Emily Brown: How COVID threatens the community that’s the heart of education

A dramatic show of community spirit was the University of Michigan’s powerfully intimidating “Maize Out” in the September 2021 football game against Wisconsin. Here’s news coverage of that game.



When I received my first homework assignment in grade school, I didn’t want to work at the desk in my room. I worked at our kitchen table. My father was grilling dinner on the porch and repeatedly popped through the sliding glass door, grabbing various utensils and condiments. My mother sat next to me. While occasionally talking with my father, she helped me with my addition and subtraction. Our cat meowed for her own dinner. Our dog scratched his little paw at the door.

The energy of the entire household was part of my education.

In fact, interactions with others at home and school were essential to my learning—until 2020, when the COVID pandemic changed the world. I started at the University of Michigan in the fall of 2019, then we were sent home in March 2020. We were expected to learn entirely via online connections through the summer of 2021.

BACK ON CAMPUS, FINALLY! Here, I’m simply sitting on the front steps of the famous Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library at the University of Michigan pondering the campus surrounding me.

Finally, in the fall of 2021, we could return to in-person classes. It felt like a homecoming.

Through that year of isolation, I had met a new version of myself: my bored and disengaged Zoom-school self.

In the apartment I shared with three other girls during that year, we each worked in our own rooms. Sometimes, for a change of pace, I would listen to my classes in our shared living space while wearing headphones. With my laptop’s microphone and camera turned off, Zoom class sometimes became background noise to making food, working out, or scrolling on social media. Eventually, though, sitting in my apartment began to feel suffocating.

For the most part, I would simply listen to class so I could do my assignments and submit them on time. Nothing about this online schooling felt interactive besides in smaller discussion sections where we were told to show our faces via Zoom or risk losing participation points. Besides required assignments, everything else from online school felt optional.

This past fall semester, returning to in-person classes felt wonderful. I love to be actively and physically learning. I thrive in environments where I can be wholeheartedly present in the experience. When I get to be physically present in class I can actively learn. If I can feverishly scribble notes, raise my hand to ask questions, and nod along with the professor’s lecture, then I am completely spellbound by the day’s subject.

“Real school” is a different type of hard than “Zoom school.”

Physically returning to the academic world, I felt the gears in my brain turning and adjusting. No pre-class reading or syllabus assignment was optional anymore like it felt while we were online. I was motivated to do well. I had been waiting for this return to somewhat normalcy since I began “Zoom school” in March 2020. I felt like I owed it to my Zoom-school self to work harder now that I was gifted the privilege of listening to a professor who was teaching physically in front of me.

The energy on campus shifted around me. The most notable shift was movement. No longer stuck in a single room, I felt freedom in each step. Walking to class with music playing loudly in headphones turned into mile-long concerts. Students with backpacks walked together to class and said hellos to friends who passed. Sidewalks were no longer just empty paths; they took us to new and exciting experiences.

At first, it was strange to actually walk to class again. My first class was on the top floor of the Burton Memorial Bell Tower. It was a twenty-five-minute walk across campus from my house so I had to leave at least thirty minutes early. Last year during Zoom school, I could wake up five minutes before the start of class, fire up my laptop and lay in my bed to listen to a lecture.

Now, I was physically climbing eight floors to my classroom, while wearing my mask, of course. Sitting at a desk with my phone packed away, pen in my hand, professor up front, and other students around me, I began to remember what “real school” was like.

Between classes, I rediscovered Ann Arbor’s energy. Wherever I was near campus, I could hear the bell tower chime. Walking along the Diag, clubs yelled out from their booths seeking new members. I would coffee shop hop since each was packed inside by groups that got to meet together to work on assignments. Coffee beans burrrred in grinders and espresso machines hissed. These sounds added extra life to the chill indie music playing softly from the speakers. At my third coffee shop visited in one day, there was only one seat left that I really hoped I could snag. Even if I couldn’t secure the seat, I was so grateful to have the possibility to try. I was thankful for movement, freedom, and a renewed dedication to learning that I shared with all these other people I was encountering each day.

Over that first in-person term, energy fluctuated like a roller coaster. Sometimes, the excitement rose like on a football game day when everyone was buzzing. Our hive is comprised of maize-and-blue-clad tailgaters who swarm the streets and walk to The Big House together. The excitement is elevated since it mixes with alcohol and anticipation of a winning football season.

When finals rolled around in December, the entire University of Michigan campus exuded stress. This stress emits a pressure that can either motivate or decimate confidence. Part of our learning as students is how to channel this energy. If we could adapt, we realized, we could survive such hurdles.

What I learned in my year of living in isolation with the pandemic is that energy is infectious—just like COVID. It spreads rapidly and we all can be hosts. While no one wants to host COVID, isolation sucks that energy out of our education.

