On March 9, I got dinner with my friend Lisa. I’d just come back to Virginia from New York. I thought the city would be home in a few weeks — I’d just signed a lease for a place in Queens — not the epicenter of a pandemic. She was back in town for her last spring break from Carnegie Mellon, not realizing she’d never have class there again.
Dinner was nice — the pho was hearty and comforting as always. The week prior, I’d been nervous waiting on customers at my family’s chocolate shop, but that was just my anxiety — I didn’t feel any true danger in the “pre-mask” era. My worry was nothing a nice bowl of soup couldn’t cure.
“Ahhh,” I exhaled. “This is exactly what I needed.”
Life still felt normal then. Our conversation was one of excitement about the future — the coronavirus only came up because Lisa had a cough at the time (she’s fine, don’t worry!). Lisa was entering her post-spring break victory lap, applying for jobs, getting ready to graduate with the Class of 2020. She had already zeroed in on getting a job in the area, saving money living at home, and setting herself up for success.
I’d felt pretty lost in the prior months — I dropped out of graduate school in December to pursue a writing career, and hadn’t gotten many bites. I was aimless; living with my parents, working part time at the shop, wondering if I’d made a grave mistake. When I started getting offers, I finally felt validated. I finally thought I’d found some direction, and that my future was secure.
It’s still strange to think about how much would change in the coming days.
Humans are linked by common experiences — they’re how we relate to each other and empathize with one another. When my mom was a kid, her family would gather every week to watch “All in the Family,” which for five seasons was the number one show in America — countless other families did the same thing. At office water coolers across the country, co-workers would meet to discuss what Archie Bunker blew a raspberry about this time. If you bumped into a friend walking down the street, you’d probably be able to talk at length about last week’s episode. We don’t have anything like that today.
Content was more homogeneous back then — our choices, and our people, were less diverse than they are now. These days there’s a sitcom for everyone, and with social media, you can always find a community of fans. But if you ask a friend about the most recent episode, how often could you have a real conversation? Even if they knew about the show, we stream and binge at our own paces these days — no one’s ever caught up.
Today, we can explore our obscure interests without feeling constrained by mainstream culture. We’re allowed to love and feel passion for things people used to laugh at. I just wonder if we’ve grown further apart in the process
I’m a ‘98 baby — I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. Most of us, with some ’97 kids, started Kindergarten in 2003, and have been linked ever since. The world changes so fast now — there are few we truly have common experiences with. But if I meet someone who started school at the same time as me, we will have experienced world events and cultural shifts at equivalent stages of our lives. We can talk to each other on the same plane, in that way.
We grew up listening to hip-hop, auto-tune, emo music, and pop-songs-with-a-rap-verse-inserted-for-commercial-reasons on the radio — we were the T-Pain and Flo-Rida generation. Our first adult jokes were of the “That’s what she said” variety. We wore Silly Bandz and bought “I love boobies” bracelets. And when we were bored, we posted “LMS for a truth is!” on our Facebook walls — not timelines, walls.
We were among the last people to know a world before smartphones — we were around when iMacs were just translucent elementary school computers. Someone born in 2005 probably doesn’t remember life without the iPhone — someone born in 2010 might’ve grown up with an iPad in their stroller. Technology wasn’t always as ubiquitous for us. We keep up with the pace of change, unlike many people born before us, but we still feel it — unlike some born after us — and we don’t always like it.
For some of us, 9/11 was our first memory, though I only have a faint recollection of that day. All I remember is my preschool teacher turning out the lights and closing the blinds, and being surprised to see my parents there to pick me up early. But we grew up in the aftermath — the U.S. has been fighting the “War on Terror” ever since. In fifth grade, we watched America elect Barack Obama, our first Black president. Eight years later, in our first election year, Donald Trump acceded to the presidency. Regardless of your political bent, the journey from Obama to Trump was rocky — to say the least — and it spanned nearly all of our formative years. Social and political dysfunction don’t feel strange to us — we haven’t lived a day without it.
At the end of our third-grade year, 32 people were massacred at Virginia Tech, my dad’s alma mater — and now, mine. When I was a student there, I used to walk past Norris Hall, the building where most of the deaths took place, almost every day. At the time, it was the largest mass shooting in American history, but that record has since been broken twice.
During my freshman year high school orchestra class, another student told everyone to gather around his laptop: the Sandy Hook shooting. Everyone crowded close together, staring at the news story on their computer screen, not saying a word. We still remembered what elementary school felt like; we were carefree — the real world didn’t feel so scary back then. The surviving children at Sandy Hook Elementary School lost their innocence that day, lost a sense of security — sometimes, it feels like we all did.
