By Erin Dockery
“Because the city has already forgotten my features / The way they forget to notice yield signs and trash bins / When the cop tickets me for running a red / I am happy”
–Katherine (Wren) Zandee
As I strut across my living room in preparation for Sewanee’s virtual senior celebration, I begin to believe that I am cursed. I have always loved this time of year: almost magically and still in a winter daze, windows reopen and frisbees emerge from dusty, closet corners. The springs of 2016 and 2020 were supposed to be full of celebration, a culmination of educational success; however, in these seasons of new life and transition, tragedy, too, grows just beneath the soil. Soon, it is in full bloom.
From a small boarding school in Hudson, Ohio to a liberal arts college in Sewanee, Tennessee, the privilege of my education has never escaped me. School has always been home and for that, I consider myself lucky. There is a certain comfort in the routine of the classroom, homework turned in and tests graded. Within those small rooms and around oak tables with noses tucked into books, the world is expected and everything makes sense.
In high school, the intensity of my teenage awkwardness found making friends difficult, so I read and wrote furiously; scribbling in the margins with all the angst and brilliance of youth, perhaps those characters knew me best, and perhaps, I knew them best. I remember throwing The Catcher in the Rye across the room, crying into The Things They Carried, and holding The Grapes of Wrath close to my chest. Now as an English major, the crafted and deeply contemplated world of literature finds me once again deciphering James Joyce’s Ulysses and T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland:
“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”
For four years, I wondered how the memories of spring 2016 would manifest themselves in the spring of 2020. I knew the circumstances would once again be the same, a giddiness for something new and a sweaty anticipation for the unknown, but the COVID–19 pandemic brought an isolated uncertainty that I wasn’t expecting.
On my nineteenth birthday, May 7th, 2016, Wren, a dear friend, classmate, and teammate, commited suicide in the room across from mine. She was the first person I met at boarding school and the first time I grieved. I remember how we lagged behind in cross country practice and passed notes in German class. I remember every time I heard a huge thump in the hallway, I knew it was Wren, cartwheeling and falling.
After her death, a hurt was so enwoven and destructive that for days I had to remind myself to breathe. I cried in Calculus and German and English; simply sobbed into my blazer. They thought it was safer: routine, students together, and distraction. At the time I was furious for that Monday morning when we found ourselves at our desks again, but now, I am grateful for that togetherness.
We graduated, incomplete, in the Year of the Cicada, 2016. Every 17 years, this winged bug crawls from the ground in thousands to mate and lay eggs. The sound is deafening like a constant ringing in your ears. At our graduation ceremony, thousands of bug bodies crunched beneath high heels and Mercedes wheels. The plague was upon us.
On the first day of every semester at Sewanee, I would always pick a seat in the sunniest part of the classroom and bask while reading Shakespeare and Chaucer. I was probably covered in mud from an earlier trail run, where I caught up with friends about the weekend or the latest TV shows. Over four years, Sewanee helped me heal in so many ways. From Reserve’s green uniforms to Blundstones, at Sewanee, there was comradery, community. Sure, school is a tiny structure of real life and spoiled me with ready-made desserts and free laundry, but for the space and freedom I had to learn, I am so very lucky.
I have always believed in education. In fact, I want to spend the rest of my life teaching. Somehow it withstands the repetition of tragedy. I know it was selfish but after Wren’s death, I remember whispering, “I will never be the same.” And I wasn’t. Just like I know that leaving my dear friends behind in Tennessee or Texas or Oklahoma or Massachusetts and packing up without goodbyes or the much awaited spring semester will again change me forever.