Notes From the Desk: You can’t go home again

By Jake Gaughan

The title of this Notes From the Desk is stolen from an early-pandemic Jacobin essay of the same name written by journalist Alex Press. In it, Press examines the place of literary critic James Wood’s “On Not Going Home” in our current pandemic terror. Press quotes Wood:

To think about home and the departure from home, about not going home and no longer feeling able to go home, is to be filled with a remarkable sense of ‘afterwardness’: it is too late to do anything about it now, and too late to know what should have been done.”

For Press, before the pandemic lies the home that we’ve left. Covid-19 has shown us all the ways that “normal” was inadequate. The fragility of our system was highlighted when the intensive care units filled and the food pantries emptied. We’ve seen far too much to return to the way things were. For good measure, she adds, “We didn’t know we were entering a new era until it arrived.”

For most of the Middlebury community, it is pretty easy to point to the minute that we left “home” and entered “afterwardness”: about 11:10 a.m. on Tuesday, March 10, when, via a leaked email, we were notified that students would need to evacuate campus by the end of the week. 

Echoing Press’s observations of broader American society, the ensuing months showed us just how weak our home at Middlebury was. After the announcement, some students retreated to comfortable mansions, or worse, continued with their spring break plans, flying around the world with a level of selfishness that was rivaled only by their idiocy. Others were houseless, sleeping in cars and crashing on couches, their graded coursework an intermediary between their wealthy college and their harsh financial realities. 

This divergence of the two Midds continued into the summer. One is traveling across the country to see friends, posting TikToks from the back of a lake boat. The other is working — not interning — putting themselves in harm’s way to scrounge up enough money to pitch toward a semester of undiscounted tuition. These inequalities have always existed, and so have the college’s failures in addressing them, but now they are inescapable. 

Just as inescapable has been the national confrontation of the United States’ long, racist history. Press wrote her essay before this summer, a season that will hopefully be stamped in the history books as a turning point in the American consciousness. Millions of Americans taking to the streets to protest an unjust and racist system was another departure from the ignorantly calm “home” we once knew. Middlebury is having its own reckoning; trying — and often failing — to correctly address the racist history and biased structure of an institution that graduated the first Black college student in the country but that may have thought he was White at the time

I’m writing this in anticipation of students returning to campus next month and establishing a new normal. It’s been endlessly repeated that we will be returning to a Middlebury unlike one we have ever known. The home that we left is no longer there; we cannot return to it. 

It is easy to grasp how social distancing measures and restricted movement will physically change our lives at Middlebury. Of course, this is for the best: the pandemic rages on across the country, and the federal government seems resigned to letting it win. At Middlebury, there will be no football games or packed Atwater parties. Dining will be different, as will studying. The biggest change will be in the classroom — or lack thereof. 

The success of these measures will rely almost solely on the student body and our willingness to think of someone besides ourselves. Any attempt to return home in this physical regard, whether that be via an off-campus party or dorm room gathering, is an active sabotage of the lives of others. Students have not had the best track record with thoughtful, unselfish decision-making. We cannot return to that. In five years, this fall’s return to campus will be remembered in one of two ways: it will either be a cautious gamble that paid off, or it will be the biggest mistake Middlebury College has ever made. 

Let’s ensure that it is seen as the former, and not the latter. 

On a communal level, the pandemic and month of June have exposed how our Middlebury home, the one we just left, is not a home for everyone. On top of the ways that our rushed evacuation from campus revealed the unequal playing field of the Middlebury education, over the last month, many students, faculty and staff have poured their hearts out describing the many instances of racism and discrimination they’ve experienced at the college. The full extent of the college’s failure of Black and Brown community members was finally revealed for all to see. 

The pandemic has exposed just how flimsily constructed the image of our multicultural, diverse liberal arts college really is. To try to return to the status quo without addressing these issues, without supporting the community members affected, would be an act of malicious cowardice on all of our parts. The mask is off, and to put it back on would be a failure in every regard. 

These two homes, the physical and the communal, are inextricably linked. You cannot advocate for a stronger community while acting in a manner that jeopardizes it. You cannot protect the community in one breath while supporting its destruction in the next. 

In her essay, Press writes, “The past had a fog, and we didn’t even know it… We face the facts, and in doing so, we transform what came before. We can never go back.” When the fall semester begins, all of us — faculty, staff and students — will be tasked with many difficult decisions. Our new normal will require every single person on and around campus to consciously take care of one another, both in our prevention of an outbreak and in our construction of a better community. This would be a grand departure from the way things were before. We now all know that the old Midlebury wasn’t working for everyone — the fog has lifted. There’s no excuse for going back.