One Year Under the Mask


Students masked but happy to be together during 2020 Homecoming.

March 16th, 2020 was the first Monday we ever spent “Zooming.” The previous Friday, we had our last in person classes, athletic events, musical rehearsals, and more.

I start this article between events at a track meet—an event which, just over one year ago, would have been crawling with busied bodies. Now, parents wait outside the stadium gates, cheering from afar, and every panting mouth is covered by a thin blue piece of fabric. But, aside from the frustration of “masking up” and heightened health procedures, COVID-19 has taught us more than the importance of sanitation and distancing—it has helped us better appreciate the mundane occurrences around us.

When I found out that Hammond was moving to a virtual format, I was driving back home from Columbia. I am accustomed to the 35-minute drive. The sounds of Lorde, Khalid, and other pop stars, blared through the speakers. The morning leg is slower than the night leg, and usually quieter. That drive was the last I would take for the next three weeks.

Since the pandemic began, climbing into my car has been different. So is the drive, and what I see on it. In Lugoff, a yellow light flickers constantly day and night. Down I-20, the grass embankment hides numerous ponds, but at the top of one hill you can peer out over the entire expanse. Past that, a German-based company spews brown smoke into the crystal blue morning, which wafts down the trail of exhaust pipes and break-lights.

I never noticed these details before COVID-19. I was entirely too focused on speed—getting where I was going quickly, and on time, efficiently. But once I started to drive again after the pandemic began, I found I had a greater sense of agency and purpose – not to get where I was going faster, but to appreciate the ride more. Now, I feel an overwhelming desire to appreciate those mundane specialties of my every day. The flickering light and the glistening pond. Even the red sunrise arching over the Blue-Cross Blue-Shield building. I never took time to appreciate this before—and truthfully, I never looked. In the car, my music still plays, but the volume stays lower. And in the morning you can hear the whisper of birds chirping from the electrical line down the road.

The birds venerate the morning. They sing their songs of praise and generosity, while we clamor into our vehicles and roar down the highway into the bright, blinding metropolis. I’ve learned to appreciate that as well. The familiarity of swirl and color, as Columbia melts into white columned houses and suburbia disintegrates between hay laden fields and Green farm equipment.

The German-based company has evoked a similar sense of urgency in recent months. When the world stopped, the urgency of environmental conservation became obvious. Reports of Venice canals becoming crystal clear, and CO2 emissions reaching low marks, contrasted with what I began to notice—the constant stream of chemicals being released into the air above my county. The pandemic created a greater sense of urgency to live a clean life, to cultivate a healthy, pristine and powerful environment that we can appreciate. COVID-19 proved to us that the way we treat the environment really does affect how we live our everyday lives. Overcrowded, dirty, concrete, cities became petri-dishes for virus transmission. It wasn’t until we stopped using that environment constantly that our cities and waters cleared.

Then there is school. What some internet memes have dubbed “seven countless hours of our lives” suddenly came to a halt, and after moving to an online format, how quickly those sentiments changed. It is easy to find the bad in things, such as the constant load of assignments and rigor of curriculum, but once that is taken away, it seems the only thing to remember is the good that wasn’t appreciated in its time. The pandemic has taught me to appreciate school’s constant, nagging, draining, rigor. It has reminded me that the ability to attend school in-person is a privilege. Over Zoom, as a school, we created events which would bring us together, but as virtual learning continued, it became apparent that education through a screen was nothing like the experience of in-person collaboration. We all missed each other, and aspects of life at school—even things we swore we never would. The ease of day to day life without that one person chiming in, and the new found tool, “the mute-button”, provided clarity, but without the personality of a typical day of in-person learning. We lost structure—but not the kind that is gripping, rather a structure that is freeing. The constancy the reliability of the school day was our greatest comfort. What has COVID-19 taught us? To seek out comfort in other ways. To be comfortable in those uncomfortable scenarios. And, to remain optimistic in times of great stress.

Reading from Henry V last year, Ms. Khoury performed a monologue over our Zoom Call. We all turned our volume up:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…

In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man

As modest stillness and humility.

I finish this article with a thought; an instance of flurried remembrance. As I drive down I-20 the last dwindling lights in buildings fade. The office lights burn out and the noise disappears behind the red flash and squeal of car breaks. Farther down, past the German Company, the stars appear and burn holes in the still March air, teeming with the remembrance of Winter and promise of Spring. The radio rings dimmer. I remember Shakespeare’s lines. And, I think of how trivial this all must seem to the trees and the mountains and the stars.