Home Again: A Reflection on Being Back

by Anne Johnakin | 2/3/21 2:10am

returning-to-campus
by Lila Hovey / The Dartmouth Staff

“Aren’t you so happy to be back?” my mom asked as we drove across the bridge to New Hampshire for the first time in nine months. It was dark, so she couldn’t see the tears I blinked away. They weren’t tears of joy. I was anything but happy to be back.

In the past few months, it started to feel as if I attended Dartmouth only in a dream. I’d forgotten what it was like to walk across the Green, eat at Foco and stay in the library until 2 a.m. It’s hard to miss something you feel like you never had. I didn’t start to get excited until the car ride up to campus, but even then my excitement was measured. With COVID-19 restrictions, I didn’t know what world I’d be walking into.

I vividly remember arriving at Dartmouth last winter. I stepped off the Dartmouth Coach and took a deep breath of the Hanover air that I missed so much during the six weeks I had been gone. Back then, six weeks felt like an eternity. Before last fall, I had never loved a singular location; I had never felt so deeply at home anywhere. 

“I was expecting myself and Hanover to pick up exactly where we left off. It was raining on the day I left, and it was raining the day I arrived — there was a circularity to it all that should have been satisfying.”

But now, when I breathed in Hanover air after nine months, it felt leaden. I couldn’t swallow the amount of love I had for this place, but it didn’t feel like mine anymore. I was expecting myself and Hanover to pick up exactly where we left off. It was raining on the day I left, and it was raining the day I arrived — there was a circularity to it all that should have been satisfying.

Early in this pandemic, it felt like we all reached an agreement that normal life had simply paused. We would stay in our houses for a few weeks, nothing would change and then we’d hit play and go back to normal. Naively, I thought coming back to Dartmouth would be exactly like that. And in some ways, it is. There are relics of the “before times” everywhere. A poster in Novack of a poetry reading I went to last winter. A take-one flyer for bartending classes. 

But they put signs on my trees telling people to wear masks. And in the fall, the ’24s walked on my sidewalks. Lived in my old dorm. Sat in my favorite cubicle in the stacks. There are footprints of new students and new people everywhere. 

Other changes feel bigger, transforming the ways I can inhabit this place. I can’t access my favorite spots on campus — places that made Dartmouth feel like Dartmouth. My ability to socialize is limited, and Zoom classroom discussions are nothing like the real thing. Try as I might, it’s impossible to convince myself that nothing has changed.

On every street corner, my memories from freshman year play out like a movie before my eyes. The ones that I return to most are from the last week of winter 2020, when it felt like the walls were closing in and I did everything I could to ignore it. It was in the Theodor Geisel Room in the library that I finally allowed myself to read all the New York Times articles about the coronavirus. It was in One Wheelock where I sat between two of my best friends and finally grasped that we would be leaving. It was the front lobby of the Hop where I watched the Dartmouth Coach pull away, and I sobbed and sobbed because who knew how long it would be before I saw some of the people I loved most.

“Everything has changed. And this isn’t only Hanover’s fault — it’s mine too. For better or worse, I am a different person than I was a year ago.”

Everything has changed. And this isn’t only Hanover’s fault — it’s mine too. For better or worse, I am a different person than I was a year ago. I have a year of grief on my shoulders, as we all do. Never have I felt more alone, or more hopeless. I imagine my year looked much like yours, marked by COVID-19 scares and weeks without leaving my room. I had to trade a campus full of laughter and happiness for my room at home with silence and blank walls. But months spent by myself led to the sweetest of reunions. I have hope that things are on the upward trend. I have hope that this year will be better.  

I’ve been waiting for months to find a sense of closure. Seeing the Green for the first time again, I felt like it was finally time. Dartmouth has always been the place where I do my best thinking. Walks around Occom Pond and sitting in the silence at BEMA used to offer surefire solutions to my problems. Grappling with 2020 is a larger issue to tackle, and I have faith that if anywhere can help me start healing, it’s Hanover. It’s home. 

I’m grieving for so much, and the past year hurt everyone in so many ways, so the memories I could’ve had seem like a small concern. But I still find myself reaching for the person I was and the person I was becoming in the first part of freshman year. I think I could choke on my happy memories of “Old Dartmouth” if I let myself. But that Dartmouth is gone, and the bar is lower now. I can start making new memories to supplement the old.

In the time since being back, the adjustment period has been harder than I ever would have expected. Things that I once wouldn’t have batted an eyelash at, like going through the line at Foco, make me feel like I’m drowning. After so long with nothing, having everything back is overwhelming. Yet, in between the moments where I feel lost, there are moments where everything feels normal. I find calm sitting with friends in the library studying and taking walks in the snow. I may not be totally happy to be back, but to be frank, I’m not totally anything these days. 

I hope Dartmouth missed me like I missed it. I’m scared of having to heal and move on and keep going without the ones we’ve lost, but the pandemic has already stolen so much time from me. I won’t let it steal any more.

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