Ebola has a way of putting things in perspective.
Dr. Erin Browder’s anthropology class was interesting as always, punctuated on this day by a film about gorillas, lemurs, monkeys and chimpanzees as the narrator romped from South America to Africa to Asia.
At 9:15 a.m. one student begins stuffing his property into his backpack. Like the primates in the video, we all follow this behavior as Dr. Browder tries to get in a few last remarks. Everyone heads to the door, her voice fades, ear-buds are in, text messages start getting answered and the door opens.
That’s when the routine became the unthinkable.
Yellow barricade tape hit my waist and we were confronted by a pushy campus police officer ordering us back in the classroom.
A four-hour ordeal began.
I began reminiscing about lockdowns in elementary school, except that now it didn’t seem as exciting and adventurous and we didn’t get to sit Indian style under our desk.
My classmates begin peeking out the window. For the next 30 minutes we knew nothing. We sat patiently, making small talk and figuring out how many classes we were going to miss.
That same campus police officer that didn’t let us out earlier opened the door and began to brief Dr. Browder. All we saw from the window were hand gestures and a lot of nodding, but we could only assume that whatever they were saying was terribly important.
Around me I can see people gaping at their phones and muttering the word Ebola.
Dr. Browder returned to the classroom and told a wide-eyed, wide-mouthed audience of anxious college kids that a student a few doors down might have been exposed to a virus that has made headlines across the globe for its brutality against humanity. West Africa’s massive outbreak of Ebola may have somehow found its way to Southwestern College. Suddenly apathetic college hipsters around me stiffened and their ironic expressions turned to angst.
People begin looking up symptoms of the virus on their smartphones, palming their foreheads and massaging their throats. I hear questions like “Have you seen the movie ‘Contagion’ or how ’bout ‘Quarantine’?”
Our professor stepped outside again in search of more information. Little by little we pieced together the story. A female student said she and her family flew on a plane close to someone who had been exposed to the virus. She had been absent from school for several days now and had been hospitalized. The story would evolve many times in the next four hours.
This student was now in our midst and we were to wait for the health department authorities to arrive.
I was relieved to learn that we were allowed to step out to the nearest restrooms. Outside, broad-shouldered police officers lurked and a small group of students were fenced like cattle in a pen of yellow barricade tape. It was an eerie tableau. As I stared at the campus on the “free” side of the tape, I was told to go back inside.
Text messages and telephone calls from scared family members and friends got phones buzzing. The room echoed with phrases like “I’m okay mom” and “Yeah, we don’t really know what’s happening.”
It was getting close to lunchtime. Cereal and coffee had lost their effect, and people seemed to be more preoccupied about food than the possibly-deadly virus a couple classrooms away.
We were brought funny-tasting water and an array of meaty sandwiches. Unfortunately, there were no vegan/vegetarian or kosher options available for those with more particular dietary habits.
I’m not sure if it was the food or the force bonding in a closed space, but students and staff began to relax. It was past noon and many people had given up on their class and work schedules.
Authorities had informed us that they were waiting for a report from the Center of Disease Control and the San Diego County Health Department.
Meanwhile, the female student’s story was evolving. We were told Ebola had never been on campus. Everyone was annoyed, but relieved.
Around 1 p.m. we signed a piece of notebook paper along with our phone numbers and student ID numbers.
When the yellow tape came down I saw officials giving statements to the media, saying all the right things. I saw other students trying to get into camera shots, others just standing around not knowing how to carry through their day. I saw confusion. Our campus looked better than usual, particularly on the other side of the tape.