Virginia Craighill, C’82, on the front porch of her Sewanee home, where she’d normally be welcoming senior English majors this time of year.
In the coronavirus crisis, a Sewanee English professor, alumna, and mother of a member of the Class of 2020 finds echoes of tragedies past.
By Virginia Craighill, C’82
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage we did not take
Towards the door we never opened.
T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” The Four Quartets
March 5, 2020: At 8 and 11 a.m., I taught my two classes, then had conferences with five students, walked from Gailor to duPont for a meeting, and rushed home at 3:45 to drive to Chattanooga for a birthday dinner.
In the 11 o’clock Modern American Poetry class, we’d just finished T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. I explained to the class of seniors that Eliot’s poem was not just about his personal life and the psychological consequences of World War I. It also responded to the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1920 when 50 to 100 million people died. It seemed distantly relevant at this point. I promised that after spring break we’d read Eliot’s more uplifting poem, The Four Quartets.
I still use the same worn copy of The Four Quartets that I first read in Bill Clarkson’s Modern American Poetry course in the spring semester of 1980, 40 years ago. You say I am repeating / Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
All day I’d felt the oppression, the weight on my brain, of depression. It wasn’t just burnout; it was a clinical, external heaviness pushing down. Even things that should have been enjoyable, such as celebrating my friend’s birthday, felt forced. But the next week I would be on spring break. I was powering through, thinking about a trip to New York City that next Friday, March 13. I was looking forward to a year’s leave of absence beginning in the fall, my first break since 2001.
I thought more about Eliot’s later poem: all shall be well and / All manner of things shall be well. After break, we’d have comps and the celebration for the English majors afterward outside the Wick in the soft spring air. I’d bring daffodils to give to my seniors. My English 101 students would perform their Shakespeare scene on the back patio of my house for their exam, as they’d done since I began teaching here, and as I’d done for Dale Richardson’s class in 1982. I’d have my senior advisees over to sit on the porch and talk before the chaos of graduation parties. In May, my son would graduate from Sewanee as an English major. We were planning his graduation party with some other parents of Sewanee seniors who’d grown up together. I was going to teach in the School of Letters in June before going on leave.
March 6, 2020. “As of now, there have been no COVID-19 cases on campus and only one in Tennessee. Classes and other campus activities continue without interruption.”
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
Sept. 11, 2001: I didn’t have class that Tuesday. I went on an early morning walk to the Cross with friends. The sky was a cloudless and turquoise blue, and the air was crisp in the way that presages fall. The view reached far beyond Cowan from the Mountain.
Around 9 a.m., I drove to the pharmacy, then located in a small stone building across Highway 41. Inside, an older local man in overalls sat at the counter saying, “It’s the Muslims. The Quran says they have to kill all the infidels.” It was disconcerting, at the time, to hear someone in rural Tennessee talk about the Quran or mention Islam. The pharmacist was half listening to him, and half listening to a news program. She told me that a plane had just crashed into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. I said it couldn’t be true. She pointed to the speaker above her head and told me to go turn on any channel.
It was my first year teaching at Sewanee. That fall, I had two first-year English 101 classes and a 200-level course entitled “Fiction as Re-Vision.”
Sept. 12, 2001: I did have class on Wednesday. We were screening Apocalypse Now as a “re-vision” of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I didn’t cancel it. I didn’t even think about it. It was hard to think about anything. Some students gasped and sobbed during the opening scenes. One was from Washington, D.C., and another from New York. Still, I didn’t stop the film.
Cannot bear very much reality.
March 9, 2020: Briana Wheeler, a senior, and Angie Mejia, a freshman, drove down the Mountain with me to Blue Monarch, a residential rehabilitation facility for women and children near Pelham. The acres of fields surrounding it were bright green, almost artificially so. All the buildings are painted in bright spring-like colors of yellow, blue, and coral. We were holding a volunteer poetry workshop with some of the women residents. We read and talked about poems, then wrote our own and shared them. On the way back to Sewanee we talked about how much we looked forward to returning the Monday after spring break and for the rest of the semester.
That evening, I screened a film version of Macbeth for my English 101 class. Daylight Saving Time had started on Saturday. It would be hard for all of us to make that last 8 a.m. class before break. Even I had been taking long, comatose naps on Sunday and Monday as a result of the time change, so I wanted to absolve my freshmen from the necessity of showing up on Tuesday.
March 11, 2020: Almost every hour, messages from an email thread for faculty at small liberal arts colleges dinged in my inbox. Hamilton would start teaching remotely after its break; Dartmouth had asked students not to come back to campus; Berea College in Kentucky was ending its semester the first day of spring break; Rhodes was preparing faculty for online remote teaching. My son came by to say that Sewanee’s Jamaica outreach trip was cancelled.
Anna, Carlos, and Joe, three seniors writing their English honors theses, met in my office; they were almost finished with their drafts and would send me final versions over the break. Since they were coming back to Sewanee halfway through the break to study for comps, I promised I would have them to dinner at the house.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Oct. 11, 2001. One month after 9/11, Wesley Mitchell, a first-year student from Vermont, was killed when he accidentally went down a garbage chute into a trash compactor, thinking it was a laundry chute, at the Templeton Library, which was then under construction. Most of the first-year class knew him, and some of them had been with him that night at Templeton. Once again, I had to think about how to approach my English 101 class after a traumatic communal event. Why should they care about Shakespeare? What solace could I, or the text, possibly offer them?
