Design by Rebecca Goldberg

Searching for Precedent

in Personal Essays

We’ve been through this before.

June

Unprecedented times. Unprecedented deaths. An unprecedented president. In less than a year, unprecedented disruption. I am fucking sick of the word unprecedented, but I can’t escape it. It’s on every channel, email, and news alert. True, sometimes the unprecedented can be wonderful and liberating—the train is finally off the tracks. But the unprecedented can also be singularly terrifying. There is no reference point, no first or second draft to look back on. It’s just us––people––free-falling through 2020 and making things up as we go. If you sit and think too hard about it (as I have been doing all of June), everything seems too strange to believe. Like we have detached from the natural string of time.

It reminds me of a line from a story by Yalitza Ferreras. This geologist, who has a lifelong obsession with rocks, loses part of her hand trying to touch and feel molten lava. In the months following the accident, she’s lying in bed, unable to move, and her boyfriend comes to comfort her: This can’t go on forever, he would say, as she felt the layers of forever crushing her down. 

This is often how it feels. A global disease is killing hundreds of thousands of people, and all around us there is loss. Hospitals overflow with people who can’t breathe, workers lose their jobs, children can’t go to school, and everyone is being shepherded quickly and urgently into buildings and rooms, so that in the end we lose the ability to move. It feels like our lives have been unbuttoned one by one and flipped inside out. The school and city that I’ve spent the last three years digging fingernails and roots into is shut down, and we’re all staring at screens around the world trying to reach out to each other.

But I’m also reaching desperately for an explanation. I don’t understand how an event so extreme can fit into the narrative of my life, or even the narrative of history. I feel that there must be a precedent––there has to be one. This can’t be the first time that universities shut down, or that the world spun into freefall.

***

It made sense to start my search for a precedent with the last global pandemic. The influenza pandemic of 1918 is largely overlooked in U.S. history; I had never even heard of it until this year. Scientists initially thought the virus was just a common cold, until it started destroying people’s lungs, filling them with fluid and causing tissue inflammation. The virus infected about 500 million people, a third of the world population, and killed 50 million, far higher than the death rate of World War I. I wonder how people back then comprehended this degree of death and destruction. I wonder if they looked for precedents, too. Just like today, people in 1918 wore masks and avoided large groups. Just like today, Yale was completely shut down. There’s little writing about what it was like in New Haven back then––it’s almost like people have forgotten. 

But Julia Irwin has not. In 2008, the then-doctoral student at Yale’s History of Science and Medicine program wrote a deep dive historical paper about influenza’s impact on the city. Irwin’s paper is a goldmine. She studied how the pandemic affected group relations in New Haven, specifically the relationships between the city’s largely ‘Anglo’ majority and a newer group of working-class Italian immigrants. Irwin is now an associate professor of history at the University of South Florida, and she has been working from home during the pandemic. Through the Zoom screen, I can see that she has thick, layered brown hair and a warm smile.

Irwin spent the bulk of her early career researching pandemics. Even though today her research focuses on international history, her voice picks up speed and inflates with energy when our conversation pivots to public health.

“In epidemics, but also disasters more broadly, those sorts of moments reveal issues that are already in societies that are sometimes below the surface,” she explains. “Health disparities, for example, or economic disparities that are existing but people have become complacent about. An epidemic can bring those to life.”

The influenza epidemic of 1918 was a prime example, precipitating a harsh nativist stance against the Italian immigrant community. According to Irwin, Italians died at a rate twice as high as Anglo residents in Connecticut. Public health officials used this data to confirm the theory that Italians as a ‘race’ had succumbed more to the disease. Yet despite the fact that this prejudice became visible during the pandemic, Irwin found that Italian and Anglo residents unexpectedly suppressed the unrest. 

“Contrary to historiographic expectations, the New Haven story is one narrated by piercing silences and a distinct lack of hostility towards the immigrant community. These silences must be understood as a product of the period’s political and social context,” Irwin says. 

World War I was coming to a close when the influenza pandemic occurred, and Americans were calling for unity and cooperation, Irwin explained. Anglo-Americans used the need for Americanism to explain why all citizens had a patriotic duty to follow public health guidelines. Meanwhile, Italian-Americans acquiesced to these guidelines and started to construct a public image of themselves as responsible citizens. Instead of clashing, leaders of both Italian and Anglo groups supported a new end-of-war unity. The shift in New Haveners’ mentalities towards one another was a direct result of the time period. 

