Section: Features

Three years ago today: Remembering Kenyon before COVID-19

It was the end of August, 2018, a warm and sunny August whose bright skies beckoned new students to head outside their newly-decorated dorm rooms and kick around a soccer ball, or else toss a frisbee as they learned each other’s names and hometowns. Kenyon’s landscape was dramatically different that August than it is today – physically, emotionally and spiritually. Two years into the Trump election, it was a time of political indignation and stress which in the moment still felt surreal. It was a time at which the idea of a pandemic was ludicrous, where the only obstacle to a friendly “hello” was the social anxiety that comes from first landing on a college campus. That August, the Collegian welcomed its new class of students with a dire warning about the current climate on campus. Debate over free speech had come to Kenyon the previous Spring, resulting in the cancellation of the play The Good Samaritan, and after conservative media outlets picked up the story, death threats were levied at students and administrators alike. That same Collegian message made reference to a host of new construction sites which had risen that summer throughout campus, a litter of nasty scabs covering the green fields and gray stone buildings that composed the body of the school and making a silent threat to the Kenyon upperclassmen had grown accustomed to. 

However much they were heeded, these warnings soon faded into the background as Kenyon embarked on another year of crazy ups and downs. That fall, students were greeted by a traditional demonstration by the Kenyon PEEPs, who danced and performed rituals around the “Root of Power” and made grim and portentous readings of students’ palms. The destruction of Olin Library on Sept. 24, live streamed to crowds of heartbroken alumni, was but an afterthought to the incoming class of Kenyon students, who had never had a chance to experience life in Olin, to study and stress, fraternize and flirt, as previous generations had. And though it would set off three years of grumbling complaints about the sorry state of the mods, and nights in Ascension packed tighter than a can of sardines, the absence of a library would be the norm for that lot of Kenyon students. If the sight was significant, it was only for the troops of students who would excitedly dart inside to pick up “souvenirs,” or for the tremendous crane which seemed always on the verge of toppling over onto campus. 

Instead, that year was characterized by creative production, dancing and performance. It saw the founding of a literary science journal and the debut of a student-run publishing press. That winter, JPEG Mafia came to the Horn stage in a performance crowded not just by Kenyon students, but by hosts of fans from Mount Vernon. “Audience members took their shirts off, and others started screaming,” one Collegian article notes. So drenched in sweat was JPEG Mafia by the end of his performance that “his computer stopped working.” This was no obstacle for him and the crazed crowd, which had swarmed like ants over every available surface of the Horn Gallery, and he finished his set “a capella-style with the entire crowd.”

Perhaps even more explosive was that year’s production of Rocky Horror, a polished and respectful take on the show which nevertheless left students exhilarated, many dressing up in drag for the first time, many old hands at it. Even more exciting perhaps was the dance off that took place during the show’s intermission, which saw two students dancing both on stage and in the audience, gyrating their bodies to roaring cheers. The two went all out, and for a second the crowd thought the first one had won, for with a leap towards the ground he had contorted his tall frame into a split, and then out of nowhere it was over. The second man grabbed a chair — from the audience or stage right, no one could say — and as he performed acts on that chair too scandalous to be put in print, the crowd went crazy and mayhem ensued. 

It was a year of political action as well, as students rallied against the election of Donald Trump in the midterm elections. Students responded with record turnout — in Gambier it was the highest midterm turnout since 2006 — with 600 students voting on election day and 900 registered in Ohio. That fall also saw a huge turnout against the Middle Path preachers, students dressed in clothes of every color holding up signs of protest, some in serious dialogue with the preachers, others just hanging out as they made fun of the bigoted signs. Political demonstrations were common that year: vigils and sit-ins held during Black history month, walk-outs to fight against climate change and articles shedding light on students incensed at low wages and poor working conditions, an anger which presaged the founding of K-SWOC. 

There were dark periods that year, and for a brief period that winter Kenyon was plunged into literal darkness. For almost 36 hours, Kenyon lost electricity due to extreme weather, forcing students to congregate in the bookstore for warmth and power, and the college to plan a potential evacuation to south campus as the cold crept into the sanctuary of people’s rooms. A polar vortex later that winter further threatened the safety of Kenyon students, wind chills of 35 degrees below Fahrenheit confining people to their rooms and resulting in the cancellation of classes. On top of these crises, student frustration at the school often seemed to be at a boiling point, as students lamented over crowded study spaces and widespread construction which threatened the ethos of the school.

Yet even with an uncertain future and the tensions of a charged political climate, Kenyon chugged on, head held high and intact, much the same as it had been for decades. Neither students nor faculty could have guessed that in just 10 months, the COVID-19 outbreak would hit and Kenyon would be dealt a knockout blow, a blow so powerful that it would cause Kenyon years of drastic change and would hobble it so that when it finally returned, it would be walking with a limp. In the meantime, however, the school said goodbye to another year, and looked ahead to a new one. 

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