A book brought me to U of T — and inspired my first-year missions to overcome the pandemic

Coping from the other side of the world with Robertson Davies’ *Fifth Business*

By Bathari Bayu Putri

I write this piece in hopes of portraying one of the effects that this pandemic has had on someone who has just started to find their place in the world. I understand that COVID-19 has brought us some of the most tragic losses we’ve ever experienced, and I cannot and will not compare my problems to those who have lost a loved one. All I am trying to do is tell my story and the way that the pandemic has touched my life.

The virus first introduced itself in December 2019, but the World Health Organization officially declared the pandemic on March 11, 2020. I was in high school then. I visited Canada for the first time in December, and I came back to Indonesia thinking that my only concerns were the International Baccalaureate exams in May. It wasn’t until March 13 that my high school cancelled in-person mock exams, and it wasn’t until a few months later that it cancelled the long-awaited events of senior year as well.

There are a few events in life that you get to experience for the first time. To many people, this could mean a job promotion or the birth of a child. I won’t go too deep into mine, but I’ve lost a lot of those once-in-a-lifetime events because of the pandemic — one of which was having a proper beginning to adulthood like everyone else.

I romanticized going to Canada for university. I created this fantasy for myself ever since high school, when I was assigned to read Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, the founder of Massey College at U of T. Davies’ words crafted a world with so much vivid imagery that my first visit to Canada was quite similar to the way he’d described in the book.

I remember that when I visited Toronto for the first time to tour U of T, I felt an immediate connection to Dunstan Ramsay, the main character of Davies’ book. Walking around campus, I thought, “This is where Dunstan studied. This is where Davies taught. One of them never existed in real life, and the other I will never get to meet. But these two figures exist in my head, and this is the closest thing I have to experiencing their existence.”

I know it might sound niche, but this experience was a huge reason why I came to U of T. It was my dream to walk the same streets that Dunstan and Davies did and stand under the same magnificent buildings with ivy creeping up the side. U of T was going to be my new beginning, and like any graduating high school student, I held that belief until the pandemic started.

Now I am writing this from my bedroom back home in a different country. But I don’t want this piece to only lament lost opportunities. Like many other first-year students, I have learned to cope in my own way. In fact, I’ve come up with a series of secret missions in my head that I wish to accomplish during my first year at U of T — even though I can’t be on campus.

Though this might sound a bit odd, given how the pandemic has restricted me, I have to re-imagine my first year this way, and I only hope that those goals will bring meaning and significance to my current university life.

My first mission is to improve my writing. I particularly admire Davies’ flow in storytelling and how he was able to foreground psychological theories in a literary work. As a writer, I’d like to do something similar by capturing various theories of intellectual fields and presenting them in a way that’s entertaining.

My second mission involves psychoanalysis. I hope to be able to learn more about this area of study because as a person who loves studying literature, I want to be able to see the psychological effects that impact how a text is constructed. Archetypes can be analyzed, emotions can be precisely expressed through words, and I can hopefully gain a new understanding of texts.

My third mission is to become more acquainted with history. It took me a while to realize history’s value, as I was never interested in learning about the past. But now I want to know why things are the way they are today, and how learning about the past can help us avoid the same mistakes in the future.

My last mission is my hardest one yet because it requires me to physically be in Canada. Since Davies had, in a sense, convinced me to apply to U of T, I’d like to see the U of T library that was named after him. It’s located at Massey College, and I remember this was one of the first things I asked about U of T during an orientation session. I think, in my mind, visiting this library would make this whole journey of romanticizing the novel and enrolling in U of T worth it.

With these missions, I hope to show you how I’ve learned to cope during this pandemic, online university, and the new beginning I could not fully experience this year. Who knows, maybe these goals will motivate me to genuinely learn for the purpose of educating myself, instead of only getting work done to meet deadlines. Maybe this is just a way of making my life less boring.

As a first-year at U of T, I start my journey with uncertainty and unpredictability. Until the pandemic disappears, I can only base my experience of university life while living abroad on a book from English class and my new dreams. It’s not my preferred alternative, but as a student, it keeps the mind excited and the imagination alive.