Today, the same sorts of pervasive health disparities are manifesting in New Haven, but between Black and white Americans. Due to centuries of systemic violence, Black people in New Haven are the racial group most likely to be hospitalized and to die from coronavirus, according to statistics from New Haven Mayor Elicker in April. However, unlike in 1918, we are not approaching the end of a war but rather the end of an openly racist president’s term. Police officers are murdering Black Americans in cold blood, and the Black Lives Matter movement has taken flight. While the influenza pandemic may have smoothed over community fissures in New Haven, the coronavirus pandemic has certainly not. 

There are few mentions of Yale in Irwin’s paper, but midway through she writes, “During the epidemic, Yale University, a centre of significant power and influence in New Haven, quarantined itself and ‘refused to let any of the students speak to any citizen unless he had a special pass.’”

Irwin details how Yale prided itself on the number of nurses it had to care for sick students, and celebrated the fact that just three Yale students died. Meanwhile, New Haven suffered from a severe shortage in nurses, and the New Haven Register reports that the total Connecticut death toll was over fifty-five hundred. 

Yale’s actions today will speak to whether or not it has learned from the apathy of its past. A couple months ago, President Salovey declined Mayor Elicker’s request to open up some of Yale’s empty dorm rooms for public safety officers at risk of contracting coronavirus. 

Elicker criticized Yale, asking, “If your house is burning down and you asked a neighbor if your kids could stay at your house and your neighbor said ‘no,’ but here is a check so you could stay at the Econo Lodge across town, what would that tell you about your neighbor?”

The next day, Salovey announced that he would make three hundred beds available. But on a city budget call in mid-May, dozens of New Haveners demanded that Yale do more with its $30 billion endowment. So far during the pandemic, Yale has offered New Haven just $1 million.

“I’m fucking sick of the word unprecedented”

***

July

On the first of July at nine in the morning, President Salovey sends an email entitled ‘Fall 2020,’ announcing that we’ll be returning to campus. It seems impossible. I can’t remember a time when my heart didn’t race when I left the house, or when I lived without the background noise of the hot, screaming TV. I think there’s something about staying inside that makes time feel completely stagnant, like you could wake up every morning for the rest of eternity and you’d still be stuck in the pandemic’s layers of forever. Going outside for runs and trips to the grocery store are my only reprieve. 

If anyone could tell me whether people felt like this before, it would be Judith Schiff. She prefers to talk on the phone, so I call her from the landline in my basement. Schiff is the chief research archivist of Yale Library’s Manuscripts and Archives and the city historian of New Haven. She grew up in New Haven, went to Hillhouse High School, and has been working at Yale for over forty years. 

Our conversation meanders. I ask one question, and Schiff slides seamlessly down tangents of history, often losing me in the enormous network of knowledge she holds. We talk about how Yale was founded, the origin of Skull and Bones, and what Yale school dances were like a hundred years ago. But eventually we make our way to World War II. 

World War II was one of the most recent instances when Yale’s campus was severely disrupted. Charles Seymour, the president at the time, supported the war, while many students opposed it, causing tension on campus. But when the U.S. finally entered the war, all students, regardless of their beliefs, were subject to the draft.

“Yale became a sort of ghost town,” Schiff says. “They only had enough students to fill two residential colleges, who were ineligible for the draft either because they were too young or they had disabilities.”

Many formerly enrolled students went elsewhere. People picked fruit on farms to keep up the food supply, some became firefighters, and others assumed civic positions. And, with students gone, Seymour offered up Yale’s campus as a military base. Over the course of the war, twenty thousand people came to Yale’s campus for training. Old Campus was rented to the Air Force, which trained at Tweed Airport in New Haven during the day and slept on campus at night.

“It was a constantly changing student body,” she explains.

When students finally returned in 1946, they called it “reconversion.” Seymour welcomed anyone who had survived the war and wanted to finish their degree back to campus. Overnight, Yale was transformed from a student body of thirty-five hundred to eight thousand students.

“They called any house in New Haven—do you have an extra bedroom? Can someone sleep in your basement?” 

Schiff tells me there were hundreds of cots in the gym and single rooms were turned into triples. Some of the students returning back to campus were married and had babies by this point.

“I remember meeting a woman who was married to a Yale physician,” Schiff recalls. “She had two babies in diapers in one half of a quonset hut on Science Hill.” 

I have to look up what a quonset hut is—it’s essentially a steel dome that looks like a can sliced in half. I’m trying to imagine hundreds of these semi-circles lined up on Science Hill and housing families with babies.

“Of course, there were no disposable diapers in those days,” Schiff laughs.

***

August

To my surprise, the layers of forever ease up and I return to campus. The day I arrive, my friend and I go for a socially distanced walk up Prospect Street and Science Hill (I am relieved to see that there are no quonset huts). We pass fewer than twenty people. It’s strange to see Yale so quiet, to walk without weaving around people or having the usual litany of semi awkward run-ins. I miss the frenzy.