Years ago, a friend of mine told me, “Ever since the Aurora, Colorado shooting, I can’t walk into a movie theatre without wondering if someone’s going to shoot it up.” And I agreed with her — whenever I walk into that dark, crowded room, I can’t help but let that possibility cross my mind. I think of how lax the security is, how if a gunman were to enter, there’d be almost nowhere to turn.
I still enjoy the picture, though — I guess uneasiness is something I’ve just come to accept. When our parents were 20-somethings, wars and calamities were on the periphery. Today, it feels like tragedy could always be around the corner.
On March 11 of this year, Virginia Tech moved classes online for the remainder of the spring semester, citing concerns with the spread of the coronavirus. Days later, the university cancelled spring graduation ceremonies for the class of 2020. After four years of hard work and long nights, graduating seniors ended their college experience on an anti-climactic note at best. No popping champagne bottles on the steps of Burruss Hall, no commencement on the field at Lane Stadium. No walking across the stage.
I was supposed to be there. When I started college in 2016, I was part of the Class of 2020. Everyone I grew with during my time in Blacksburg finished their coursework on Zoom. I can’t help but feel weird being on the outside.
Most of my classes at Virginia Tech were in the Architecture Annex, a small building on the edge of campus next to Top of the Stairs — anyone who’s ever been to Blacksburg knows where TOTS is. The Annex parking lot is a popular tailgate spot on football Saturdays, but the building itself is often forgotten. I feel like every college campus has those buildings — people pass them every day, but don’t know anyone who’s ever stepped foot inside. I guess that means we Annex-ers didn’t make enough friends.
The Annex was built in 1916 to house Blacksburg High School, when the town’s population was only around 1,000 and Virginia Tech was a small military institute called Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute (you can breathe now). Today, Blacksburg is home to over 40,000 permanent residents, and the high school has since moved to a sprawling campus off Prices Fork Road, west of downtown. In 1965, Virginia Tech purchased the building, and today it houses the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning.
It was always funny to us: The urban and environmental planners, tasked with designing sustainable cities for the future, were siphoned off into one of the more neglected buildings on campus. Many of the rooms weren’t temperature controlled. Some of the windows were sealed shut by a coating of paint. For some reason, several classrooms were a half-flight of stairs above the main hallway. Unlike nearly all buildings on Virginia Tech’s campus, the Annex wasn’t made of Hokie stone — a type of limestone found in only a select few quarries in the region — but rather good ol’ brick.
There are even a few columns on the exterior — it looked like an uglier UVA building (and that’s saying something).
But with each passing day, my perspective changed. The rooms on the main level had these huge windows; on a beautiful fall day, there was no prettier place on campus to have class. The main hallway was lined with framed covers of books that people in the department had written, and served as the background of my favorite graduation photo. Because the department was small, almost all of us knew each other by graduation — the Annex was home for all of us. All those negatives I said earlier, they were what gave the building “character.” The Annex was weird, but it was “our weird.” We urban planners, notorious for our perfectionism, somehow came to love the place.
I used to never flinch when people didn’t know where the Annex was. I knew it was in a far corner of campus, very few people had class there — many didn’t even know it was a campus building (with the brick and all). But once that ugly building on the corner of Otey and College Avenue became home for me, if I slipped the “Annex” into conversation — and someone replied with “Oh sorry, what … is the Annex?” — I’d do a double take. I wasn’t prepared to have to explain something that had become such a big part of my life. I don’t think anyone is.
We become so used to our inner circles and the experiences we share with them that we forget to separate them from the rest of the world. Have you ever told an inside joke from high school to your college friends, then have to awkwardly explain it to them? It’s super embarrassing! Usually the jokes aren’t even that good (But they were at the time, am I right?).
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in this age of information overload, we look for comfort in our groups, with people who share common experiences. We feel safe there, shielded from the horrific news on T.V. 24/7. People don’t want to know all that’s bad in the world. People don’t want to fix what’s wrong with society. At the end of the day, we just want to be comfortable — and happy — even if that means ignoring the world’s problems.
And it’s okay to ignore the obvious sometimes. To live a righteous life, you don’t need to know everything or even be good all the time — there’s room for ignorance and missteps in the realm of righteousness. But when you never leave those self-reinforcing environments, when you never allow your views to be challenged, you could end up in a strange place. You might forget how to sympathize with those outside your spaces.
When I see protests against the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, I think of the anti-vaxxers. They’re so caught up in their ideology, they no longer realize their actions can harm others. By protesting outside in crowded spaces, you’re increasing your chance of getting the virus, and perhaps more importantly, your chances of spreading it to someone else. And yes, our country needs to do more to help small businesses and unemployed workers during this time, but I don’t think these protests are about that. They’re about people in a self-reinforcing space, having a certain view of a situation, and losing any empathy for those who think differently. In this case, for those that are scared.
