She rowed across the sea, pain wracking her arms. Land was only a few meters away, but it felt like miles. She wanted to stop, to capitulate, but how could she give up, after all she had fought for?
“May!” a voice called, “Quit that reading! You have an exam tomorrow, and you don’t want to do poorly on it!”
I sighed, wanting to act like I hadn’t heard, but I knew that would call for trouble.
“Alright mom,” a soft sigh escaped my lips. I slipped a bookmark into the novel and clasped it shut. That was just my luck; right when the story had climaxed!
‘Well, you can always read tomorrow.’ I thought, ‘When you’ll be free.’ That thought made my muscles tense as I looked for my textbook. Tomorrow was the last exam: the last time I needed to log into a dreaded meeting ever again.
‘Maycelonia Roberts’ I wrote, pressing pen to paper, the words creating a dent in the answer sheet. The tip of the ballpoint slashed through the paper, making an enormous mess.
“I’m done, anyway.” I resisted the urge to frown.
I looked at the display on my computer, which read 9:30 am. There was half an hour left but I was done with my paper. I suppose I should have submitted it and cleared everything up but something held me back. Something told me to remain a little longer. I switched tabs back to the meeting, and when I clicked on it, dozens of little boxes crowded the screen, showing all my friends and classmates. A few of them were still writing, their foreheads creased. A few others were clicking pictures of their answers, ready to upload them.
Oh, the irony! Just a year ago, we were at school, unaware of what the future would bring. I still remembered we had spoken of the virus as if it was something insignificant that would vanish as quickly as it had come.
But this was the virus that had swathed the human population with agony, hitting headlines in less than months.
It was why our school had switched to virtual learning. Although I should have been glad we had this option, I didn’t like online classes. They weren’t half as fun; they inflicted terrible fate on your eyes, and we could only do so much with our computers, anyway.
A year of virtual classes was going to mark itself on the calendar, and that thought filled me with awe.
I still remembered the day we got to know about the start of online schooling.
I began fidgeting with my answer script, my mind taking me out of reality.
The memory was as fresh as inscriptions on a clay tablet.
It was a warm summer’s day; the sunlight baking the Earth, giving no mercy. The month had just dawned, but it had brought along with it rising temperatures and sweltering weather.
And also unexpected news.
“Are you sure, mom?” I asked, perched on the couch, “Are they really going to do that?”
“Yes, May.” My mother sighed, “For the hundredth time, yes. Your school is going to conduct classes online.”
“For how long?” I asked,, “And is it all going to be the same way it was in school?”
“This was a swift decision, May, and they’ll give you the details soon.”
‘That’s cool.’ I mused, wandering into my thoughts, ‘Is it weird that I’ve always wanted to experience online classes and now I’m really going to? I want them to start quickly, I want to see my friends.’
And seeing my friends again after a month was the best possible thing that could have happened to me that summer.
I turned my answer script over, my eyes moving over the sheet, trying to make sense of all the scientific terms and values I had written, but they were only a jumble of incoherent letters.
I didn’t know why I didn’t go on and hand in my paper. What was holding me back? Why did I want to prolong my stay in this meeting when I could easily do away with it and start off my summer break?
I still remembered day one. The very first day of high school, when I thought I knew so much, but when I actually knew so little. I strode in, books in hand, my heart thumping. I had never attended a meeting before in my thirteen years of existence, and my emotions were mixed.
I punched in the meeting code and password, re-checking it to make sure I had gotten it down right. My cursor hovering over the ‘join meeting’, I paused for a moment. I took a deep breath and clicked on it. The window disappeared, replaced with one that had rows of students’ videos arranged on the screen. The teacher hadn’t joined yet, but no one was really talking or anything. Perhaps they were as overwhelmed as I was.
“Hey May!” someone called out, but I could only manage a wave and a weak smile.
I studied all the features that came with this meeting. Of course, I wasn’t brave enough to toy with any of those. Yet.
I hoped, really hoped, that these online classes would go okay.
