As an independent college counselor, a big part of my job is to reassure students during what can be a challenging time. I help them figure out who they are and what they want to do with their lives. We draft essays. We talk about colleges, big and small. They complain about their parents sometimes. I tell them stories about my own kids. On a regular day, most of the issues students bring to me are things that I’ve dealt with before. Bombing an SAT test. Getting a concussion. Parents divorcing. Getting a speeding ticket. But this time, we’re in uncharted territory.
Like all of you, I watched stories about the Covid-19 virus. Not happy news, obviously, but at first it felt abstract, far away. I had plans. My life would go on. I had just driven through Ohio and Indiana with my junior looking at small liberal arts colleges. People were still shaking hands. We got food from the cafeteria buffets. New Orleans this coming weekend, spring break in Arizona, a trip to Italy in June.
Then I got a text from my oldest, a film major at Syracuse: “Mom, maybe you should come get me.” I told my husband to cancel all our travel.
I was in the car in under 15 minutes. Ben was supposed to fly home the next day for a week of spring break, fly to LA for a premiere of the film he had worked on all senior year, see his girlfriend, and hang out with friends. Regular stuff. But my Mom Powers went into hyper-drive. I had to get my baby home. Now. And nothing else mattered.
I drove through afternoon Chicago rush-hour traffic. It was as heavy as it usually is. I drove over the Chicago skyway bridge and saw the US Steel mills on my left, puffing their ever-present smoke into the sky, Lake Michigan behind them. I passed the Knute Rockne rest area a few miles into Indiana, saw pro-life billboards and ads for Cracker Barrel. Why did everything seem normal when inside I felt like Woody Harrelson in Zombieland? For a few seconds, I half-wished I owned a hand gun.
I crashed for the night somewhere outside Cleveland at an empty hotel and got to Syracuse around noon the next day. I can still feel how hard he hugged me when I got to his room. School felt weird. Where was everyone? We found some bins on the loading dock of Ben’s dorm and packed up his stuff. We found some Clorox bleach wipes. The memory foam mattress topper I had agonized about last summer had to stay. We crammed the car full to the ceiling, all film equipment and hoodies.
On the ride back we stopped for dinner outside Buffalo at an old-school restaurant: warm wooden booths full of diners, license plates nailed to the walls. We ordered something called Welsh Rarebit. The restaurant was packed. Was I over-reacting? If you’re crazy but you think you’re not, how would you even know? We skipped dessert.
We got back on Saturday in time to meet my husband for dinner. We had plans at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Chicago. Do we cancel? Do we keep it? Would it be our last chance? We went. The food was delicious. Our service was amazing. The restaurant was full, but there was a strange energy. Desperate. Skittish, like a rabbit. Like we all had our eyes wide open, noses twitching, looking for a predator we couldn’t see.
The next day, we decided to stay at home. Sort of. I let Ben see his girlfriend. How could I not since they hadn’t seen each other in two months? I go to the grocery store every few days. We order dinner on Door Dash. School for Amelia and Topher is online indefinitely. They’re only saying it’s for this week because we have spring break next week, but I know. Syracuse is all-online for the rest of the semester. Not sure how you can make a film when you’re stuck in your house. My husband’s business is laying off hundreds of people. He’s taking a cut in his salary to help save the company. He has diabetes. My mom has MS. She’s staying in her house, alone, for now. We talk on the phone almost every hour. We are all healthy. I am grateful for this.
Every morning I wake up and remember. Oh, this is the world we live in now.
But we go on. We shower. We have breakfast. We check to see what the teacher has assigned today. It’s not really a full day of school, but it’s enough. I see the teacher’s videos, shot at their kitchen tables, and I know who the heroes are. We walk the dogs, who are thrilled all the humans are home. We play video games, we read, we eat together, we enjoy each other’s company knowing we’re the people who are going to weather through this thing together so we’d better be nice to each other. We fight over stupid things anyway. We make up just as quickly. We tape shamrocks to the front door so when the neighborhood kids walk around on St. Patrick’s Day they can count them and know that they’re not alone. One neighbor keeps his garage door open so we can have a mini book exchange.
I don’t know what this year will mean for college admissions or, frankly, for the world. But I do know that for now, at least, we need to just go on. Whatever that means for you. Keep on doing what you love. Play piano, make a film, wrestle with your brother, FaceTime your grandma, bake cookies with your dad.
And I bet you’ll have a really good Common App essay topic for next year!