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Opinion: Surreal COVID era will be remembered as a time of lost innocence


I am a teacher.

Mask on. Mask off.

Zoom in. Zoom out.

My students are college journalism students. In 2020 we met in a sterile virtual universe. In 2021 we created a monster called hybrid — one day in person, another online.

The bottom line: We finally got what we so long craved for — live human connection.

Wayne State University was still a ghost town this past fall. On Monday mornings, I was the only class on the fifth floor of sprawling Manoogian Hall. The campus was like a scene from end-of-the-world chiller “On the Beach.” Empty streets. Empty classrooms.

But students came faithfully every Monday. Some were fearful of the COVID-19 virus that has ravaged their world. A few saw it hit family and workers at their jobs. They masked and "vaxxed" up and had to fill out a daily online form to say they were OK.

They were tired of the virtual prison, a square on a computer screen. They wanted to see and talk and feel and laugh with one another again.

It was tough lecturing through a mask, making your voice be heard succinctly. There were no facial expressions, no reactions except through students’ eyes. Some classmates wore interesting masks to show off their personalities. We have been alone so long. We want to show we are real in what has become a surreal world.

I asked professionals to come in and speak in this strange new normal atmosphere. I am so appreciative that they did to bring some sanity back into the year.

Perhaps the world has never been sane. We fight over a jab or whether a mandate is a step too far. When I was a student and took a speech class at Manoogian in 1972, division still ruled the land. For my class final, I recited the lyrics from Simon and Garfunkel’s song “Bookends.”

Time it was

And what a time it was

It was a time of innocence

A time of confidences
 

Long ago, it must be

I have a photograph

Preserve your memories

They’re all that’s left you.

What will today’s students — the COVID generation — remember about these days? Or my family members who are nurses and see daily the ravages of this insidious scourge? Or those who have lost their loved ones to it?

We mask up, get vaccinated and get through it — like my students.

But these ugly days will forever be preserved in our memories. And they will be remembered as a time of innocence lost.

Bill McMillan is a retired Detroit News editor who teaches journalism at area universities.