Written by Julia Garcia
Bored in a Zoom lecture, you look away from the PowerPoint and mindlessly watch your fellow classmates; each of them are visible in the form of a little rectangle, displayed on your screen in a five-by-five grid, with either their video or simply their name. In one rectangle, a boy sits in a car, but clearly isn’t driving, as evidenced by the lack of a steering wheel in front of him and no movement in the windows behind him. He sits in the passenger’s seat of his old pick-up truck, with his computer dangerously close to overheating on the dashboard. Every couple of seconds he shifts in his seat, alternating between writing on the car’s armrest and on top of his knees. Without Wi-Fi at home, he watches his lectures in his car in a McDonald’s parking lot, using their free internet to attend class.
Inside the McDonald’s is another rectangle, although this student’s webcam is off and his laptop isn’t even open; rather, his rectangle displays only his name and he is listening to the lecture from his phone instead. He struggles to hear his professor through a pair of wireless headphones with only one earbud in, as he takes orders, makes sandwiches, and sweeps the floor. He acknowledges that the situation is not ideal, but it is his only option. Without his federal work study job, which ended back in March, he had no other way to save the money needed to pay for next semester’s tuition. So, he accepts any work hours that he is scheduled for and is forced to Zoom and work at the same time.
Next to the first student in the Zoom call is a girl in her apartment. She looks like the picture next to the encyclopedia entry for “college student,” dressed in an oversized hoodie from the school’s bookstore and with her hair in a messy bun. She sits at her desk, with her calendar stuck to the wall, her laptop open in front of her, and more pens and highlighters than she could ever possibly use. But the reason why she is in an apartment, instead of home with her parents, is that she was unable to get out of her lease, having signed on the dotted line back in January, before everything changed. And so, she had a choice: pay money for an apartment that she would leave empty and abandoned for months on end, or move in.
Back on campus, the face behind another little rectangle sits in a dorm room, on top of a Twin XL bed, with her computer in her lap. Cement walls, strings of hanging lights, and countless Polaroid photos are visible behind her. You may think that she is irresponsible for being on campus in the middle of the pandemic, but even though you can see the walls behind her, you still can’t truly see the person behind the webcam. She took out loans in her own name just to afford the dorm, because there was no way for her to stay home any longer. After being home in quarantine with her unaccepting family for nearly six months, she felt trapped and spiraling. She knew that her only escape would be a return to campus, even in the middle of a pandemic.
Pick a different rectangle, and you find yet another story. The sun shines on a cloudless sky behind one student, sitting in the balcony of the apartment where she and her family have lived for years. Through the sliding glass door beside her, she can hear her parents arguing about how to pay this month’s rent. Her dad was laid off due to the pandemic, her mother’s salary was nowhere near enough to cover the bills, and unemployment checks stopped arriving weeks ago. She urges her siblings, sitting beside her, to focus on their Zoom classes and ignore the background noise; however, she is unsuccessful in her own attempt to do the same, failing to retain any information from her professor’s Cold War lecture.
What about the professor’s rectangle? She teaches from her home office, carved out in a corner of her children’s playroom. Due to the pandemic, she made the difficult decision to lecture from home in the fall, rather than return to her office on campus. After enduring several rounds of chemotherapy, she was terrified of contracting the virus in her immunocompromised state. So, she discusses the Cold War at home, silently praying that her two toddlers, asleep in the nursery, won’t wake up for the next hour. However, the quiet was unfortunately short-lived, and her son crawled into her lap and asked for a juice box in the middle of her lesson, to her students’ amusement. She urges her son to go back to bed with a smile on her face to mask the exasperation and overwhelming stress she is feeling, laughing so she doesn’t cry. She’s the professor; she can’t just mute herself or turn off her webcam, so she puts on a brave face, just like her students.