Editor’s note: This article centers the experience of the COVID-19 quarantine of one student, and is not necessarily representative of a universal experience of Oberlin College’s quarantine plan.
A small, dimly lit room in Fairchild House with a window overlooking the Adam Joseph Lewis Center suddenly found itself home to a wandering second-year, back from his travels around the country. The man — really just a boy of 19 — had fled the corn-bordered grounds of Oberlin in hopes of a self-declared fall break, two weeks of escape in which he found himself free to roam as he pleased. After the College approved his trip beyond the greater Cleveland area, he sauntered southbound to Georgia, with a roundabout stop in Michigan to boot.
The man knew what awaited him when he returned home. Per College policy, he would have to quarantine for five days before getting tested for COVID-19. Still, even once he pulled into the parking lot of the Campus Safety Office, he remained hopeful.
Sitting sheepishly on a chair outside the main office, he optimistically texted in every direction — “home safe, ready for quarantine” he wrote. An officer materialized and accompanied the young man to Fairchild 312.
The 19-year-old shuffled into the room, looked around, and concluded that his stay there was not going to be pleasant. While astute, the observation fell short of the purgatory that was to come. As if rising to a challenge, room 312 decided that unpleasant was too sweet a word, and in the days to follow, would find new ways to torment its tenant.
In that first hour, a dean called and asked:
“Have you had dinner?”
“No,” said the man.
“Do you have snacks left over from the drive?”
“We’ll try to figure something out.”
The grumpy, road-weary man paced around the room, the sounds of his grumbling stomach echoing off the dull, yellow light-bathed walls. He waited, unsure if food was coming, and then he waited a little longer. Finally, a knock cracked through the still air of the room. Behind the door was his first meal, packaged exactly as every meal thereafter would be: a brown paper bag marked 312, loaded with fruit, a mystery box from Stevenson Dining Hall, a single bottle of water, and sometimes a cookie. The cookies were, for the most part, the only consistently consumed part of the meal.
Then, he slept.
The next day, the traveler had the classes and work meetings that his Oberlin life required of him. That first Zoom call was actually quite amusing. Almost as if deliberately, the heads bobbing in the screen would freeze just before the most important words were said. The outside world, for a momentarily amusing beat, felt like poorly-paced stop-motion, and classes and meetings slowly ticked away with nothing actually happening. In the second, third, and fourth of seven daily check-in calls, a dean asked:
“How is everything?”
“I’m okay, but the internet is really bad,” said the man.
“Sure, I’ll file a work order — hopefully it should get sorted out by tomorrow.”
Time slowed for the man in that room. Every hour felt stretched, anchored around ironically insidious knocks that announced the delivery of food. Routine became a thing of the past, and in the monotonous repetition of daily life, the man forgot the smell of fresh air, the taste of water not from a plastic bottle, or the feel of a chill nipping at his ears. He was, in all fairness, rather dramatic about things, but for the purposes of this story, the situation presented an existential dread and deepening hatred for the place.
The lack of people and the taunts of empty walls stabbed ever so slowly into the man. The slow burn of worsening depression aided by loneliness bored deep into his being. Desperation moved in, and the ensemble cast of characters who mocked the quarantine-weary man grew overwhelmingly loud. He began to crumble, cracks grew deeper in his mind, and fear overtook him. Every thought took hold like an infection and festered through his person until he was no longer himself. He wanted to leave, but a force like gravity bound him in place. Also, his key card didn’t work for mysterious reasons, so if he left 312 without propping open the door, even to just go to the bathroom across the hall, he was locked out until he called Campus Safety.
On his fourth day in 312, they collected him to be tested — teasing him with the world beyond. Just 10 feet of fresh air separated the building and the car. Yet, masked and law-abiding, the man kept his head down, and trudged into the vehicle. He found himself ferried to Heisman Club Field House and back, yet again, at the 10 feet of fresh air that separated the car and the building. He darted out of the car, narrowing the gap between himself and the building, but furthering the gap between himself and the officer. And there, at the perfect safe distance of six feet from another human, he lowered his mask and smuggled into his lungs the deepest, quickest, freshest air he had ever breathed.
Then the doors began to rapidly close behind him again, and he was soon back in 312. All there was to do was sleep, wake, eat, Netflix, sleep, wake, eat, Netflix …
He was eventually released, clear of COVID-19. For the past week, it had felt like the world had forgotten about him, like those responsible for his health looked at him as a box to be ticked, a chore to be completed as opposed to a person to be cared for. People seemed far away, and he was further gone into himself than ever before. As he left, Fairchild giggled in cruel joy at this shell of a man shuffling away under a sky he hadn’t seen in a while.