Going Back to Normal Can’t Be Going Back to How Things Were

When I was in grade school, I used to love that day at the start of a quarter when my teachers would give us a new seating chart (I didn’t know then that my teachers were actually strategizing the best arrangement for their sanity).

There were so many possibilities – would I be seated close to my friends or not? Would I be relegated to the front row, stuck in the middle of the action, or find new ways not to pay attention from the back? Was I close to the pencil sharpener or bubbler? Was I near the map on the wall, such that I could stare at brightly colored states or countries all day, and not the chalkboard? 

We would gather at the front of the classroom, anxious and buzzing in our baby blue polos, and my teachers would walk the rows, pointing at each desk and calling out a student’s name. Slowly, our new arrangement took shape, and we’d be that way for the next few months.

What always struck me most about this process was that when I finally took my new seat, the whole world of that classroom looked different. Sitting in one place for months on end puts a sort of glaze over the eyes. It’s like when I lived on the shore of Lake Michigan for three years – at some point, I almost forgot the lake was there. But with a new seat? Everything was new, hopeful. My mind was charged. My focus returned. I was ready to learn.

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The gift of new perspective still invigorates me. In fact, I rearranged my bedroom just the other day. The two most used objects – the desk and the bed – switched places. Other objects – bookshelf, chair, dresser – stayed relatively put. A few things – lamp, laundry basket, small table – still search for a new spot. Whereas before, a window was behind me at my desk, now there’s a built-in bookshelf filled with photos and a smattering of sacred chotchkies – a drawing of young Frieda Kahlo riding a bike and a glass globe paperweight among them. When I’m on Zoom for class or meetings, people ask where I am. Everything looks different. As I type, I feel somewhere between the delight of getting the feel of a new car and the dread of unpacking a box of recently moved kitchen knick-knacks. Everything is saturated with a familiar unknown, and nothing has its place just yet. I need to be alert, to note how this newness feels, to take advantage of the ensuing energy.

I am a creature. I have habits. I like certain things to be predictable. But sometimes, seeing the world in a new way is just what I need, and just what is necessary.

***

We’re in the midst of newness. After over a year of necessary pandemic caution, a friend of mine went to the movies the other day. Inside a theatre! Another stopped on the way home and had a beer. Inside the bar! More and more vaccines go out each and every day.

We’ve got a new president who is coming to 100 days in office with decent approval ratings, and we’ve got an old president I don’t think about everyday anymore.

We’ve gotten verdicts in Derek Chauvin’s trial, the latest in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd and months of demonstrations that followed.

When I chat with most people about this summer, the language often used is that we’re getting back to normal. But I don’t think getting back to normal is the right way to consider what we’re headed for. Back to normal suggests we’re going back to things as they once were – to the old seating arrangement or bed location. Back to normal suggests we forget that people have died by the hundreds of thousands. Back to normal suggests that we’ll let our political leaders waste time and money on grandstanding that helps very few people. Back to normal suggests that we’ll go right back to old structures of injustice and white supremacy. That’s not the normal that I want.

I’m remembering the feeling of that new seating chart and I’m relishing in a new room. In theory, things could go back to normal – to the way they were – but they never did in school, and I’m sure not going to drag my desk across the floor again.

Things will never be the same after what we’ve seen and experienced. We cannot forget numbers of cases climbing, small red circles on tracking maps swelling, photos of hospitals overflowing, a man on his stomach dying as his neck is bent by the knee of a man on top of him, thousands gathered signs proclaiming that Black Lives Matter, election debates and results. We can’t forget these images. We can’t go back to normal, because for too long, the norm hurt people. 

Everything must look different. My laundry basket can’t sit in the middle of my room forever, and people are still dying at the hands of disease, guns, poverty, and brutality. But, in this new arrangement, perhaps the energy and curiosity that accompany new perspectives may sustain us and generate change. Perhaps we will usher in something new entirely. I can only hope and do my part.

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Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash

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