Disclaimer: The following events are definitely not fresh in my mind, but I did promise to write about the Covid-19 Crisis and the Great Campus Exodus. In retrospect, a lot of these events will seem highly irresponsible, overdramatic, and irrational. They’re also probably distorted since it’s been six months (!) But, if you want to get a glimpse of the craziness that was March 2020 at MIT, then gather around and let me tell you a story ;)
People in 2012 thought the ancient Mayans had predicted the end of the world, but little did they know the Mayans were off by about eight years. In early March 2020 on MIT’s campus, students were still reeling from President Reif’s email that CPW was cancelled. Of course, everything was about to get much worse, very quickly.
First, the rumors. The rumors whipped around campus like papers caught in the Macgregor Wind Tunnel. School’s going to be remote. Admin’s going to send us home. If Harvard shuts down, MIT is definitely following.
Harvard shuts down.
A screenshot of the announcement is forwarded through email, slack, and messenger faster than the virus can spread. Other scarier rumors follow suit and spread twice as fast. Someone in CSAIL had covid. Someone in Simmons had covid. I heard from a friend’s dad who’s a public official say that Boston is going to shut down the airport on Tuesday, so you need to get out now or you’ll be stuck.
People call their parents and make last-minute plans to fly or drive home. Others are scrambling to find housing in Cambridge because they don’t have a place home. Applications for exemptions to stay on campus are being rejected, even for international students. Dormspamming rules are thrown out the window, and nearly 200 students are replying to an email thread titled, “[Sponge-talk] Has Anyone Received an Exemption?”.
Panic ensues. Packing, crying, hugging, gathering, drinking (definitely not socially distant behavior, but then again, everyone was freaking out). Somehow in the midst of it all, an iconic picture of people hoisting a Purell station gets snapped in Killian Court.
PC: Zidane A. 20’
But let’s back up. Now that the setting is set, I’ll tell the story from my point of view.
Effective immediately, if you are planning any in-person MIT event with more than 150 attendees that will take place between now and Friday, May 15, on campus or off campus, you must postpone, cancel or “virtualize” it.
We are requiring undergraduates to depart from campus residences no later than noon on Tuesday, March 17.
Somewhere around this time, I bike to Supreme and buy three bottles of wine because why not. Nothing feels real. Nobody is showing up to classes.
I feel… deflated? Like I was a floating balloon, but then someone punched all the air out of me, and now I’m falling to the earth in an endless freefall. As a senior, I thought I had more time to catch up with friends and explore Boston. I was perpetually hosed with psets, rehearsals, and meetings, and I kept thinking that I would hang out later, when I had time. Except now, that time had evaporated.
Graduation was also on my mind. I remember in some of my darkest hours (figuratively and literally staying up too late in the night), something that pulled me through was the dream of walking across Killian to get my diploma. Now that dream evaporated, too.
Why had I worked so hard for the past four years if everything was ending like this? Where were the promised rewards of Senior Week, Commencement, and making lifetime memories?
(Honestly, I still had my degree, I still graduated, and I still see some of my friends over zoom, so I was definitely being dramatic. But, these were my thoughts back then. At least, as far as I can remember.)
The next night, LMF piles into Sarah’s room for a last wine night. I think I played a card game with Jasmine and Uyen. People are stressed, but we’re also together. It’s like everyone is trying to squeeze all the memories and bonding from the rest of the semester into these few days.
Of course, there is a socially distant protest in the Infinite. Students are protesting admin for the rejection of exemptions for international students and others who don’t have any other place to go.
I attend an early graduation ceremony for Course 3. We take a group picture in the room with colored squares, and we talk to the instructors who’ve taught us for the past three years. Despite their busy schedules, the professors and teaching staff make time for us. Jeff promises to bring us together again, eventually, when it’s safe to do so, and that makes everything a bit more bearable. I almost cry when I realize my lab instructor is giving me life advice for maybe the last time.
LMF scrambles together a senior sendoff for dinner. Instead of senior menus, we have bento boxes that Rebecca, our wonderful GRA, ordered. We dress up, hear speeches, and I have to rush off to Kresge before it ends because MITSO is recording in place of the concert we would have had. But I’m really touched that French House organized this dinner last minute, signed portraits of us (drawn by the artistic Melody!), and bought special desserts for us.
