By David Johns

Hold that Thought

As the coronavirus spread across the globe engulfing community after community, our campus grew more quiet. Students began leaving for home--a dozen one day, a hundred the next. Then, staff members joined faculty by working remotely from their own homes. Like musicians walking off a stage, one by one, during a symphony, the music of campus is now only a whisper.

Spending time on a campus that is eerily quiet gives one a lot of time to think. So, what am I learning from an empty campus?

The first thing I am learning is that I don’t like an empty campus! Nearly every day of the year there is activity here, whether it’s classes, or athletic events, or whether it’s guests participating in one of our many camps. Not having what is so common makes its absence felt all the more strongly.

What am I learning? I am learning that we take each other for granted. From one day to the next, we expect to see the familiar faces of coworkers and students, and that expectation can lead to not paying attention to the present moment. For me, busyness leads to distraction, and distraction to forgetting. And, if what I forget is to acknowledge someone or thank him or her, then it can lead to taking them for granted. On an empty campus, I am painfully aware of the times I forgot to say, “thank you.”

What am I learning from an empty campus? I am learning that buildings, and lakes, and athletic fields, and hiking trails, and farms, and residence halls, mean nothing without people. Our students are the soul of the college. They animate these spaces and give them life. Our staff and faculty are the lifeblood that circulates through every artery of activity and connection. This 700-acre oasis is a place where Ferrum College happens, but it is not itself Ferrum College.

What am I learning? I am learning that, in spite of an empty campus, the soul and lifeblood of this community still exist and still pulse strong! We are living in a diaspora, as a scattered people, but we are a people nevertheless. When love binds a group together, distance cannot divide it. Faculty are conducting classes, advisors are advising, staff meet to plan next steps, trivia night still goes on, and some are sharing a drink during after-hours cocktail parties.

All online.

What am I learning from an empty campus? I am learning how much I miss human touch. Here we shake hands; we hug; we sit together and lean in close for good conversation. We literally breathe each other in. This will happen again; but for now, we touch by keeping in touch.

I am inspired by images from Siena, Italy where residents in lockdown took to their balconies to sing, and by images from Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania where neighbors join together for group exercise, all while standing in their own front lawn. Nothing is so powerful that it will forever crush the human spirit. Nothing.

What the world will look like on the other side of this pandemic is anyone’s guess. We can be sure, however, that it will not be what it once was. What we will need — community, connection, determination, imagination — all are simple things, really, but the kind of things that hold life together.

We will need each other as we rebuild our communities, our economy, and our lives. This lesson is everywhere evident, especially in the music of a springtime breeze that moves along the Blue Ridge and out across the silent acres of an empty campus.

David L. Johns is President of Ferrum College, and can be reached at president@ferrum.edu.



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