How do we sum up the last four years?

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What Remains: A Senior Reflection by Emma Swain ’20

  • Emma Swain '20

By Emma Swain ’20

May 28, 2020

How do we sum up the last four years?

Well, we could start with what we remember.

My earliest memory at Carthage is of the weather. My first day as a freshman in early September of 2016 was a day very like today: sunny, a little windy, not much cloud cover. A photo, dug from the depths of my phone storage and time-stamped September 7th, 8:28 am, shows the pearlescent waves rocking gently back and forth behind Lentz Hall and tulips basking in the September sun. It was a picturesque way to start my college career.

But I don’t really need photographs to help me remember that first day. Even though it’s been four years since then, most of it is still clear, like little blown-out bulbs of memory imprinted on my retinas. Small slivers of memory surprise me: the raspy shree of metal on metal when opening the door of the JAC for an early Music Theory class, the shuffling of pages in the library, and the smell of dry-erase markers in an afternoon literature class. But what really sticks out the most is the people. I vividly remember walking down by the lakeshore after that first successful day, skipping rocks on the water, laughing with new friends, breathing in the fresh air and watching the sun set on the chapel steeple. Later that night, I remember fixing details in my mind, determined not to forget what I knew was a momentous day; the start of a new chapter. I dreamt of repeating that moment on my last day of classes: of sitting by the waves and laughing with my friends as new graduates in spring of 2020. As I drifted off to sleep, I couldn’t shake the overwhelming but exhilarating feeling that this was the start of the rest of my life and the end of everything  I had left behind me. And I’ve never forgotten that day.

But my last day at Carthage as a senior in the spring of 2020 is a little harder to pin down. Some might say that it was Friday, May 15th, when I completed my last class of my undergraduate career. But that doesn’t really feel like the last day, and somehow I can’t quite convince myself that it was. But the only other date I can come up with is Friday, March 6th, when we finished classes before spring break – the class of 2020’s last day on campus. The run-up to spring break is always a marathon and by the end of it, everyone is more than ready to leave; so needless to say, I wasn’t trying to imprint those moments in my mind. All I remember from that day is that I pulled myself through four classes, had a meeting with my advisor, got in my car at 5:15 after a taxing choir rehearsal, and drove to my apartment to collapse gratefully on the couch. I don’t even remember saying a proper goodbye to many of my closest friends, just a quick “have a good break!” I left quickly and without fuss: not knowing that I wouldn’t be back, or that in the next 48 hours, the world would turn life on campus on its head. And there’s nothing else. I committed nothing to memory about that ‘last day’, because I never thought I would have to. And if my last day really was Friday, May 15th, when I completed my final class alone over Zoom? Well, suffice to say that the only parts of that day that felt memorable were the ones I’d really rather forget.

On the whole, this fractured semester has felt like a eulogy to an ending that we never really got to have.  Every Zoom call, every virtual assignment, every recorded performance and canceled event feels like a tiny funeral for March, April, and May. I don’t know a single student – especially not a single senior – who isn’t feeling the loss of this spring acutely. Because the reality is that “commencement” isn’t a date, it’s a process: a process of letting go, of saying goodbye, of establishing lasting connections, of making our peace with the ending of this chapter and the beginning of the next one. But we’ve been ripped away from that and torn asunder by forces outside of anyone’s control. We’ve been wrenched from everything we used to cling to. And I keep asking myself: what is left? What do we have, if we don’t get to experience those precious final moments; if all we’re left with are the half-remembered days that we never knew we’d look back on so wistfully?

What remains?

It’s a hard question to answer. It often feels like nothing remains: like the pandemic has stolen away everything that we have worked for. And the answer is surely different for everyone. But for me?

What remains is “I miss you.”

What remains is “I wish you were here.”

What remains is “I can’t wait to see you again.”

What remains is exactly what we have had from the very beginning: each other.

We’re all still here. And we’re all still hanging on to one another. When the classes move online, when the performances become recorded videos, when the sporting events are canceled, even when commencement is canceled: the people that we cherish still remain. True, we’re much more scattered and fragmented than we have ever been, tossed without notice to our respective cities and hometowns. But if I’ve gleaned anything from this coldly unceremonious end to my senior year, it’s that all the professors, staff members, colleagues, roommates, and friends that I love are still here – even if it’s over Zoom, from six feet away, or on a phone call.  And I’m realizing more and more that what we have left isn’t the canceled performances, or the cleared-out dorm rooms, or even the empty stage that we all dreamed of walking across. What we have left are the people we’ve met and the relationships we’ve built at Carthage, starting on that first successful day of classes. It’s those friends, those mentors, those relationships that remain, even when the world turns itself upside down.

I may not have gotten to make all those final memories that I had looked forward to. I may not have been able to relish my final performances, classes, and meetings as much as I’d hoped. And I may not have gotten to walk to the lakeshore with my friends after our final day of classes, soaking in the sunshine as I dreamed of on my first day as a freshman. But I’ve got stores of memories created during my four years at Carthage to look back on while I wait to see them again. And I know I’ve always got those people by my side, however far away they may be, or whatever catastrophe comes our way.

What remains is our Carthage family.

And they always will.