On-again, Off-again

Reflecting on what a Dartmouth “off-term” looks like during the pandemic.

by Meghan Powers | 5/19/21 2:05am

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

There’s an “L” in my D-Plan for this term, spring 2021, and it stands for “Leave.” The minutiae of Dartmouth’s oft-cursed, occasionally lauded D-Plan and the inclusion of a mandatory, on-campus enrollment for sophomore summer means that undergraduates can flexibly choose a leave term. The L is described on the “D-Plan'' section of the Dartmouth Admissions website like so:

 “L: Leave terms. You are not enrolled. You could go on vacation, get an internship, find a job, do research or travel.” 

I’ve checked a few of those boxes. I’m doing interesting research and was lucky enough to visit a few friends I hadn’t seen in a while, but no small portion of my leave term has been spent doing exactly what I’m doing now: sitting by a window in New Jersey, with coffee in my hand and a golden retriever at my feet, trying to think of the next few words that feel right.

Around campus, leave terms are more often called “off terms” — a term that I like for the implication that a switch has been flipped. I spent winter term on campus, after taking classes remotely for the better part of 10 months due to the pandemic, and it certainly pressed some button in me that had been lying dormant. I wanted to reconnect with old friends, even when I didn’t feel like myself: Things required more effort. 

I haven’t been in class since March 17, and while I don’t really feel like an adult, I don’t feel so much like a college student, either. It has to be said, though, that whatever I might feel about being alienated from campus or reconciling some of the foundation-rocking experiences of the past year and a half with my evolving worldview, I’m so, so lucky to have a home I love going back to. 

Before, I thought of off terms as a foray into adulthood — which they certainly can be, but the pandemic put to bed my notions of being whisked away to a city somewhere, doing important tasks that probably require a blazer.

In reality, I’m sitting in the same place I once did when I was 12, thinking that you could do one of those movie time lapses from 2013 to now, where the camera does a 360 around the room and I’m suddenly older, as if by magic — no more Katniss Everdeen braid, but still plenty of freckles. I’ll never know what this leave term would have looked like in the absence of the pandemic. This term has been rife with exercises in maturity, though none of them came how I would have expected.

I think I’m more of a confidante to my parents now. I had a long, languorous childhood with clear demarcations between “adult” and “child” activities, subjects and responsibilities. Now that I’m toeing the line between the two, much to Peter Pan’s chagrin, I’ve taken on more responsibility. I’ve had some weighty, uncomfortable conversations about family, and I’ve done a fair amount of growing up from the comfort of my childhood bedroom. 

Coming of age and learning about the world isn’t a new experience for my generation, but it’s an accelerated one. I’m as sheltered as can be from anything that a graphic newscast, grainy iPhone camera video or pink-and-blue Instagram graphic might explain to me, but the internet can provide a facsimile of a front-row seat to nearly anything — sometimes for the better, but often for the worse. 

During the beginning of the pandemic, while enrolled in online classes, I felt a bit like a brain in a jar. It was hard to remember all of the things I was grateful for and reflect on all of the ways in which I consider myself lucky. But being home on an off term has been such an auspicious time to get some perspective.

In my reflection, I've concluded that I feel like I’m running a science experiment in a controlled environment. I’ve been taking advantage of this term to return to reading — my first love — and catch up on all of the books I’ve convinced myself I’m too busy for with a school schedule. For example: George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” a sprawling, glorious, massive compilation of every thought you’ve ever had, but couldn’t find the words for.

“After all,” said one of Eliot’s characters, “people may really have in them some vocation which is not quite plain to themselves, may they not? They may seem idle and weak because they are growing. We should be very patient with each other, I think.”

I think what I expected from this term was to completely re-energize myself before I launched into four on-terms in a row. One of the most important takeaways, though, has been starting to teach myself to relax. That doesn’t mean that I’m wrapping my hair in a towel and putting cucumber slices on my eyelids or anything — it just means there’s going to be some time between the moment I sit down by the window with my coffee and the moment that the next few words present themselves. That time is kind of nice, too.

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