Windows, Walks and The Power of One Sunny Day

by Caris White | 9/23/20 2:20am

by Lila Hovey / The Dartmouth Staff

One of the few positive sides of the pandemic is that it’s helped us relearn to love the outdoors. The strict distancing guidelines in place to reduce COVID-19 transmission force us to plan any sizable gatherings outside. At Dartmouth, we’re blessed with beautiful natural surroundings, lots of green space and an institutional bent toward nature. However, we’re also blessed with somewhat tumultuous weather.

My original objective with this article was to walk around campus until I had three chance encounters, whether it was talking through a dorm room window or crossing paths on the Green. The first day I tried this it was 50 degrees and cloudy. Now, that doesn’t sound like terrible weather, at least by New Hampshire standards, but I didn’t run into a single person relaxing on the Green, nor did I see any open windows. 

Campus was downright depressing, and there was no solace to be found in indoor spaces. The library is still closed, and indoor dining and gathering in dorm rooms is prohibited. I was almost relieved when I gave up searching for chance encounters and left, because this gray, uninhabited version of Dartmouth didn’t feel anything like the welcoming campus I remembered. 

Then, a few days later, the sun came out. As someone who grew up in southern California, getting excited about sunny days is new for me. Last winter, I remember being surprised by the sheer joy of the first warm days in early March, when students flocked to the Green and the Sanborn steps, basking in the sun that had been absent for months. 

Although it’s fall now, the effect of sunny days on campus life is just as palpable. As I searched again for chance encounters — this time on a warm day — people were taking leisurely strolls through campus and masked students relaxed on sunny patches of grass. Thanks to something as simple as a few rays of sunshine, Dartmouth looked alive again.

Sitting alone on a bench enjoying the sun, I found George Eid ’24, my first encounter of the day. 

We chatted about the weather and how the first few weeks were going, and naturally the conversation turned toward Dartmouth’s new social scene, or lack thereof. Eid, like many ’24s I’ve talked to, is trying to make the best out of a bad situation. 

“If I’m walking by someone, I try to say ‘hi,’” Eid said. “Usually it will just be a smile and a nod, but you can’t really see the smile. [Wearing a mask] makes it weird because sometimes you’ll see people you know, but I saw a friend yesterday who had no idea who I was.”

This brought up an interesting conundrum. Being “facetime-y” is a hallmark of the traditional Dartmouth social scene, but can you really be facetime-y if you can’t see anyone’s face? 

When I asked Eid how he’d been finding sources of social interaction, he answered with the good-natured attitude of someone who was disappointed but not surprised.

“Being “facetime-y” is a hallmark of the traditional Dartmouth social scene, but can you really be facetime-y if you can’t see anyone’s face? ”

 “Honestly, I’ve been a little deprived,” Eid said. “I like skipping the whole stage of getting to know people, but it’s hard. I’ve made it a tradition to go on a walk at 11 or 12 every night — we’re just trying for anything.”

My next encounter was with Zoe Duvalsaint ’24, and it took a bit of a different angle — literally. Duvalsaint lives on the third floor of Gile Hall, and we conducted our interview through her window while I stood outside on the ground. 

Like Eid, Duvalsaint reflected on the difficulties of making connections during quarantine and the intense COVID-19 restrictions. 

“It hasn’t been easy [making friends], but it hasn’t been impossible,” Duvalsaint said. “Compared to how people have described making friends in college, it’s much harder.”

When I asked what Duvalsaint was looking forward to most about the end of quarantine, she enthusiastically replied that it would be getting to eat outside of her room. Also, she added, getting to use the library to study. As she explained — and as I’ve experienced myself — studying in your bedroom can feel deeply unproductive. 

At the tail end of our vertically distanced conversation, Duvalsaint touched on another aspect of socializing in the strange new normal. Referring to her class’s online presence, Duvalsaint shared a few concerns. 

“It’s not always a good class dynamic — our GroupMe is ‘interesting,’ so I try to avoid it most of the time.”

As Duvalsaint noted, and as many of us can second, online meetings are no substitute for in-person interaction. Right now, students are making do with midnight walks around Occom Pond and moments of sunshine and company on the Green. The ’24s I talked to already have a deep appreciation for Dartmouth’s outdoor spaces, and their commitment to finding novel and safe ways to socialize is both admirable and a product of necessity. 

However, these new forms of social interaction have their limits. It’s cool that I can say I’ve now conducted an interview through the window of a four-story building, but it’s no substitute for sitting down with someone over coffee.

I also tried to talk to Carly Brown ’22, whose fall housing is on the fourth floor of Kappa Delta Epsilon. As I was walking by KDE, I yelled hello to my quarantined club soccer teammate and friend. I could see her vaguely through the window screen, and while it was reassuring to hear a hello back and see signs of life, our conversation lasted all of 15 seconds, ending with a tender goodbye along the lines of “I can’t hear you but I love you — bye!”

Moments like these bring me great joy. Seeing people in person, even if it’s just for a few seconds, is always better than a phone call or text. However, as the days get shorter and colder, I worry that moments like these will become less and less common. Hanging out on the Green is a quintessential Dartmouth activity, but it becomes a lot less appealing when it’s 30 degrees and raining. And unlike in normal years, there won’t be communal indoor spaces to retreat to. 

This isn’t to say that in-person interaction is going to be as grim as the weather when winter approaches. I believe in the ability of Dartmouth students to be endlessly creative and thoughtful when imagining new social spaces in the time of COVID-19, and when the time comes, we will figure out a way to do that in the cold. 

However, I’m also increasingly aware of the value of our remaining sunny days. I’m going to keep one eye trained on the weather report, because for as long as my southern Californian self can handle it, I’ll be outside searching for chance encounters. And if you see me walking, feel free to say hello ­­— even if it’s from a fourth-story window. It might just make both of our days.