By Karen Kent
The Chapel Hill I knew as a young college student has been put on pause.
Back then, you could explore places without fear of something unseen lurking around the corner. And you could write an essay without making it sound like a cheesy horror story. You could walk right beside your friends on the way to class and enjoy their smiles or sympathize with their grimaces as they headed into an exam. “Hang in there! Let’s meet for lunch! Anywhere you want to go! Your treat!”
The Chapel Hill I knew as a fresh-eyed teacher is now in hiding like our neighbors during the cold winter months. I miss that place where I could get close enough to a child to zip up their coat, so the rest of my impatient kindergarten class could head out for recess.
I can still remember the little girl saying, “Sorry, I forgot,” when actually she just wasn’t very good at it yet and didn’t want anyone to know. So, I’d quickly do the task for her while whispering, “You’ll get it. Keep practicing.”
The Chapel Hill I knew when I moved back as a permanent resident is not the same town I saw with delighted eyes seven years ago. Now, I turn the music way up in my car to help drown out the visual noise of the shuttered businesses I once loved.
The cardboard cutouts at the football games have about the same emotional investment in the action as I do. It’s not that I love the team any less. It’s that I worry about their health because, well, I’m a mom. And I think about the players’ parents watching their sons, lines of worry etched across their foreheads, as they try to focus on their televisions.
But every horror story ends (except Nightmare on Elm Street apparently). You put your number 2 pencil down when the exam is over. Masks will eventually come off for good, except, hopefully, in the middle of a surgery. Neighbors and friends will once again linger on sidewalks, where we’ll say things like, “Seems like forever!” “It’s wonderful to see you out and about!” “Let me point out your rotting tree that’s about to fall into my yard.”
The good old days will return. Though, they definitely won’t be the same without some of the people we’ve dearly loved and some of the places we used to frequent with anticipation. But there must be ways to honor them while we rebuild our lives once again.
Maybe it’s as simple as not completely forgetting that feeling of claustrophobia we all experienced behind all those masks and walls. So, as time passes and life eventually returns to “normal,” let’s try not to erase all of the memories.
Besides the loneliness and fear, there were also lessons of hope and community and thinking of others. There were (and still are) heroes and acts of charity and pure kindness that were meant to stay with us. And that particular part of Chapel Hill, the part I’ve witnessed over and over again this past year, has always been here. I’ve just never been still enough to witness it in such abundance.
Karen Kent is a resident of Chapel Hill, a member of the UNC School of Education Class of 1989 and the owner of Class Half Full Tutoring company.