be our regular lives.
I do not know what the future holds–many challenges but, I believe, a great deal of brightness, as well.
But I do know that I feel lucky that I spent the better part of that last day of the way things used to be with all of you.
At the End of the Beforetime
Often, I walk from my car in the faculty parking lot into school singing the last song I played before I shut off the engine. I think this is why my son often walks far enough ahead of me to have plausible deniability of his parentage.
Yesterday, the song stuck in my throat, as it has the last few days I’ve been singing it.
I am, apparently, not the only one to well up to “Seven Bridges Road,” written by Steve Young but made famous by the Eagles in 1980. Young wrote the song about, as he put it, “a girl and a road in south Alabama.” He says he wrote a song he “couldn’t believe anyone would relate to, understand, or get” and admits, “I don’t know exactly what the song means.”
But he knows how it hits people, and acknowledges that, “on another level, the song has something kind of cosmic that registers in the subconscious.” I’ve felt that the past few days, and wondered why. In the car, Dev and I are often in different worlds, me listening to a podcast or music on the car radio while his “parent-canceling headphones” create a bubble around him. We talk more in the afternoon when he usually drives us home, but in the morning, we leave each other to our songs and our thoughts. He was halfway into the building when I turned off the car, wanting to hear the last strains of the a capella five-part harmonies drift off to wherever harmonies go.
I think about the last lines of the song, and once again, my throat and eyes fill up and cut off the words.
“There are stars in the southern sky,” it promises,”and if ever you decide you should go, there is a taste of time-sweetened honey, down the Seven Bridges Road.”
“Is there anymore?” I ask myself. I think I know what that tastes like–time-sweetened honey. I know it from memories of what seems like a slower world, Jim Croce’s “Lazy days in mid-July. Country Sunday mornings.” Maybe it’s just our memory of youth, when the future was so much bigger and longer than the past, and when we grappled with who we wanted to be rather than grappling with who we have become, but I think it’s more than that.
Time doesn’t seem to sweeten much these days. We hardly have any of it to spare. I wake up in the morning, check my iPad, and Marie asks, “how did the world explode while we were asleep?” Blink. Checks and balances gone. Blink. The NBA season, the Masters, your school, shut down. Blink. Italian doctors making impossible, savage decisions about whom to intubate as patients stack up in the hallways of ICUs in first-rate, first-world hospitals.
I am old enough to have lived through unsettling times, but nothing like these past few years. The word I hear people use most often to describe the pace of daily life is “assault,” and I wonder if that cosmic thing that Steve Young believed touched something in our subconscious will even make sense to a generation growing up when time itself feels like an assault.
“I will mourn a little for that,” I think, as I walk toward Rowe Hall. “I will spare a few tears for the loss of the taste of time-sweetened honey.” And I do. Then I swallow hard and scan my phone to enter the building.
Something heavy was in the air as I walked up the stairs toward the history department office on this Friday the 13th, the day before spring break, and maybe the last time I would see my students for a good long while.
Even by the standards of our frenetic era, change was happening at a dizzying pace. By the end of the school day, we would be informed that we would not be returning to campus until at least two weeks after the break–for at least a month from this day–and an hour after that, Governor Tom Wolf would announce that Pennsylvania would join many other states in closing all schools for two weeks. I would learn that our HS ultimate season would be all but scrapped, and all the school’s sports coaches were issued a stern warning in an all-caps email from our athletic director that they were not to stage informal practices among their teams while we were out, nor encourage them or allow them to take place with our knowledge. “FAILURE TO ABIDE BY THESE POLICIES WILL RESULT IN TERMINATION.”
And April 13 is an aspirational return date, not a fixed one. One of my freshmen asked me in class, as we practiced with Zoom, the online-meeting site we will be using for distance learning until we are back in the classroom, “Mr. Weiss, has anything like this ever happened at Shady Side before?”
“Tyler,” I said, “Nothing like this has ever happened anywhere before, at least not that I can remember. We are,” I told the class, “in uncharted waters.”
