team go to lunch
New York, NY, 5/18/22
The whitening of dogwood blossoms on campus, in the Northeastern United States, usually makes me ache with loneliness for weeks before May. The next thing to bloom is the big white tent: everyone will soon graduate, and pass off the campus, perhaps never to return. Campus will be empty for months.
Most people don’t have any particular feelings about a school devoid of students; they simply never see one. But I spent more time than most on campuses as a child: at my school, where my mother and grandmother both worked, and next door at Caltech, where every member of my immediate family and my grandfather worked at some point. My parents brought us to campus on summer days and after hours, when it was cheaper to let us run around in the relative safety of their lawns and playgrounds than hire babysitters. My sisters and I poked around in Caltech’s ornamental ponds looking for crayfish, fooled around in the computer labs and art classrooms, and spent summers racing the kindergarten’s tricycles up and down the halls. We did homework under sliding chalkboards scrawled with inscrutable equations at Caltech, or in my high school’s faculty lounge, until we got old enough that it was our peers the faculty would be gossiping about. School, to me, has always been a second home.
I did my doctorate at Columbia University Teachers College, spending eight years there including my postdoc—far more than most students do—and, channeling my childhood self, exploring the back ways and hidey-holes of the campus more than many of the faculty there have. I went back to teach at TC this year.
Campus already felt empty in the past few months. More people were back on campus than the past two, when at times the only people around were solo custodians, taking on new jobs like watering all the plants in my doctoral advisor’s office. But many faculty still stayed away this year, too far away to casually meet in the hallway and reaffirm what day of the week it was. I had lunch the other day with a professor who started just before the pandemic, whose work involves running the very hands-on “maker” space. I asked if he’d been talking with Ellen Meier, a professor of mine who (legend has it) soldered together her own computer and stereo back in the day when you had to solder to have a computer or stereo. I’ve never met her, he said. I had no idea she’d done that.
One recent day I showed up on campus and was surprised it was already graduation. I mean, the anthropology department at Teachers College was having its farewell party that day; I was there for cake and champagne and some kind of closure with my colleagues, however adjunct and marginal I was; but I thought graduation itself was some other day.
I surfaced from the subway at 116th to drown in a sea of pale blue robes, mortarboards and parents and peers and inexplicable inflatable hammers provided by the engineering department(?); willowy young Chinese students posing for the Insta1 in front of the gates; young men with suits underneath their robes looking more serious than usual, and women in summer cocktail dresses under, for the party after; black students with their kente stoles shouting bright and proud orange to their ancestors from the blue. More crowd than usual: 2020 and 2021 were graduating, too, not just 2022’s cohort. More crowd than feels safe, still, two years later. I pushed my way through to Teachers College.
A professor addressing the anthropology graduates at the party thanked them for their patience and persistence. You’re the cohort that started remote, and only just came to campus this semester.
My doctoral advisor, Hervé, and I were chatting in our shared office space afterwards when a small gang of students and their parents showed up at the door. These were students from the department, but looked hesitant to enter any offices, like they thought they didn’t belong there.
Oh wow, I heard one say. I guess this is the anthro department.
You haven’t been here before?! I exclaimed. They said no. You’re not getting the full experience! I spluttered. Have you not seen Hervé’s plants?! He’s got a forest in there! I shooed them all in to chat with him among the towering ficus, and went to get more tea.
When I came back, they were getting a story out of Hervé I’d never heard before about some of the art on his walls.