An Ode to the Awkward
When I imagined winter term on campus, I didn't picture myself yelling through plexiglass to order food at Foco.
When I learned late last fall that I’d been approved to spend winter term on campus, delusions of grandeur set in almost immediately. After three terms of quarantining at my parents’ house in North Carolina, I was sure that nearly a year of pent up extrovert energy would make my return to the world of human interaction a triumphant one.
I had a vision for my winter term: a vision that involved me possessing astronomically huge amounts of swagger. I would strut across the Green with all the style and flair warranted by a fashionably late return to campus. My mask would match my outfit, which would be just seasonally inappropriate enough to be cool. I’d drop a devastatingly slick “hey!” to everyone I passed, stopping every few people to perform an elaborately choreographed secret handshake.
Upon arrival, I was confronted by the shocking reality that I was not the coolest person on the face of the planet. My strut across the Green turned into a slide, as I had forgotten how to walk on icy New England roads after a year in the South. Instead of greeting the people I passed, I stared blankly at them, trying to discern from just the thin strip of face between hat and mask whether they were complete strangers or close friends. I mustered what little swagger I could, but I quickly began to wonder if I possessed any at all. My only consolation was that the damp stain of my breath, condensed in the cold, covered the wet spots I made on my mask when I forgot I was wearing it and tried to take a sip of water.
Though it’s probably a good thing my ego got knocked down a few pegs, the fact remained that I was wholly unprepared for the host of awkward interactions unique to mid-pandemic college life. I’d been so focused on the joy of seeing people that I’d forgotten people would also have to see me. Those first few weeks back on campus were trial by fire in parsing the many new variables of social interaction.
I looked forward to making conversation while picking up my quarantine meals, but I hadn’t expected so much of the banter to be fruitlessly yelling “MAY I PLEASE HAVE SOME SPELT?” through sound-dampening plexiglass, my voice shooting up a grating three octaves.
On the bright side, however many ears I shatter while ordering food, I take some solace in the fact that nobody can put a name or face to my voice. The combination of winter gear and personal protective equipment provides anonymity so perfect it could make anyone ponder a career in bank robbery. I’ve walked past friends I’ve known for years and barely recognized them. I’ve heard those same friends scream my name at the poor, innocent stranger on campus who owns the same coat and hat as me.
When I do recognize them, there’s some awkwardness even the company of close friends can’t mitigate. Since most classes and extracurricular activities are still online, I don’t do much galavanting around campus. So when people ask me if I’ve done anything interesting lately, my answers increasingly reflect the pettier and more personal parts of my life. Am I supposed to lie and pretend like the most exciting part of my day hasn’t been discovering the Dick’s House vending machine and buying earwax drops from it? Is that a weird thing to tell people? Is that too intimate? Instead of a hug, I often end these conversations with a friendly wave goodbye, which is unfortunately also the universal sign for “Get out of my Zoom room.”
I’m still reacquainting myself with life on campus, and my pile of blunders and absurdities grows taller each day. But as the term goes on, I am reminded little by little why I love this place. I’ve found a sweet, silly kind of home in even the most awkward parts of it. I was worried people would notice all of the ways my existence is imperfect, but the new oddities of on-campus social interaction are new for everyone.
I’m getting used to communicating while muffled through plexiglass and learning how to hold a conversation through interpretive dance when all else fails. I know I look goofy, but I’ve realized that everyone else does too — I like to think that even on mornings when the coffee line is long, everyone has learned to be more forgiving of the person in front of them just trying to hear and be heard.
We’re all a little bit confused, but there’s a sense of comfortable camaraderie that happens when everyone is confused together. Now, the strangers I accidentally wave at wave back at me. I’m apparently comfortable enough talking about my earwax drops that I'm willing to do it for The Dartmouth’s entire readership. Twice a week at my COVID-19 test appointment, I stick a cotton swab up my nose in a public space. We all do, and as long as we don’t make eye contact while the swab is up there, we don’t feel weird about it.
Though it would certainly be nice to be the coolest person on the face of the planet, this term has taught me that I don’t need to be. I’ve learned that being awkward is a part of being human, and that’s OK. In trusting the people around me to understand when I mess up, and in doing the same for them, I’ve grown to inhabit the spaces I’m in with pride, however awkwardly I may fit them.