One of the women in my hall introduced herself on move-in day. I was overjoyed to have found somebody to talk to. We spoke for a while, and then she gestured to the crowd at the end of the hall. She asked me which one of the masked strangers was my roommate.
I squinted at the cluster of covered faces and told her the truth: “I have no idea.”
I’d already met him and walked the entire Historic Neighborhood with him, and still I struggled to pinpoint which of the veiled faces was his. That experience, coupled with one I had the next day, when I suddenly didn’t recognize the unmasked people I’d sat down to dinner with, made it clear that not only was I in a new place, but everything about how the new place operated was now completely new as well.
We freshmen have been tasked with navigating one of the most considerable junctions in our lives with the added challenge of not being able to catalogue the physical features of our peers. We’ve been stripped of arguably the most valuable thing a social creature can have: recognition. Most of the people we’ve met thus far are only identifiable to us from the nose up.
Face masks are a necessary accessory, and I’m greatly appreciative for the mask policies here at Elon. But they’re also, in simplest terms, the worst things ever. They’re the most frustrating, agonizing, terrible, awful, horrible, annoying things we’ve ever consistently forgotten on our way out the door. They either fit too snugly or they slip down our noses. They turn our ears red and make our cheeks break out. And, worst of all, they mockingly force the vision-impaired among us to view life through a hot, foggy haze.
Through the first weeks of classes, in a fantastic demonstration of unity and school pride, we’ve all endured the torture of mask-wearing. But, I’ve realized something: these masks aren’t torture devices. They’re a blessing, albeit a sweaty one. As dreadful as they can be, they’re invitations for us to start honing the qualities that make us proud to be who we are.
To begin with, there are tremendous everyday benefits to wearing the infuriating things. A mask is — among other things — an untapped opportunity for a fashion statement, a perfect place to secure advertising deals, a provider of a free, under-the-radar breath-checking service, a sneeze-muffler and a private place for tongue-rolling practice. But their nondescript goodness yields something a little more philosophically advantageous as well.
Throughout my life, the dangers of wearing a figurative “mask,” a disguise or a false-face put on to hide my feelings of inferiority, were made painfully clear to me. There were plenty of times I acted like somebody completely different so as not to let the real me shine through. This type of mask, of course, was completely invisible to everyone else, but I hid behind it anyway.
Right now, living in a world where masks are no longer intangible self-soothers but mandatory pieces of apparel, it’s become even easier for us to slip into complacency and use our mask as a shield. At the same time, however, we’re all going through the same thing. We can all see the masks. And, most essentially, we’re learning how to interact despite their presence, overcompensating for the speech barrier by talking louder and making our motions more illustrative. That’s why, unlike the metaphorical masks that hide who we know we are, these real-life ones are presenting us with a chance to cultivate exactly who we want to be.
Teachers are leaning in closer to hear what we have to say, so we may as well give them something worth listening to. If we do, they may remember our name because of the great response we give, not because we sit in the same seat every day. Our peers are trying to find new confidants, and it couldn’t hurt to show them through our actions that we can be excellent friends. A whole new social concept is emerging on campus. Shallow relationships are on hiatus. Deep, meaningful connections are ripe for the picking.
Our eyes, for example, which are so often shoved aside to the recesses of conversation, are now our chief modes of expression. I, personally, have noticed for the first time in my life what color eyes my classmates have. It’s fascinating how much people say with those things, and how much easier it is to relate to them when they use them to tell their story.
We’re being forced to either cower behind our face mask and take cover or become an authentic version of ourselves. We can stay concealed and peek out over our covering as the world passes by, or we can take a deep breath, loosen up, and tell ourselves we’re proud of what we have to offer. I think it’s time to express our signature aspects without restraint and connect with those around us in a completely new way.
My point is simply that we have a chance to stand out using our talents, our words, and our actions as opposed to solely our looks, which many of us aren’t always comfortable exhibiting. Sure, there’s always the chance that somebody will forget meeting us or confuse us with somebody else, but faces start to blend together at some point anyway. It’s our deeds that set us apart.
People remember us because we say insightful things, sit with them at lunch, listen to their concerns and make them laugh. They watch us create things and they value their relationships with us. Popularity and recognition, however each of us define them for ourselves, are not gained because we have good teeth or strong cheekbones. They are a product of the things we do. When we do outstanding things, our own ideal version of notoriety will find us.
It’s incredibly difficult to act like a person without any inhibitions, but now is as good a time as ever to give it a shot. Turn around and talk to the next person in line. Start a card game at your masked, distanced gathering. Sit up front in class and try answering one of your professor’s trick questions. Smile (with your eyes) at random people as you walk by. Audition for something and leave it all out there. Show up to a club meeting in a superhero costume. Tell somebody else to put their mask on. Do the things you’d do if nobody could make fun of you.
We’re collectively incognito. Granted, our cheeks are breaking out and we’re all going to contract sunburns on the upper halves of our faces, but we can let down our guard. Our faces are virtually invisible when we’re not on Zoom, so there’s no need in feeling self-conscious about them — or any part of us, for that matter. If we can eliminate our insecurities now, under the security of a concealing guise, there may not be any need to feel insecure at all when we finally get to strip our masks off and breathe in the sweet North Carolina air.
So let’s think of it like a free pass to try becoming who we believe we are. We’ll tell jokes, sing in public, dance in the dining halls. We’ll be something new. And if people think we’re crazy, who cares?
Nobody knows what we look like anyway.