The way we were

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. 

We were supposed to walk under Sather Gate, avoid flyers on Sproul, navigate Dwinelle, hike through damp morning grass, hear the Campanile chime for our last first day of school. Not be hunched over our computers with aching backs and cramping necks. 

After three years of laying down our roots, senior year was meant to be our reward, our fully sprouted tree. Gone were the struggles of making new friends and the doubts surrounding our majors — we were going to get to come back to a home we’d carefully constructed for ourselves.  

Then the disease arrived, ripping through our interlaced branches and infecting our multicolored leaves. 

Friends are gone, stuck at home or abroad, only visible to us through a screen. As for those who did come back, we can’t take them into our arms after months apart or curl up with them on the couch. We have to shout out to them through our masks in the crowded park, staying 6 feet apart. 

In a few days, we’ll begin classes over Zoom, and while lamenting over our situation may seem self-indulgent — we’re still students at the greatest public university in the world — I can’t help but mourn for all we’ve lost. 

Every day in college feels buoyant with undiscovered possibility because of all the potential encounters lurking around every corner. They give our days life, coloring in the empty blocks in our daily routines. 

But this semester, there will be no knees cautiously brushing up against each other inside a packed lecture hall, their owners harboring secret crushes. There will be no amused glances, furtively exchanged across discussion sections, to signal the promise of a new friendship. There will be no curious eyes accidentally meeting in the library, lingering for just a little too long.    

Our serendipities have been stolen, replaced by a strict schedule to follow from the confinement of our rooms. 

 We seniors still have one more year left to finish at UC Berkeley, but whenever I step onto campus, I feel like we’ve already graduated. The places we once laid claim to are no longer open to us; I can see my favorite cubicle in East Asian through the window as it collects dust, while my old classroom in Wheeler sits cold and empty, a shell of its former self. 

 A soundtrack of silence permeates through campus — there’s no bell to meet the new hour, no excited greetings ricocheting across buildings, no squeaks as bikes skid to a stop. The quiet gives way to a wave of premature nostalgia. It crashes over me when I’m least expecting it, forcing me to reminisce over memories that could never happen today. 

 Coffees shared under the shade. 4/20s on the Glade. Stolen kisses after class. Those naked runs throughout Main Stacks. 

 Our only way back to a world where these things can happen again is a vaccine. But can we pack into a frat and bounce a pingpong ball against communal cups of beer even after one comes out? Pass a joint around our circle of friends? Kiss a stranger on the sweaty dance floor at Kip’s? 

 It was always my dream to go to UC Berkeley. My childhood hero — my dad — went to college here in the ’80s and talked about UC Berkeley with a reverence typically only reserved for my mom or grandma. 

 The minute I arrived, I fell so utterly in love. 

 I never knew it was possible to feel so consumed by a place — after all, it can’t return any of our affections. Campuses stay the same, frozen in time, save for a few slight tweaks, welcoming new hordes of wide-eyed freshmen each year. 

 As time dragged on and I began to see lines of unfamiliar faces outside Crossroads, I would sometimes feel replaced, but maybe that’s why I loved it so much. 

 At a time in my life of constant change and reinvention, I knew UC Berkeley would always be there. 

 Its eccentric professors taught me how to grapple with complex ideas. Its students taught me how to love. UC Berkeley is where I learned how to live.  

 It’s an intricate love, composed not just of red-roofed buildings and grassy knolls but also of the people who are its beating heart. Now that they’re gone, they’ve taken a part of my love with them. It’s now weak and brittle. 

 For the class of 2021, our time here has been fraught and disruptive. Who can forget the “Free Speech Week” fiasco of our freshman year, the wildfires and toxic air quality index the next and the intermittent power outages last year? Yet, during all these trials and tribulations, my love for UC Berkeley never wavered. The coronavirus is proving to be its final test. 

 Just like UC Berkeley, life continues to carry on, even during a pandemic. And while we won’t get to start our senior year the way we envisioned, we can take a moment to reflect and grieve for the way we once were.

Contact Zara Khan at [email protected].