Emily Brown is a ReadTheSpirit intern writing a series of columns about her experiences as a university student both at UofM and in other parts of the world. Her earlier column was headlined: ‘I Turned to Face the Mountain.’



Emily Brown: ‘I Turned to Face the Mountain’

Contributing Columnist

“I trust myself,” I whispered as I turned to face the mountain.

“I trust myself,” I said again, loudly enough that my friend could hear it this time. He helped me store all the extra weight from my pack as he waited for me to complete my ascent, because he had a sore Achilles and could not make the climb himself.

Looking back and smiling, I thanked him for letting me borrow his new pine-green sunglasses and tucked them into my chest strap. Heading uphill alone, all that was left between me, and my first 14,000-foot summit, was rock and scree.

And fear.

How high is that? Skydivers jump from 14,000 feet. The Smokies and Appalachians top out at less than 7,000 feet.

“Be here now.” I rolled these words around like hard candies over the taste buds of my mind as I ascended.

“Be here now.”

“Be here now.”

The repetition filled and cleared my mind, so I could let the pleasure of the present sweep over me as I confronted my first true boulder field. I wasn’t afraid. It was sweet. It was tempting. I had forgotten my friend’s sore ankle and all my other cares that had weighed me down in the world.

Testing my technical ability, I swiftly traversed the terrain.

Then came the mental checks:

Check your foot placement.

While shifting your handhold, are you sure it’s stable?

If not, readjust. If yes, make your move.

I urged myself to just go, reminding myself that I had taken all the precautions possible in my mind. Clear headed, I shifted all feelings of presence to my body. Knowing without a doubt that my hands and feet will get me where I need to go, I exhaled fear. It was freeing to begin letting go of the mental chatter and anxiety that has made a home in my lower brain.

I know all too well how that mental chatter can arise into a crippling sickness. So, as it faded from my all-consuming focus on the climb, I began to inhale confidence with each one of my breaths—true, physical breaths. No longer emotionally gasping for air due to unmet needs, I was able to let the air fill and leave my lungs as it wanted to.

High up in the Rocky Mountain sky, I relinquished control of my breath into a life-giving rhythm: an all-consuming inhale followed by an all-releasing exhale. Breathing became pleasure as movement became good-pain I could offer my body. I accepted that I was at the mercy of the mountain, yet we had a mutual sense of respect. Two separate forces of energy, each system working in harmony with another, I began to feel that trust I had promised myself at the outset.

As I climbed, I felt the strength of a growing bond, a trail of its own terrain, a lasso of light, connecting my physical body with the inner workings of my mind. My mind and matter were one cohesive unit; no longer at anxious arms with each other, each side set down their weapons and began to embrace.

I was taking completely embodied action for what felt like the first time in a long time.

What a joyous meditation in movement!

Every sense was unified in one purpose and one moment. There’s a clear-headedness that comes from embracing this kind of pain as pleasure. It’s a state of flow, one where the stars inside me align. If I unlinked the constellation for a second, thinking about something other than my present action, I would physically slip in the gravel.

Of course, I slipped sometimes. Each time I did slip, though, I would shake my legs out and repeat my mantras. Over and over.

“I trust myself.”

“I trust myself.”

“I trust myself.”

Then, I beamed straight back into the galaxy of complete presence and celebrated my own return.

On July 30, 2021, at 9:50 in the morning, I summited my first 14er, Mount Sneffels (via Yankee Boy Basin and Lavender Couloir).

Standing at 14,150 feet, with the entire San Juan range in view, I stared off in every direction, fully absorbing this point in time into myself. With overwhelming gratitude, I thanked the universe, the mountain, life’s timing and my body.

Life that high revealed stunning blue glacial lakes, rocky ridge lines, and huge pine forests where the individually colored trees blended to create a crashing wave of emerald.

And among the vast natural beauty of Mother Earth, there was little me with my head in that rarefied, clarifying atmosphere for a few unforgettable moments.

I’m not a technical climber. I’m not a world-class mountaineer. I’m not someone with fifty-something peaks already in their bag.

I’m simply a girl with an undying love for adventure who is learning to trust herself.



EMILY BROWN is a University of Michigan creative writing student and journalist who is combining her love of travel, the natural world and meeting a wide diversity of people into a vocational pursuit of storytelling with a healing purpose. Although she is young, she already has spent a decade earning various certifications in wilderness skills and she is an experienced leader of backpacking trips for young people in wilderness areas. A true story about how she inspired her father, Howard Brown, a Stage IV cancer survivor, to make it to the top of a peak in the Caribbean will appear soon in Howard’s memoir, Shining Brightly. This is Emily’s first column to appear in ReadTheSpirit magazine. Watch for her byline in the future!