I was 17 when I first walked across UNC’s campus alongside an older friend from home who was a sophomore. It was November and most of the fall leaves had already dropped, creating a crunchy carpet on McCorkle Place as we crossed it late at night. The old brick buildings, the bells, the towering trees, the funky jewelry store on Franklin Street, the Carolina Coffee Shop where I would one day have my first date with my husband, the Varsity Theater, Sutton’s Drug Store, Ye Olde Waffle Shop, Spanky’s — to me it was a place of wonder, somewhere young people might give themselves over to first one and then another version of themselves, until they found out who they were to be in the world. Of course, that task actually lasts a lifetime. Although as a17-year-old, I was not competitive for admission as an out of state student, I eventually made my way to Chapel Hill, where I did my Ph.D. and eventually joined the faculty. Seventeen-year-old me must have known home when I saw it.
I still love the fall in Chapel Hill, when the air turns slightly crisp and the weather vacillates between summer heat and absolute perfection before giving in to a gray winter chill. Decades later, I still get a thrill from the electric vibe, the students blanketing the quad, the music blaring from a fraternity house as students reunite on the street, and colleagues who have been separated over the summer greet one another. It gives me the sense that even though I’m past the mid-point of life, I’m still a part of what will come next.
Now that I am the Chair of the Faculty, many people are suddenly interested in what I have to say. In the last week, many people I don’t know have posted on my Twitter feed. One of them talked about mocking Chapel Hill’s stumbles in the current moment even as they offered a sort of compliment. My hackles went up at that word “mock.” Finger-pointing and blame are so often the default. Rather than partake in the semi-gleeful gotchas, the what-did-we-expects, and the I told you so’s, I find I’d rather swim for a bit in the river of sadness that is washing over our campus as we send students home and wait, like everyone else, for brighter days.
A few years ago, I was invited to give a talk at a small, Mid-western college. The campus, in the heart of Amish country, was so quiet and green. Being there felt calming, like a retreat and I could see the appeal of being part of a small academic community like that. Two days later, I was back at Carolina crisscrossing campus. I passed the School of Government, the soccer fields full of young people in their prime. I headed to central campus where I passed a memorial to Thomas Wolfe, an angel of course, and my mother’s favorite author. I headed to the Ackland Art Museum, a place that has invigorated my teaching and research in recent years. Tarheel One, the helicopter that brings sick folks from across the state to our medical school, touched down on the hospital’s helipad. As I made my way to my own academic home, the School of Social Work, I felt such good fortune to work on a campus where curiosity, discovery, and service is a way of life. Perhaps there are other places where an English professor is so creative as to use Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a motif for the American health care system, but for me, it’s all here and it always will be.
This virus is not going away; every person, every institution, and every business is trying to figure out how to live with it in in the absence of a national strategy. Our UNC System leaders, meaning the Board of Governors, told us to figure out how to open for residential learning. That impossible dream that we tried to actualize is turning into a nightmare with news of more infections in more places on our campus coming in by the day. A “post-mortem” to understand which parts we got right and which parts we got wrong is in order, and not just as an intellectual or ethical exercise; spring is coming and so is Fall 2021. None of us knows how long we will have to live with this virus. We will learn from what’s happened to better plan for what’s next. But in the meantime, keep Carolina on your mind and let our bad experience serve as a cautionary tale for your communities and institutions. And students, on campus we’ll miss your fire, your fury, your sense of the future. In the meantime, we’ll find it with you on zoom, but your home is still here. Your faculty will be waiting to welcome you back.
Thank you. Working in two academic tinderboxes (health care and higher education) as I do, makes for fireworks. It’s not dull.
Mimi, as always your writing is evocative, thought provoking and eloquent. I never had the pleasure of being a student at UNC but have enjoyed being a resident of the town for nearly 20 years. When we moved here with our two small children, I did not know what to expect. I knew of the college but not the town. Because of the college’s stature I expected an upscale shopping district full of high end chain stores and even a grand “chapel on a hill.” What greeted me upon arrival was a truly friendly college town full of pizza places and quirky stores. I loved it and I loved raising my two children in the college atmosphere. Every August, when the students start to arrive on campus, a buzz and excitement fills the air. My husband and I look forward to the infusion of energy and promise. Yes, traffic increases and jaywalking students with their ear buds in make it challenging to drive the streets, but it is all worth it. Every bit! When the students are away during the holidays or summer, the campus is quiet and lifeless. When they are on campus, it brings back fond memories of my own college days and the formative and fun years as a student. I will miss our student population this year. I will wait patiently for my beloved Chapel Hill to return to me.