A Route 1 bus goes by empty, save for its driver. A sprinkler at a construction site keeps dust out of the air. The statue of Sul Ross stands proudly in Academic Plaza, now without the buzz of students placing pennies at his feet. His confident air — those clenched fists, that steely mien — now seem absurd. He looks like a general who has yet to realize he has lost the war. His soldiers already have abandoned him.
It is 12:20 p.m. in Aggieland, and for the next 20 minutes students should be passing from one class to the next. Right now, this tiny campus in Middle-of-Nowhere, Texas, should look like Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, with far too many people going in far too many directions. Not today. Today the campus is barren. Today, there are no coeds flirting on the quad, no members of the Corps clinking the spurs of their boots, no students determinedly making their way across campus. The local food trucks still are here, but their lunchtime lines — which at this point should be stretching into a nearby field — are bare.
People still live and work on campus, so anyone expecting a ghost town will be disappointed.
This is as close to “dead” as A&M ever will get. Those few students who do remain meander listlessly, like tumbleweeds in an old Clint Eastwood movie, attempting to stave off their cabin fever. Most don’t have anywhere to be. Those who do know that time is on their side. No one here is in a rush.
College towns such as this are unique scenes for a pandemic, this town in particular.
Texas A&M was founded in 1876, the first public institution of higher education in the state. The municipality in which it was located was of such little significance that the name it bears today, College Station, came one year later, taking inspiration from the stop at which students would detrain for campus.
Back then, A&M specialized in agricultural and mechanical degrees. Participation in the Corps of Cadets was mandatory. No women were allowed, and neither were African Americans. On the city website, there is a yellowed picture of a middle-aged woman next to a rundown sign that reads, “COLLEGE STATION. CITY LIMIT. POP. 2184.”
One wonders how school officials would handle a pandemic back then. Would it even reach those city limits?
But as the ’60s were a decade of change for America, so too were they a decade of change for A&M — and College Station. The school desegregated, it accepted women, and it made participation in the Corps of Cadets optional. One can get an advanced degree in most fields. A&M’s student population is quickly approaching 70,000. College Station, now an exemplar of diversity, was never the same.
One wonders, how do you handle a pandemic now? Answer: You take advantage of circumstances.
It is both a curse and a blessing that the outbreak occurred during spring break. It is a curse because many students were away, where they were more likely to catch the virus; it is a blessing because, in this campus’s bleakness, social distancing never has been easier. Now that most of the students will not return in the coming months, we are left with only this: 150 years’ worth of buildings, culture and traditions with no one left to participate.
The students’ absence highlights another duality: College Station is both a small town and a large one.
It is small because it never quite outgrew its humble beginnings — the town’s population currently sits around 113,000 (not including non-resident students), which isn’t exactly competitive with Chicago. But College Station is large because, like Chicago, it has a global reach. Because it houses a Tier-1 research university, it attracts students from across the world, students who in any other situation would be studying English or pushing the bounds of science. Today, they might be carriers of COVID-19. Stick those libidinous youngsters into their dormitories and apartments — as cavernous as a sardine can — and we know what happens next. The effects would not be contained to campus.
As news spread of COVID-19’s virulence, the school took faltering steps. While other colleges boarded up shop, A&M initially only canceled classes for two days. Then spring break was extended for a week. Now all courses have moved online until finals.
This was a wise decision: university students are known for being — how to put this delicately? — dense. We are a cocktail of hubris made from equal parts youth, privilege and above average intelligence. In the eight years I have been here — five as an undergraduate and three as a graduate — we never have followed instructions. It is best that the younger ones stay home where their parents can nag them about washing their hands.
It is now 12:40 p.m. Somewhere in the distance, a train sounds its lonely horn. If this were a F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, that would mean something. Maybe that, despite upheaval, some things never change. Maybe that, like a locomotive, time pushes on relentlessly, a symbol of how change is inevitable. Maybe it is simply an alarm reminding this writer that there is, in fact, a pandemic going on, and it’s time to go home. Hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes can buy you only so much time.
If you find yourself in town for the foreseeable future — which is to say, if you live here — it is best to stay away from campus if at all possible. But if, for whatever reason, you spend 20 minutes in Aggieland, you, too, will understand the full depth of what Paul Simon meant when he wrote the following:
“A vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence”
Joshua Howell is a doctoral student at Texas A&M University.