After rehearsal, I’m back at Next with a few MITSO people in our last post-concert hangout. As per tradition, we’ve ordered Domino’s cheesy bread, and a grad student is shaking his head at the situation and offering his place to stay if anyone needs it. Even though Covid-19 is about to scatter everyone away, I’m struck by how much it’s also pulled everyone together before we all leave.
We call Ellie, who was the MITSO president last year, since she missed the recording. The hangout doesn’t feel quite complete without her, but she doesn’t pick up, and this is why:
3/12/2020 Thursday 10:44PM Text
MIT Advisory: Friday classes cancelled & undergraduate move-out by Sunday.
If campus was panicked before, everybody is now freaking out. The MITSO gathering disperses as different people excuse themselves to call their parents, and I stumble back to my room because I have to pack. I have two days less than I thought, and I need to cancel my plane tickets and buy new ones.
On Friday, French House has a hog roast. In some way or another, the treasurer has managed to pull the funds from our would-be senior menus together to order an entire hog and its roasting spit, which is parked behind New House and must be watched for about 12 hours while it’s cooking to make sure nothing is set on fire. I am amazed through all the chaos, somehow somebody in French House managed to organize this and make it happen.
It was actually a beautiful day that morning, except for the smoke rising from the roasting hog, which floated into people’s rooms at Next and caused some concern. Thankfully, the smoking stopped after a bit.
That night, the hog is served to the non-vegetarians with gravy. It is delicious, and there is absolutely too much food given everyone is going to clear out in two days.
Saturday is spent packing my things and French House things. During the day, eight people pack into a five-seater rental car and drive across the bridge to DPhiE’s house to say goodbye to Liz. I’m so busy I didn’t have lunch. I threw some leftover pork in black tupperware so I could eat on the way. Liz lived with us freshman year and never left cook team since. When she sees us, she smiles and claps her hands to her cheeks.
After our goodbyes, we’re back in French House. While I pack, I drink wine. I look at the memories that have accumulated on my wall: various Broadway posters of shows I’ve attended through MIT’s student discount, letters of encouragement and gratitude from my friends, polaroid photos of me and my family line at DPhiE and my 21st birthday with Azzo. I take pictures of all these memories. Then, I tear everything down.
At some point, Kedi says her dad is here and she’s leaving, and even though I swear I haven’t processed what she’s said, my eyes are already leaking.
Someone passes by our room in the hallway, and Kedi goes out and says something like, “Guess what? I told Vivian I was leaving and she burst into tears!”
I say goodbye to my roommate for the past two years. It’s weird to see her side of the room empty, when it was so full of stuff just yesterday.
At night, Alena, David, Jessie, Jakob, Emily, Kristin, and I sit in the quiet lounge. We take a break from packing and watch Princess Diaries and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Of course, Kristin, David, and I sing along to the musical, but otherwise the movie is very strange, especially without Neil Patrick Harris.
Around 2AM, we resume packing everything in the kitchen into boxes. Broadway music is blasting from the speakers, but we take a moment to turn down the music. Jakob switches off the lights, and we gather around the countertop. He torches the leftover alcohol that’s pooled in a bowl. Blue flames with orange tails swirl around each other and fly upwards. There is a moment of silence for… the uncertainty? The end?
“Au revoir La Maison Francaise,” I say.
“Goodbye French House,” Jakob translates. (He doesn’t know French.)
The flames die, the lights are turned back on, and we continue piling baking supplies, bags of flour, and pots and pans into boxes.
The next morning, I leave. As I pass the Quiet Lounge, I see David sleeping on the couch. I think I went in and said goodbye, but he didn’t hear me, and I didn’t want to wake him, so I left. Sleep-deprived, I board the airport shuttle next to Kresge. As I stare out the window at the receding buildings that have grown so familiar over the past four years, I still feel like I’m half-dreaming. Am I actually awake?
This is my last day at MIT.
But of course, it wasn’t my last day seeing people. Behold the power of technology (and zoom). Like has been said before, MIT is special because of the people. I’m afraid this ending is going to sound like a Hallmark movie or something cringey emotional, but just because most of French House is physically separated doesn’t mean I’ve never seen them again.
I have high hopes one day in the future, when Covid-19 is just a bad dream, everyone will reconvene in the Macgregor dance room for Diner de Noel. It will be the most outstanding reunion ever, complete with great food and overflowing with nostalgia. I fully expect something grand on the order of magnitude of a hog roast.
I’m counting on you, future LMF.