The hallway was empty. That wasn’t a surprise in and of itself: most of the other students were in class. The stale smell of overworked fluorescent bulbs filled the hallway, one of them flickering a brief staccato before stabilizing at a less intense luminosity. The carpet caught my attention as we walked down the empty hallway; the overwhelming blue of it, with the odd yellow or white fibers scattered throughout. If it wasn’t so encrusted with dirt and dust from the hundreds of trampling feet that went up and down it every day, it might have resembled a night sky. I made a note of that somewhere deep in my subconscious. Even then I was in the habit of writing bad poetry—I just hadn’t started sharing it yet.
Joe, Ian, and I were on a mission. We weren’t skipping class. No, I had the note from Mr. Malicke crumpled somewhere in my pockets and the camera swung loosely in the cameraman’s grip, walking ahead of me with Joe and Ian. We were obviously shooting something for the morning announcements, as none of us could have afforded a professional piece of equipment like that. I can never remember the cameraman’s name but I think its Tommy.
Before we both ended up in Advanced Broadcasting, Tommy was definitely cooler than me. Not super popular by any means but he wasn’t doing anyone else’s homework either. I was the one doing that. Ian was up there in the social hierarchy as well: too relaxed to care, too independent to belong to a group. Joe was doing his best to climb the social ladder: he was funny and exuded confidence. It leaked out of him and I believe that he saw making the morning announcements watchable again was his ticket to the proverbial party. Or show or whatever. I was sixteens. Not great with proverbs. A part of me hoped I could ride Joe’s coattails in before the door closed behind him.
I wasn’t unpopular but I was in choir and outside of a few instances in Mrs. Sawyer’s French class, relatively unknown. I kept to myself. I was the deadpan to Joe’s Three Stooges brand of comedy: a two-year long friendship made me able to ignore the hijinks for the better part. At least that had been how it was explained to me.
It feels almost alien to think back to that moment now; our being in the hallway to film an announcement on “hallway traffic.” Ian being the onsite reporter, and the joke being that of course there was no one in the hallway: everyone was in class and we would cut to Ian multiple times to his increasing annoyance. Boy, were we clever. But the joke isn’t what captures my attention. It’s the brewing anxiety I had, the concern for those things I had imagined were so important: social status, not getting into trouble, belonging.
In the face of everything—a global public health crisis that has shook the foundations of our society to its core—it is amusing, a little bit shameful to reflect back on who I was ten years ago and find a boy with a very limited appreciation for the world around him, more concerned with the approval of his peers. And yet, I hold no resentment towards him. He was just a sprout back then, the very whisper of a flower on the wind. He wasn’t concerned with things like pandemics, ventilators, or death tolls because he didn’t need to be. I don’t know if he lived in a fairer world but he certainly lived in a more content one. A gentle, bumbling reminder that we certainly cannot outrun the future but only hope that we’ll endure it.
The anxiety is different now, even for someone like me who is blessed enough to be able to work from home and doesn’t have to fret over every solitary decision they make. It is a place of privilege that allows me to write this. I keep hearing how this pandemic will change us but I fear the opposite is true: that we are too enamored with ourselves, too much like a beloved sixteen-year-old to see what gifts we have been given.
Jesse received his Master's of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and graduated with a B.A. in English from Alma College. His poetry and creative non-fiction have been published in The Pine River Anthology, See Spot Run, and The Ore Ink Review. He grew up in southern Michigan and currently resides in the small, rural town of Ortonville.