Pandemic Philosophy

Philip Palios

“The future is in your head, the past is in your head, the only thing that’s real is the present.” Someone probably had a better, more poetic assemblage of words for this not so novel idea, but Bradley didn’t take the time to find them while preparing for his lecture.

“So you didn’t say what you just said because it’s in the past now, not the present, right?” Isabelle tilted her chin with genuine curiosity.

“I didn’t say that.”


Bradley knew that he had unintentionally affirmed his student’s flawed point, but he didn’t care.

Isaac from the back of the classroom raised his hand and began speaking without being called upon. “This is bullshit! A bunch of mental masturbation if you ask me…”

Bradley grinned, reflecting on when Isaac’s sentiment was brought up in his first philosophy course as an undergraduate student himself – he agreed with Isaac, the ivory tower was a pointless mental circle jerk to a large extent, but at the same time he was enchanted with the opportunity to escape reality, even if the ivory tower manifested itself as a dilapidated concrete structure that resembled a re-purposed public toilet in the rural Scottish lowlands.

“You might be right.” Bradley relished opportunities to trot out his go-to non-response. “So tell me Isaac, why are you here?”

“Because I lost my job and ain’t gonna find no job while covid keeps shutting shit down in this shithole town.”

“Oh, better in London is it?”

Isaac fell silent, Bradley grinned.

As the clock struck three, the classroom erupted in a collective sigh of relief. Everyone hastily made their way out of the building and eagerly removed their masks after scattering in their various directions. When the room was empty, Bradley removed his own mask, switched off the light and laid down on the classroom floor, staring up at the ceiling while pursuing some sort of meditative or prayerful state. “Dear God, please help me to believe my own bullshit. Don’t lead me into an existential crisis, because if teaching isn’t my life then I really don’t know what is. Just lull me into obedience and acceptance of this useless life, please!”

The following week, as Bradley was making his way to campus on foot, the sight of a recently uprooted tree sparked an idea for that day’s lecture. He had planned to use a slide deck he found by Googling “fun lecture on Kant,” but the crisp winter air made him inspired to teach outside, something he loved to do in his early days of lecturing but had opted for less often as the years had passed.

Rather than enter the building, Bradley strapped on his mask and stood outside the entrance ready to catch his students as they arrived.

“Locked out?” The first student asked with a strange hopefulness in her tone.

“No, we’re having class outside today.”

“But it’s December!”

“It will be fun!”

As students arrived and learned of Bradley’s plan, they proceeded to wander aimlessly around the green space that separated the college building from the road. None of them seemed to pay any mind to the uprooted tree.

“Who knew this was going to happen?” Bradley shouted, bringing the students to order as he began his lesson.

“They’ve been saying we’re due for a pandemic sooner or later for quite some time now, haven’t they?” Isabelle responded with hope she was ahead of the curve on this one.

“No, not that. This!” Bradley pointed at the tangle of roots shooting into the air.

“Class outside? Well, you knew..” Isaac said while rolling his eyes.

“For fuck’s sake!” Bradley grumbled as he marched 15 metres to the dying tree. “THIS!”

“Ah, well probably the bloke who pulled it out the ground.” Isaac grinned after responding.

“Pulled it out of the ground? Really? Can you pull a tree out of the ground like that?” As Bradley finished his questioning he shrieked as Isaac ran to a nearby tree and began trying to pull it from the ground. “Stop it!”

“But you asked…”

“This tree, it had been standing here, growing, minding its own business, making plans for its future, and then all of a sudden, wham!” Bradley clapped his hands for dramatic effect. “No one knew that would happen. No one.”

“Can we take our masks off?” Derrick was sitting on the ground plucking leaves of grass.

“Um.” Bradley wanted to say yes but was pretty sure the answer was no. He decided to deflect, removing his own mask to use it as a prop. “Who knew we would all be here, wearing these? Who had this in their well thought out plans? Anyone?”

“This is the same lecture as last week.” Isaac responded.

“Alright, fine, get in pairs and discuss how covid has impacted the plans you had for your life.”

Everyone did as they were told and Bradley was surprised to see students continue talking with each other far beyond the usual one sentence responses. He wandered around and listened in, glad to hear everyone staying on topic. Was any learning happening? Or had he just resigned to hosting a social club? He had no idea, but hoped for the former.

After a dozen minutes had passed, he asked his final question, “Is the new plan better or worse than the old one?”

ON THE FIRST DAY OF SPRING SEMESTER…Bradley arrived three minutes late and was surprised to discover the classroom empty. A piece of paper lay on a desk at the front corner and he picked it up expecting a cancelation notice. Maybe the university finally came to their senses about bringing people together in the middle of a raging pandemic. Instead, he read in Isabelle’s familiar scrawl that the class had decided they would be meeting online and had e-mailed him a Zoom link. Could they do that? Should he report this? Would he get in trouble if he…joined in?

Bradley couldn’t help himself. He had his laptop out and email opened while still in the classroom. Following the Zoom link, he saw the familiar “Please wait to be admitted” screen and couldn’t help but laugh at having to ask his students permission to enter.

The screen blinked. “Yo, ho, hello there!” He said.

Twelve angry students stared back at him before Isabelle resumed speaking. “The gardens are just hideous at the convent, have you seen them?” Isabelle questioned. Bradley was dumbfounded and clicked his mute button on.

“No, I mean, how did you get in? It’s all fenced off…” Derrick asked.

“How do you think?” The class broke out in laughter. Isabelle continued, “But seriously, we can either keep meeting online, meet in class, or you know, do something..”

Bradley jumped in, “Um, the university is still requiring in-person learning-“

“You called that learning?” Isaac leapt into boisterous cheers.

“Well, if you just wanted to garden, why are you in university?”

“It’s not just gardening, it’s an act of protest. What sort of town has its castle hidden away, boarded off and surrounded with barbed wire?”

Bradley resigned himself to observing as the students continued to discuss their ill-informed plans of cleaning up the memorial garden at the convent and wondered how he would get them on track for the new semester of philosophy.

As the discussion was drawing to a close and the students had made plans to start their gardening project, Bradley jumped in to remind the students that they were still expected to come to class.

“And do what? Continue pretending the world falling apart outside doesn’t matter? Keep calm and carry on?” Isaac questioned.

“You can do both, your garden thing and this.”

“No, you don’t seem to understand, Brad. We want university to be useful.”

Bradley did too. “Fine, I give up. What now?”


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