Urban planning didn’t turn out to be my calling, but if there’s one thing that I learned in my course of study, it’s that people are complicated — unpredictable even. It’s why so many planners turn to games like SimCity for comfort: There, if you build a good city with sufficient amenities, not too much traffic, while keeping taxes reasonable, the people will be content. In life, there will always be detractors from even a plan that should make everyone happy, because everyone has different conceptions of right and wrong, of “common sense.”
Now that many of the kids who started kindergarten in 2003 have finished college, but lost out on “Pomp and Circumstance,” the overwhelming feeling is a lack of control. I know it seems small, but college graduations mean something. They’re ceremonies meant to tell you that the world is yours for the taking. That after all your hard work, great opportunities lay ahead. But when we see the ineffective government response to coronavirus and people who think it’s “just the flu” and advocate for policies that would encourage the virus’s spread, our response isn’t “Graduations aren’t that important, we’ll make it through.” It’s “What are we going to lose next?” “What opportunities really lie ahead for me, for us?” “Why did I work so hard to enter a world full of chaos?” “Are we going to be okay?”
And the answer to all those questions is: We don’t know. Because in a time where nothing is concrete, everything is subjective, and the world is completely different depending on who you talk to, we can’t know anything, really.
I didn’t mean to graduate early — in Spring 2019 — it just kind of happened. Sometime near the beginning of my third year in college, I looked at my checksheet and realized I didn’t have many classes left to take. I did well in school — ostensibly, I should’ve been as ready as anyone to leave, start a job, and begin the next phase of life. I wasn’t, though.
Our generation feels a unique sense of duty. We’ve grown up in such a chaotic time, seen so much dysfunction and despair, we want to make things better. But we also feel hopeless to actually change anything. It’s responsibility, coupled with that powerlessness, that’s defined us.
That projects inwards too: We feel in control of so little that we grasp hard onto what we can. We’re a no nonsense generation — if we can do something, then we should. We were always taught that any misstep would derail us, that anything less than our very best would never be enough to achieve anything of value. When I realized I could graduate in three years, I didn’t even think about staying longer. If I could finish early, then I should — no questions asked. To catch my breath would’ve meant nothing but guilt.
Graduation day snuck up on me. The week prior, after finals had ended, I didn’t feel the enormity of the moment. Each day, I’d wake up, mix a drink at 2 P.M., watch movies, and just live large. It felt like summer break, but never once did I think, “Wow, I’m leaving this place soon.”
When the day of commencement came, I rushed to put on my cap and gown, finally took my honors sash out from the packaging, and was off. It felt more like we were preparing for an early morning school assembly, not for a coronation.
It was overcast that day, and when we were all in line — ready to walk into Lane Stadium — the skies opened up. We crowded into the indoor track and field facility to wait out the storm. I remember walking along the perimeter of the track with a couple friends, saying hi to some of the people we’d met over the years. It was a pretty cool experience, even though most of my friends wouldn’t be leaving school for another year. I knew just enough people to have a few nice conversations before the doors opened.
It’s weird to think of how few of them I’ve seen since. Everyone always talks about last goodbyes, but not last hellos. You never think that a connection has come to an end, but as you move further apart in life, it just does. Not with a bang, or even a whimper. Just silence.
Eventually there was a break in the storm, and we filed out. But by the time we’d walked the quarter mile or so to Lane Stadium, the skies opened up again. We finally walked onto the soggy field, with our families drenched in the stands, and sat in wet plastic seats.
Virginia Tech is famous for its raucous football atmosphere. Before every home football game, everyone will pack into Lane, clap and stomp to Johnny Cash’s “God’s Not Gonna Cut You Down,” and jump to “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. During night games, we’ll even set off fireworks all around the stadium. It might’ve been nowhere near as lit on that rainy May morning, what with our droopy cardboard caps and drenched gowns. But when they played “Enter Sandman” and our families jumped for us (We jumped for ourselves too, in case you were wondering), it was pretty cool.
As the ceremony ended, there was no cap toss — ours were sopping wet by then, and wouldn’t have made it more than five feet in the air if we tried. We left the stadium, took a few pictures, and went back to our apartments and dorms. After all that, I still didn’t feel the end.
The next day, I woke up bright and early for the College of Agriculture and Urban Studies’ graduation ceremony in Burruss Hall. If you’ve ever seen any picture of Virginia Tech, you’ve probably seen Burruss. It’s our iconic campus building — the auditorium there was where my first accepted students’ event was. It felt like everything had come full circle.
