When I arrived at university, the first thing I was asked to do was write an English Writing Proficiency Examination, a standard practice, regardless of what I was to major in. I was assured that only five percent of students fail the exam; the results had nothing to do with my grades, and I could retake the exam every term until I passed it. If English was not my first language, I was to indicate as much on the cover page beside my student number. There was a set of four or so prompts from which to choose to write a brief essay response to. That was the whole exam. One prompt asked if failure was a valuable experience. I argued that it was, and I failed the examination by half a point out of ten. Still, I was permitted to begin my major in English Literature. So to spite my examiner, whoever they were, I wrote everything meticulously; I flexed as hard as I could on my exams and I even received the elusive grade of 100 percent on a handwritten essay-answer midterm — in an English class — some days before the WHO declared the spread of COVID-19 to be a pandemic.
And now, I am failing most of my online classes, and I am automatically enrolled in a writing workshop course that is worth no credits if I do not rewrite and pass the EWP exam online tomorrow. I am hoping that there is some kind of valuable lesson to this private, lonely failure, but apparently there is not. Still, I’ve been scrambling, trying to make the most of things.
Until yesterday, finally, when the power went out. The snow fell all around my town and buried all our backyard refuse and all of our unfinished chores in a forgiving sheet of white. I do not know if the snow was to blame for the power loss, but it seemed that way. Somehow, once again, nature had intervened in our designs.
I was working at my uncle’s lumberyard when the lights went out. I’d been kicking myself, muttering, and racking my head for the resolve to complete my untold hours of homework that were waiting for me online. All of it would have to be done on my computer, on the screen, and all of it was already overdue. But all I wanted to do instead was play video games, depart from reality entirely, because like so many others I have felt stressed and alienated from all the world for this entire year.
But the power went out and it stayed out for twelve hours. I had to do something else. The work simply could not be done, and I could not mope and play video games either. I went home after a long day of standing around not doing much at the yard, and in the afternoon all went dark. Together with my family, I lit the candles and the fireplace. I read from a book of poems in the faint light. I wrote one little poem of my own, with a pencil. I was calm at last.
I’m told it’s the little things in life, and now I am starting to understand.
There is a resemblance, I think, between the ceremony of the power failure and the pandemic. Studying and working online, to me, feels a lot like firing up the generator and turning on all the lights and carrying on like nothing’s wrong. It’s cheating. So much hair has been torn out of people’s heads this year as everyone has been stressing over their cash flow, their waning influence, their lost opportunities. But when the power goes out, there is no negotiation — you just light the candles. We’ve been partying hard, all around the world. We had to rest some time. We will have to rest again.
One thing I have managed to learn this semester, from Religion 112, is that there is a time for everything. Now is still the time to abstain. The power is still out. From the depths of me to the tip of my tongue, I wish we could forgive ourselves for slowing down. It will be alright.
I do not really know what is going on at my university. I have long since given up on the Teams classes (and I commend those who haven’t, I really do). Of course, I have not been to the campus since March. But, I do know that they have had an outbreak, despite all their measures, and every day I am barraged with emails and notifications and walls of legalese text concerning policy changes and platitudes and mental health questionnaires, and still my assignments come due and still I am completely alone in my work, unsure of every last word. It could have waited. If I were contracted to build a house and there was no wood to be found to frame with, I would not show up on site every day just to swing my hammer at the wind, nor would I try to stack the siding on itself and make it look like I had built the frame behind it. I would do something else entirely — go for a walk maybe, or tend to my garden. It would be alright.
I don’t want to bash my institution specifically. We tried, but I have hardly survived the trying and I burn with a wanting to blame somebody. Blame does no good however. I am sick of blame, and it has spread like the plague. The resources simply cannot be shared at the moment. Whatever. I have other things I can do. I still have candles, and lead in my pencil. Let us not mistake the forest for the trees — or worse, for the money. This lesson is not over. Perhaps if we keep listening and keep taking notes, we will learn something. Having failed again, I must insist that there is value here, and no assessor will tell me otherwise, because I value this experience, and I will not pretend it is not happening.
Kyle McKinnon is an intern at Accenti, and currently studying English Literature at Bishop’s University. Having long admired the limitless beauty of nature, music and storytelling, he has travelled throughout Canada and Europe, listening keenly to the stories told with sincerity and compassion. Formerly apprenticed as a home-builder, he is sure to measure his words twice and to cut them once.