I felt an odd mix of shared emotions–a lightheadness and heavy-heartedness swapping places with each other, and sometimes filling us simultaneously. Some of our students are from China, and have had to make the hard choice between finding a place to stay in the area for the next month or so, as our dorms will be closed to the boarders, who make up almost 15% of our student body, or going home to China. But going home means not coming back this year. Some will stay. Some will get on a plane, and some were still struggling to make up their minds. They are as different from one another as any of my kids, but as a group, they are not given to public emotionality, and they wrestled to contain their sadness and confusion. Tiffany, a sophomore and one of my most dedicated ultimate players, told me she would be going back to Beijing. “I’m sorry you’ll miss our season,” I said, not having learned yet that we really won’t have one.
She said nothing, but her eyes filled. No tears fell. She nodded and looked into the distance.
But not every child or every moment was sad. Albert, whom I have known since he was six years old at day camp, is a lovable nerd. When he was little, he seemed oddly old with his khakis pulled up high over a tucked-in polo shirt, cinched tight at the waist, and his ever-present glasses and strangely precise and stilted way of talking. These days, he seems oddly young for all the same reasons, but he is widely adored. Last week, he got a standing ovation as the student council president handed him the little gold cup they give out to the “community member of the week,” one of many special traditions that may be cut short for this remarkable class of 2020.
Albert greets everyone in the hallway, and he said to me in a sing-song voice as he almost skipped by me, “It’s the End of the Beforetime, Mr. Weiss. The End of the Beforetime!”
I sat with one of my freshmen, Emily, on a bench in the hallway during a mutual free period. She is a gem–an earnest student, focused and engaged, but still very much a kid. Her eyes are usually wide, and she pays attention to what she sees. “How you doin’, pal?” I asked her.
“A little freaked out,” she said. “It’s weird. A few weeks ago, I had to interview my parents for a class. I asked them about what they remember from 9/11. Do you think my kids will ask me someday, ‘what do you remember about coronavirus?’”
And Albert’s phrase came back to me. The End of the Beforetime.
All generations have it. We don’t even have to mark the dates, because if we were there, that’s when everything changed from the way it was to the way it became. 9/11. The Berlin Wall. JFK.
I had work to do, I suppose–what teachers usually call work: planning. Papers.
But I couldn’t do it, and I think it’s because I understood my real work was to be with my kids. To talk with them and help them make sense of the ground shifting underneath our feet, but mostly to listen to them.
I wandered into the student center and chatted with a small group of seniors. There were no big groups of seniors. Many of the seniors were gone. Thursday night was supposed to be their Senior Sleepout, though it was to have been a sleep-in in the gym, followed by an officially authorized senior skip-day. Our kids, like most, want to thumb their noses at The Man, especially in the spring of their last year in high school, but they are too thoroughly conditioned to behave to do it without prior approval. That event, like so many others, had been canceled, but many of the seniors decided to stay home, anyway.
Of the few that came in, one said to me, “This sucks. I know I usually complain about school, but I love it here. These are my people. Do you think we’ll have our prom? Will we even graduate?”
“I don’t know,” I told her. “Nobody does. That may be the most unbending reality of the universe, and it’s particularly true now: nobody knows what’s going to happen, and anybody who does is making it up.” She nodded. “Listen,” I went on. “Every one of us–all of the grownups in your life–want you to have these things, and if there is a way you can have those moments, we will do all we can to make sure you get them, but here’s the thing:
“It might be that what’s happening right now is something that sometimes happens: your rites of passage are being replaced with a generation-defining event. That doesn’t mean it’s not sad, but it does mean that it is, in a way, more real, and on some level, generations need them to really grow up. You will not see each other as much this spring as you wanted to, but you will never forget this and you will never forget each other because of it. You will be marked by this event, but I know you: You will find a way to mark it, too. You’ll find a way to carve your initials in it. It may lack the frills and the ceremony, but it will be deeper. And it’s better than a war–trust me.”