But after I got my diploma and shook the Dean’s hand, I still felt nothing. It still didn’t feel real, even when I was leaving town later that day.
It wasn’t until that afternoon, when I started moving out of my apartment, that it felt real. I remember seeing my apartment — the same, minus any trace of me — and I just kept saying to myself, “I really liked it here. I really liked it here.” I went into my empty bedroom and just stood in the dark for a while.
“I really liked it here.”
Virginia Tech has this marketing slogan: “THIS IS HOME.” It taps into this idea that Hokies, from the time they graduate until the day they die, can come back to Tech and feel as much at home as the day they left. I know it sounds corny — maybe even a little self-righteous — but it’s true. I was thirteen years old when I visited Blacksburg the first time. It was late May after Tech’s spring semester was over, and I was travelling with my aunt — a Hokie alum herself. She hadn’t been to Blacksburg for decades, yet when she saw the Drillfield again, even though there were no students crossing its paths, something overcame her.
“I never felt more at home than when I was here,” she said. “Even now.”
If I could define “home,” it’d be like this: It’s a place where, no matter how bad things might be, you feel like enough. You might not always be happy, but in that space, you’ll never feel inadequate.
Virginia Tech was far from a perfect place, but for me, it was home. It still is.
And in those moments, alone in my dark bedroom, that’s what I was feeling: I was leaving a place where I felt at home, where I felt adequate, for a larger world where I didn’t feel like anything I could possibly do was enough.
Even though I didn’t take Zoom classes, or graduate virtually like my friends did, I think we still have this in common: We don’t feel ready to enter the world when it’s time. I know, the circumstances couldn’t be more different, but we’re all part of the same story: One of being unsure of what lies ahead, of facing uncontrollable circumstances, of desperately wanting to stay in the present.
I think that if we could choose one thing to put all our might behind, to try our best to take control of, it’s making sure that future generations won’t be scared of moving to the next stage of life — they’ll welcome it, because they’ll feel up to the task, not buried under a tide of uncertainty and instability.
It’s going to be difficult. Human nature is to adjust to pain, not fight it — to adapt, not to learn our lessons. It’s to make the best of what is, not to imagine something better. Our ability to respond to stimuli is our greatest asset, but in this way, also our greatest downfall. I don’t know how we combat that, or even if we can. I’m not even sure if I’m too jaded or not jaded enough.
But we have to try. We just have to try.
I was Zoom-ing with Lisa the other day, and we realized that that dinner was the last time either of us saw any of our friends. We were each other’s last contact with normal life, so to speak.
She shared a few sentences from her iPhone notes with me:
“Whenever I was struggling to get through college,” she wrote, “what I told myself to get through it is that nothing is permanent. I think, funny enough, the only constant in life is change.”
“Fast or slow, it always comes.”
Now, it feels like we’re in an inescapable present.
We talked about what we missed most — from before COVID — and we realized that life isn’t defined by the big moments. It’s defined by everything in between — the highs and lows we experience are but detours. Life is hiking through a neighborhood park. It’s waiting in line for the bathroom at a football game. It’s riding the late night bus home. It’s catching up with a friend over a bowl of pho.
Back in senior year of high school, my friend Rishi — going into his final year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute — and I would meet after school at Saratoga Shopping Center, on Rolling Road in Springfield, Virginia. At first it was to work on college essays, but eventually, it became our go-to place to talk about “life, girls, school, nothing and everything,” as he put it.
We called it “The Spot.”
“A couple of worn out metal tables outside, sandwiched between a Starbucks and a Chipotle,” he described it as. “There was, and is, nothing particularly special about the place, just your run of the mill suburban plaza — but there’s nothing but fond memories coming from it.”
We’ve tried to make it back once or twice a year since we left for college. As lockdowns wore on, I wondered when we’d get back there. But when I was driving back from the post office one day in May, I saw that a new, freestanding, drive-thru Starbucks had opened in the same shopping center. When I got home, I looked up the old location on the company website — gone.
And with it, The Spot was gone too.
I know that seems so small, and even as I write this, I can’t help but laugh at how trivial this sounds. But the little things count. And I hope that when this is all over, we’ll have newfound appreciation for them. I really think that if we do — if we soak in every second of life like we do at our happiest, saddest, angriest, most passionate moments — we’ll grow a little bit closer. And in the process, find some common truths.
But until then, stay safe.
Justin is an associate staff writer at Wirecutter and staff writer at WizardsXTRA. He graduated from Virginia Tech in 2019 where he was an opinions editor for the Collegiate Times.
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