But it’s also fascinating to see campus like this. It’s as if Yale has been dropped and cracked open, like a fruit or a large glass jar. The shroud of isolation that usually encircles these eight blocks has been stripped away, and the pandemic has allowed reality to seep in. This is a quieter way of going to college, but in many ways it is a more grounded one, free of pretenses. My friend tells me that it’s been like this all summer, and that nearly everyone is seriously social distancing. 

My last interview takes place six feet apart on the chairs outside the Yale Art Gallery. I am late and he is early. My interviewee wears a green shirt and hat, and he looks strangely comfortable on one of the sidewalk’s stiff metal chairs, watching the cars pass on Chapel Street. He is eighty-five years old. 

Sam Chauncey became a Yale administrator when he was just twenty-one. He started as an assistant dean, served as Yale’s chief of staff for twenty years, and then founded the Yale Health Management Program, the first health/business program of its kind at a major university. Now retired, he advises students as a Davenport Fellow.

“For the first two and a half months, everything was shut down,” he recalls. “I could stand at my building and see all the way to Broadway and not see a single human being on the street.”

Chauncey’s voice is strong and clear, and if he hadn’t told me otherwise, I would have thought he was much younger. He smiles often, revealing two slightly crossed front teeth.

“It was great for everyone because you could walk without worrying that you’d run into anybody… I try to do six miles a day.”

The coronavirus pandemic is not the first pivotal moment Chauncey has witnessed at Yale. As chief of staff, he helped lead Yale during the radical movements of the nineteen-sixties  and seventies, and he contributed to both the admission of minority students and women into Yale. Chauncey is best known for his leadership during the May Day rally in 1970, during which twenty thousand to thirty thousand  protestors arrived on the New Haven Green to denounce the arrest of Bobby Seale, a Black Panther leader who was put on trial for allegedly murdering a fellow Panther member. This is the only time since 1950 when Chauncey recalls Yale shutting down.

“Every single store on Broadway was boarded up,” he says. “There were national guard troops on York Street. So that was a very eerie feeling.”

Unlike other universities, which closed their campuses and took issue with the protests, Chauncey invited the protesters in. While other campuses erupted into deadly violence, Chauncey tactfully juggled the needs of protesters, police, students, and faculty, enabling the protests to take place peacefully. 

“If you look in the sixties, there was a woman named Rachel Carson who wrote Silent Spring––she was said to be a nut. Everyone said she was crazy. The gay and lesbian movement was beginning and they were nuts. The antiwar people were nuts. It turned out that all those things they were preaching were today’s gospel. I think that having society upset and your individual life upset is a good thing,” he says. “I’m in favor of revolution, quite frankly.”

Chauncey acknowledges that today’s pandemic poses unique challenges that the upheavals of the sixties did not. While May Day was a disruption caused by people, the pandemic is an invisible enemy. The ‘radicals’ who arrived on campus were driven by issues they passionately believed in, whereas the coronavirus has no ideology. Still, Chauncey hopes that Yale students and faculty will find some meaning in the pandemic and in society being “shaken up.”

“Every Yale student should ask him or herself––do I want to go back and be a Yale student just the way I was a year ago? Have I got some new values about things? Maybe my view of human life is a little different.”

As I ponder this, he tells me what he himself has learned. 

“Before the pandemic, I usually had two appointments in the morning. I was having lunch with somebody, I had two appointments in the afternoon. I might be going to a dinner at night with somebody in New Haven. Now, you spend more time by yourself and I have come to believe that I don’t want to go back to normal. I want a new normal.”

***

In the spirit of Chauncey, I am working on casting my gaze forward. In the two weeks we’ve been in New Haven so far, my friends and I have barely left our house. We cook dinners and sit in circles with our computers and we put our faith in change. 

Nothing has the privilege of lasting forever.

New Haven’s streets feel empty but in the outlines surrounding their silence, I can see a loud and resounding respect for this city. Yale, with its sky-high gothic towers, has closed and shut down, and the city has swelled and sighed with students coming and going. But New Haven remains, with a population that outnumbers students approximately 10:1, even when campus is at its fullest. There are trees that were rooted here when campus closed in 1918, when students left for war in 1945, when protestors came in 1970. There are people who remember.

The best part of my new room is that there is a skylight in the ceiling. Over the course of each day, I can watch light flood different parts of the room. I considered putting a shade on it so I could sleep better, but decided against it. If I stand on the right side of my room, I can see the Payne Whitney Gym, but if I stand on the left side by my bed, I just see open sky. When I feel crushed with claustrophobia, I look up.

—Meera Rothman is a senior in Benjamin Franklin College and an Associate Editor.

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