A little later, my last class of the day, my Pittsburgh history class, met. It is mostly seniors, so I didn’t expect many, but three showed up, along with a couple friends who drifted in and out. The schedule had, by now, loosened its grip almost entirely. We were just people, drifting through a transient moment together. I walked them through what I thought the class would look like when we resumed school at a distance, and talked about how challenges like this can bring out the best in us, both in school and in the wider world.
“I hope,” I said, “that this makes us reconsider some things. Maybe we’ll decide collectively that this era of dismissing experts as namby-pamby, pointy-headed Chicken Littles will come to an end, and we’ll pay attention to science again–start recognizing that what we don’t see in front of us can still hurt us if we’re not smart and willing to make changes. Maybe the slow acceptance by most businesses of things like working from home will speed up, and that would be good for a planet quickly heating up from all of our car exhausts, and might help solve the problem of finding people to take care of our families while we work. Things rarely get better if they don’t change, and times like this force us to change. Maybe we’ll change for the better.”
One of my seniors, a tall, charming, scholarly guy named Aniket, artfully segued me out of my prattling. “One thing that couldn’t change for the better is the weather, Mr. Weiss. Maybe it’s time to go outside and throw a frisbee.”
I laughed. They know me better than I know them. There is a time for the musings of an increasingly old man and there is a time to live in the moment and play in the sun.
“You’re right! Let’s get the frisbee.”
We walked out into a stiff breeze, and could hear the flag high above us, starched and flapping loudly in the steady wind. “Give me a target,” I asked the kids.
“The flag pole,” said one.
“Alright, kids. Into a wind we go low. Lots of inside out. More spin than velocity.” I pivoted to my backhand and my low throw bounced in the wind and missed the big steel pole, rocking in the gusts, by a foot or so. They set off after it.
As we throw on the quad, a small crowd gathers. Tiffany, Vita, David and Leo wander over to get in a few more throws before going back to China tomorrow (most of the Chinese students adopt Americanized names we can more easily pronounce. I always ask if they want to teach me their Chinese names. Some do. Some don’t. Some try, and often, I fail). Tiffany promises, “We will play a lot of ultimate this summer. We will play whenever we can.” She whips a forehand into a blustery crosswind. It travels flat and far.
“Maybe while you’re home, you can figure out how to throw that huck without lifting up your pivot foot.” She smiles. It’s an old battle for her. “Think of it,” I say, “as a travel ban.” We both crack up at the flatball pun.
Sayuj, an alum and former frisbee team member, appears out of nowhere. He is among the first in a flood of college students who will come back to the area and, as is their habit, be drawn to campus, trying to figure out what social distancing means for kids yanked from their dorms and classes and plunked back at home a few minutes from their old school and old friends. His sister, Sanjna, is a senior on the girls team. She is here with her boyfriend, Clay. Others gravitate toward us and toward the frisbee.
Ariella, an eager sophomore player, asks me, “Mr. Weiss, can I cut for a throw?”
“Go!” I say, and she takes off downwind. I wait for her to cross the brick pathway in the middle of the quad. Giri and Daniel take off with her. I plant my right foot, twist my hips and whip my arm, trying not to lose my balance on the slippery quad as I just saw several of the kids do, laughing with their friends as they assessed the extent of the mud-stains on their clothes. The disc catches a tailwind and sails beyond them all as they try to follow its unpredictable path through the shifting breeze.
I put my hands in my pockets and watch them, stepping back a few feet to remove myself from their orbit–to be an observer. They are like hundreds of groups of kids I have watched in my life of doing this work. The world swirls around them like the wind, pushing them and what they’re chasing in a hundred different directions, but they are beautifully young, so the sun shines on them too, and for the moment, that is all they feel. It reflects off of them, and I am warmed by it.
I know this for what it is.
A taste of time-sweetened honey.
At the End of the Beforetime.