Inching Closer

Whitney Houston plays in the surveillance-testing line, conjuring a wish for a crowded dance floor — and the hope that we’ll find one again soon.

Author: Joanna Lin Want

Covid Testing Site Waiting for surveillance testing — and for the chance to dance again. Photo by Matt Cashore ’94

I spit into a plastic vial as Whitney Houston belts out, Oh! I want to dance with somebody. I want to feel the heat with somebody! Her voice instantly sets off a deep sense of longing in me, the desire to be in a crowded room of dancing people. Instead, I obediently stand on a green dot on the gymnasium floor to ensure that I remain six feet away from anyone else as I wait to take a COVID-19 surveillance test, now a standing bi-weekly appointment on my spring semester calendar. Once the site of loud, cheering crowds, the Joyce Center is now our campus surveillance testing site.

As instructed, I have avoided “eating, drinking (including water), tooth brushing, mouth washing, gum chewing and tobacco use for at least 60 minutes” before submitting my saliva. And despite the fact that everyone in the room is here to do the exact same thing as I am — spit into a vial to make sure we’re not asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19 — I feel a slight sense of embarrassment as I pull down my mask and begin the belabored task of filling it up to the prescribed line with my saliva.

Unbeknownst to me as I stand spitting and listening to Whitney Houston is that the scientist who developed the first saliva test for the coronavirus passed away just four days before. The New York Times obituary for Dr. Andrew Brooks recounts that “he earned spending money by performing magic shows at birthday parties. Though he was adept at tricks involving doves and rabbits, his real forte was close-up handwork, especially card tricks.”

Before I go to bed, I check my email to find a message indicating that my sample has been processed and the presence of SARS-CoV-2 has NOT been detected. No further action is required. The rapidity of this result and the passing moment of relief it brings before sleep feel like a bit of magic.

The next morning, I continue my preparations for the first day of spring classes, which include wearing an N95 mask with a cloth mask over it for an extended period of time to see if I can imagine teaching this way. This is the first time I’ve donned one of the N95s stashed away in a bedroom closet for months, a gift sent from my husband’s friend in Taiwan, a country that has effectively managed the pandemic, to his American friends. His gift, marked with an exorbitant amount of postage, was a gesture of friendship — and pity, I imagine — as he watched America’s handling of the pandemic from afar. It was hard to imagine when the masks first arrived that I’d be reaching for them nearly a year after the pandemic began.

On the first day of class, I stand in front of my students welcoming them to a new semester. I am wearing two masks, but I have pushed aside the plexiglass barrier that stood between me and my students during the fall semester when we returned to in-person classes. I find myself sensitized to the threat of more transmissible virus variants, yet increasingly desensitized to the overall endeavor of teaching during a pandemic. What was once unbearably strange — teaching in a mask — has become routine. So much so that recently during my office hours over Zoom, a student commented, “Oh, it’s strange to see you with your mask off.” In the classroom, my students sit in four rows of four desks, each desk hovering over a green dot as a reminder to stay six feet apart from one another. Yet, as I observed last semester, students tend to lean forward — straining toward each other — as they speak in class; their desks slowly creep off the green dots. We are social creatures, and we want to dance with each other.

Before the semester began, my boss asked me if I would teach entirely remotely this semester if given the choice, and I had to pause before answering. After a long winter break, the result of the shifting academic calendar during the pandemic, I felt safe at home. Zoom life has begun to feel more like normal life. I often remember to put on lipstick and sit in front of a window for natural light before a Zoom call. And I can sometimes even get through a meeting without being told I’m on mute. And yet, the reason I could not provide a quick answer is that I too find myself leaning forward, craving that time together — in real life — with my students.

Despite the awkward demands of “dual-mode” teaching where most students attend class in-person while those in quarantine or isolation synchronously attend class online, or the Ghostbusters style fumigators spraying who-knows-what chemicals on the surfaces of my classroom, I still wanted to go back. Despite my fear that at some point after a surveillance test this semester further action will be required, I still look forward to stepping into the classroom.

I don’t know what the remainder of the semester holds for me and my students. Will we be able to continue gathering in-person for the entire semester? Will there come a day when I check the Notre Dame COVID-19 dashboard at noon without holding my breath?

Nearly a year after the initial shutdown, I am no longer waiting for a full return to pre-COVID normal. Life will be different after the pandemic. But I do hold out hope for the new life spring inevitably brings, for an arena once again filled with fans, for a classroom floor not covered in green dots, for my parents to be vaccinated, to be vaccinated myself.

I’m waiting, waiting, waiting to step onto the dance floor again.

Joanna Lin Want teaches writing and rhetoric in the University Writing Program.