March 12, 2020. I was in Chattanooga running errands when I received a text that Governor Cuomo had ordered all Broadway shows dark until at least April because of COVID-19. Museums were also closing. My last stop was at a Publix grocery store. I had to wait 10 minutes for a parking space. Inside, everyone had two carts full of groceries. I grabbed some wine and Wheat Thins and got out of there. On the drive back to Sewanee, we canceled our trip to New York. I felt a sense of relief but not yet dread. At home, I looked at the weather app on my phone: rain every day for 10 days in Sewanee.
Oct. 12, 2001. The day after Wesley Mitchell’s death, my students came to class looking pale, exhausted, depleted, but they were there. And I was there. Together we made it through King Lear, I think. Students came to my office for paper conferences and ended up crying, but not about their papers. They also laughed. At the end of the semester, one group set their performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Las Vegas. Grey Gibson wore some awesome thigh-high white pleather platform boots as Titania, the Vegas showgirl. Margaret Chadbourn, the student from D.C. in the “Re-Vision” class, became the editor of The Sewanee Purple. Laura Hahn, a student in English 101, became my children’s sitter. So many of them remain my friends.
March 14, 2020. Instead of flying to New York, I walked the trail beneath Morgan’s Steep to the Cross with one friend, came home, then walked through Shakerag Hollow with two others. No one could sit still. In Shakerag, the moss was thick and emerald green and covered every rock and tree; the waterfalls plummeted over the bluff. The bloodroot was flowering but the trilliums were not yet blooming. Another week and everything would be in full dress rehearsal for spring.
When we emerged, one of us checked her phone and saw a notification from the vice-chancellor. We stood there, and she read it aloud, though we all knew what it would say. Later that afternoon, other friends asked us to go for a drive. We looked at the hundreds and hundreds of daffodils all over campus that the students would never see, we drove out Bob Stewman Road and Ball Park and to St. Mary’s and finally to Myer’s Point to look at brand new houses. Great places for a quarantine.
Crack and sometime break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
March 14, 2020. Sewanee COVID-19 March 14 Update from the Vice-Chancellor:
“Spring break will be extended and classes will not be held March 23-27. All subsequent classes will be delivered through remote learning for the remainder of the Easter Semester. Classes will resume on Monday, March 30. Classes will be offered remotely beginning on that date. No classes will be held on campus.”
March 15, 2020. Move-out / Check-out procedures from the Dean of Students:
“… we are asking students away from campus to begin moving out Wednesday, March 18, at 9 a.m. through Monday, March 23, at 5 p.m. Move-out procedures only allow access to retrieve belongings from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. with no overnight stays.”
March 17, 2020. Updated Move-out / Check-out procedures from the Dean of Students:
Students already here to check out or those en-route must retrieve their belongings and leave campus. For others, “The University will work with students to arrange for moving out at a later date. Note that the time period for this is unpredictable.”
March 19, 2020. Video update from the Vice-Chancellor:
Graduation will not be held on May 10, but at some later, yet to be determined, date.
Oct. 12, 2001. After the death of Wesley Mitchell on 10/11, students gathered together at All Saints’ Chapel to grieve and mourn his loss and the sudden loss of their youth. Over the coming days and weeks, they would come to All Saints’ again for his memorial to hear his father’s words of love and forgiveness. Over the next four years, these students would gather together in classrooms, on the balcony of Walsh-Ellett, at the edges of Green’s View and Morgan’s Steep, in the library and Greek houses, at professors’ homes and football games and Homecoming parties and finally for their graduation in May 2005 to grieve and love and heal. I taught them for four years and watched as they became one of the closest and strongest classes of students I’ve known in my 20 years teaching at Sewanee. They were deeply wounded early but grew together like skin over a scar—always reminded of the pain but unique in their cohesion.
It will happen again for the Class of 2020.
March 24, 2020. COVID-19 Update: Sewanee Safer at Home Directive from the Vice-Chancellor: “I remain exceedingly grateful to all of you for your patience and understanding and cooperation as we continue to adjust our routines and take the steps necessary to fight the spread of this dangerous virus. In this case, the best way to pull together is by staying apart.”
Right now there is no place for us to go to grieve and to mourn and to heal together. We are sheltering in place. Social media is not enough. We long for the comfort of one another’s bodily presence in this place we all love. We long for the comfort of All Saints’, we long for the students, and the students long to be here, safe in Sewanee, their home, their alma mater, and with one another.
My time here has been framed by strange and unanticipated tragedies that make a mark on the students who live through them. The seniors will return; they will come together to celebrate an ending, not the one they anticipated, not the one they dreamed of, not the one they worked for, but another, more poignant and valuable than they can presently imagine. They will come back through the stone gates into this green world “[a]nd know the place for the first time,” not through their relatives’ or friends’ memories of a Sewanee commencement, but with a new vision that is wholly their own.
And so we wait.
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
T.S. Eliot, “East Coker.” The Four Quartets