It was nearly 9:40 now. Time seemed to have taken the challenge to usurp my will. I clenched my jaw. Many people had already left the meeting, and just so I wouldn’t look like I was doing something suspicious, I bent over, acting as if I was deeply engrossed in verifying my paper.
Fifteen minutes more, I told myself, then you can be out of this.
Fifteen minutes made nine-hundred seconds, and that wasn’t a lot, right?
“May, what do you make of these virtual classes?” my friend texted me one night. The year was halfway done, and right now, we had been accustomed to this new way. In fact, we had grown so used to it that actual school appeared to be a distant dream hidden far away.
Yet, I couldn’t say we didn’t miss it.
It had been several months since anyone had been to school or had seen one another in flesh-and-blood. Why wouldn’t we want to go back? Initially, we’d thought things would return to normal in weeks, or when the year 2020 ended, or at least when the vaccine came out, but that didn’t happen. Deep inside, I had a feeling it would be long before things settled.
“They’re okay.” I sent back, which was pretty vague, but I didn’t want to lift my hopes too high.
I set my phone aside, feeling slightly uneasy.
Suddenly, I wanted to go back to school. Really bad.
“Ten minutes left for writing time to end.” the invigilator’s reminder called me to reality. My hands had gone numb after holding the paper for so long. I slowly made my way out of my seat and began looking for my phone. The sun shone harder outside, beating the countryside, and it made me want to fan myself. Summer was approaching again, and as usual, it did not fail to remind us of the radiant heat that was going to swallow everyone soon.
I finally found my phone and made my way back. Swallowing back uncertainty, I began clicking pictures of all my answers.
‘This is going to be the last time you’re going to submit any exam this way,’ I told myself, ‘Isn’t that weird? How everything today seems to be happening for the last time?’
‘May,’ it was one of my friends again, ‘Shocking news, but they might open school next year.’ it had been nine months since lessons had started online.
The news took a few moments to sink in. Open school next year? No more of those online classes? No more staring at a bright screen all day long? No more worrying about our eyes and thinking of all the ways we were ruining them this way?
‘They’re mostly opening up in June, which is only a few months away.’ my friend texted, ‘What do you think of that?’
‘That’s - um - cool.’ I replied, my fingers moving over the keyboard as I typed, ‘Wonder when I’ll get to see you again.’
I set the device away, the world spinning around me. She couldn’t be kidding, could she? No, she couldn’t. Why would she want to joke around with something like this?
Suddenly, I longed to step out the door, to get out into the open and feel fresh breeze blowing against me once again. Nine months. Wasn’t it long enough already? How much longer could we stay cooped up at home?
Thank God these would be the last few meetings I would ever have to attend. Thank Goodness things would (hopefully) not be the same way next year.
I was one of the last people remaining in the meeting. There were only 3 minutes left for the final call to end forever.
I held my breath and jabbed the ‘turn in’ button. The moment I did, something fleeting went off inside me, a small smile spreading across my face, lifting my spirits. No more exams, no more classes, only me and my holidays to keep each other company. Oh, all the things I would do, all the ways I would make the most of my time!
“Adieu, 8th grade.” I whispered, “You’re truly over.”
I didn’t feel such a wreck now.
* * *
It was the evening that day, and I was curled up with my novel once again. There was no one to chivvy me around, because I had all the time in the world.
The reluctance of leaving the school year behind had vanished. I couldn’t always cling to the past, could I? Especially when there was so much more left to be experienced.
I was on the very last page of my novel, a novel that I had been so keen to finish, and a novel that I had loved reading:
She was glad she had made it all the way. She was glad she hadn’t given up when she had been on sea, because if she had, she wouldn’t be here right now.
And over her lay the dome of the night sky, shimmering with millions of stars. They looked like sequins splattered across the heavens in a pastel of shining lights. They were worthy to be photographed, to be framed, to be treasured as a memory forever.
“I would remember.” she said, the wind carrying her voice away into the darkness.
And I, May, would remember, too.