Mandy Moe Pwint Tu, C’21, from Myanmar (left), and Feza Umutoni, C’22, from Rwanda, maintain a safe social distance on the front lawn of Stirling’s Coffee House.
The Ones Left Behind
What happens when everybody goes home, but you can’t?
By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu, C’21
I should write a poem. Something about grey skies
and petulant birds, singing in the boughs
of greening sycamores. White magnolia petals
falling on the grass, pressed into the earth
by careless soles. Something about rue anemone,
peeping out of hedges, or blue monarch butterflies
seeking solace in every shuddering daffodil.
The day before spring break started, I met my psychology professor, Al Bardi, by the Japanese Garden near Gailor Hall. We made small talk. Inevitably our conversation turned to COVID-19, and what the University might do in response to it.
“Maybe we should just keep everyone here and finish the semester out,” he said.
The first time he suggested this, I shook my head: I needed spring break.
At that point, all we knew was that we were coming back. I was planning for a coming back, although I, and a few of the other international students, would remain on campus for most, if not the entirety, of spring break. In the back of my mind were all the projects that I had yet to complete for this semester, including the Organization for Cross-Cultural Understanding (OCCU)’s Honor Through Language project, which addressed issues surrounding the power of words, and The Reframing Project, which was funded by the Dialogue Across Difference program and looked to instigate conversations about visual representation on campus. In addition to programming related to OCCU and the Writing House, of which I was co-director, I had my hands full, and was looking forward to spring break.
I was also looking forward to the coming back, to the execution of these projects. But even more, I was looking forward to the milestones that mark the spring semester: celebrating my friends after their comprehensive exams, throwing a graduation party for my brother and the other senior international students, meeting my mother at the airport, and watching my senior friends walk across the stage to receive their diplomas. I would cry with them. Watch them leave until the campus emptied. Then I’d get ready for my own senior year.
But now, I felt a sense of dread. I could feel my classmates leaving, and all I wanted in that moment was to reach out and bring them back.
I said goodbye to Dr. Bardi, without realizing I wouldn’t see him again for at least the next few months.
I should write a poem. Something about the constant
chime of Breslin bells, every fifteen minutes,
on the hour, every hour. Parsing out time
like a reminder of the marching on, the one-two
three. Something about the seconds falling,
splattering somewhere in the soil. Maybe next year
they will take root, and grow.
I was in the Writing House when the news broke: There would be no returning after spring break, and Sewanee would transition to online classes for the rest of the semester. Students who needed to stay on campus (including many international students) could petition to stay on campus. McClurg Dining Hall would operate on limited hours.
A letter to the international-student community from Assistant Provost for Global and Strategic Partnerships Scott Wilson said, “We are very concerned that if you travel outside of the United States as non-U.S citizens and non-permanent residents, you might encounter obstacles when you attempt to re-enter the country. In the current context of selective travel bans and suspensions, we strongly encourage you to remain in Sewanee and discourage you from leaving the country.”
I sat in shock as students whose homes are in this country hurriedly called their families to plan their travel away from the Mountain. I wrote an email and sent it out to members of OCCU. I encouraged everyone to hold, to find meaning in any possible way. It was more of a suggestion for myself.
All my plans and projects fell away. I was scheduled to be a speaker at Sewanee’s first-ever TEDx event the week we got back, but that had to be postponed. For someone who is used to having an overstuffed schedule, I was now tasked with learning to live with myself. I spent hours drowning my sorrows in Netflix. I subscribed to Disney+ because nothing seemed to matter anymore.
The worst feeling came from the realization that my work on campus didn’t matter anymore—at least not right now. I was fumbling, trying to read, trying to write, trying to keep myself a little bit sane. I reached out to friends still on campus and friends who had already left. The consensus? We were in suspension, and none of us had any idea how long this would last—how long we would have to hold.
See, I should write
something about the bells, and the songs
of the boys who drape their gowns
over their shoulders on their way to class.
Of the girls who lift their hearts with laughter
and love in the yellow light of ginkgo leaves.
How the last time might have lasted longer.
The Sewanee fog rolled in the next day.
I put on my blue jacket and wandered out into the eerie, empty campus. I snapped photos of daffodils, bowing in the mist. I meandered through the University Cemetery, stood before my reflection in a window at McClurg, as the ghosts of lighter days stared back out at me. I remembered friends waving at me from the other side of the glass.
A dog barked. Startled, I ran into Gailor Hall, my nesting place as an English major. I sat in Room 103, where, just days before, I’d held an OCCU meeting. We’d made plans for a formal, the final installment of our Honor Through Language project, and the annual senior sendoff.
On a normal day in this building, I’d spy English Professor Pamela Macfie in the halls with her dog, Bermuda. I’d run into my advisor, Derek Ettensohn, on his way to class, his gown draped over his shoulder. And I’d stop and greet friends, in the daily traffic of classes and events, and we’d complain about the million things we had yet to do or how much sleep we did not get the night before.
But I was alone. The building itself seemed to heave with a kind of loneliness and longing, which I endured until I couldn’t.
Outside, the pink flowers of the saucer magnolia in the Japanese Garden adorned the skeleton frame of the tree before it, suggesting something about sharing in beauty and holding in hope.
For now, I suppose, that has to be enough.
I should write a poem. About your voice
crackling through wire, a million miles away.
How quietly I sit with the glaring ghosts
of what could have been.
It is 5 p.m., and McClurg is serving dinner. Walking in, I am greeted by a sign asking that we stand six feet apart at all times. On the floor, there are strips of tape, measuring out the mandatory distances between human bodies. They lead to the bathrooms, where we are to wash our hands before picking up a bag and receiving our meals in handy to-go boxes. Actual Sewanee angel Caroline Thompson, manager of the University’s Food Literacy Program, gives me an air hug.
I meet Feza Umutoni, C’22, and Lucas Carvalho, C’22, international students from Rwanda and Brazil respectively, in the line. We have all been here since before spring break started. We have not left. Cannot leave.
We make jokes about social distancing. We ask one another how we’re doing, but there is really no new answer.
Feza wishes that she had the chance to say goodbye. She talks about her family back home in Rwanda, and how leaving is harder for the ones left behind. It’s because of the memories, she tells me, in the familiar places that loved ones used to occupy.
We walk the long road back to our respective residence halls. The sun is shining, and tiny white flowers are peeping out from the grass. I pass duPont Library, where the dogwood and redbud trees are beginning to bloom. Spring is the worst time for students to be away, because at Sewanee, to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “the Earth laughs in flowers.”
I think about the tail end of summer, the start of fall. I imagine first-year and returning students greeting friends along the pathway. Gowns billowing in the wind. Stirling’s coffees in hand, ready to face the day.
I suppose it doesn’t matter as much to me that I didn’t get to say goodbye. Perhaps I’ve left and have been left too often, but I know in my bones that there will be cheer again on this Mountain. And laughter. And silliness. And hope and song and love and fellowship. I know there will be a coming back.
Until then, I’ll hold. I’ll take photos. I’ll write poems. We’ll share in beauty and hold in hope. It’ll be enough for now.
Then, one beautiful day, you’ll tap the roof of your car and release your angel as you drive back through these gates. We’ll celebrate as loudly and as proudly as we possibly can. We’ll hug one another and cry.
So hold with me. I’ll see you soon.
Mandy Moe Pwint Tu is a junior English major. She wrote the poem Lament, which appears in this article, after the University decided to move to remote learning for the remainder of the semester.