Illustration by Marina Takara '21


Happy Half: A Tradition of Community

On the steps of Hill House, a boy sits with a big box of Cheez-Its. It’s 30 minutes until check and students are beginning to gather on Hill Street, the heart of NCSSM’s Durham campus, for Happy Half, a nightly half hour relief from the day’s headaches. A young Brock Winslow comes with the crowd but peels off to approach the boy with the Cheez-Its.

“What’s going on?” Winslow asks casually. The boy looks up, eyes wide, and gestures frantically at his throat. Before the gravity of the situation can begin to settle in, Winslow is pulling the boy to his feet and giving him the Heimlich maneuver. A few moments later, a bright orange bullet shoots across the porch of Hill House. Stunned, the boys stare at the cracker and burst out laughing.

Over time, stories like these evolve from anecdotes to memories. Meanwhile, during that fleeting half hour on Hill Street, students continue to stumble across new stories while honoring the lively NCSSM tradition of Happy Half, a nightly outdoor social gathering before curfew when the entire school takes a break from studying.

Winslow, now the school’s Vice Chancellor for External Relations, graduated with the NCSSM class of 1986. He remembers the Happy Half of his day as “part social hour, part street fair.” There were hacky sack exhibitions, impromptu soccer tournaments, the occasional prank, and the general feeling of, as Winslow puts it, “everybody enjoying everybody.”

As a member of the class of 2021, I remember Happy Half from last year as something similar. Rather than hacky sack and soccer, we had skateboards and frisbees, but the feeling of friendship in the biggest, most populous way possible remained present.

With the enforcement of physical distancing during the pandemic, Happy Half has come to look very different this year. As a fully remote student, I find it hard to picture the scenes my classmates describe: a 25-person limit from the Educational Technology Center to Watts Lawn, Community Coordinators patrolling Hill Street to enforce distancing guidelines, tents springing up around campus lined with lights and folding chairs to host smaller groups. The usual mass of students laughing on the senior benches, conversing in the new gazebo, yelling by the swings, drawing on the pavement, and lounging in the grass are no longer there. Though the changes take time to adjust to, students are appreciative of administration’s efforts to ensure student life stays vibrant.

“Because of the tents, there’s more places to hang out,” says Emma Tucker ’21. “It’s definitely not the same, but that’s okay.”

Still, it’s impossible to ignore the sense of loss that has pervaded Happy Half. Our responsibility to filter interactions through an acute awareness of public health and safety creates a new dynamic between students as they struggle both to socialize and socially distance. Henry Thomas ’21, who serves as a Residential Life Assistant on 4th West, says, “My responsibility as an RLA is to make sure my friends and my juniors stay safe on campus and that they respect the obligations I have toward that responsibility.” 

For others, holding themselves to that responsibility is a little harder. Six feet quickly shrinks to 4  when friendship, after months of isolation, becomes readily available. 

“What might have looked like ignorance toward the guidelines—which I guess it was—to me, it was like reuniting with my family,” one student explains.

Cultivating these family-like bonds tempts the juniors as well. Trying to meet new people and make sure both parties follow distancing guidelines creates a new kind of tension. “I don’t want them to think I’m intruding,” says Winnie Wang ’22 on the subject of calling out those who are breaking guidelines. “It’s hard to have people have that as their first impression of you.”

Most students realize the importance of distancing; guidelines are being followed and, despite a few scares, the student body remains COVID-free. Happy Half seems to be agreed upon as the most challenging aspect of campus life for responsible distancing, but students try their best to hold each other accountable.

“I was really impressed and relieved that everyone was doing a really good job and helping each other out,” says Mac Barnes ’22. “We need to keep each other responsible so we all have a chance to be on campus.” 

In typical NCSSM fashion, we soldier on. Despite the occasional flying Cheez-It, global pandemic, and physics-induced mental breakdown, Happy Half is still a time we can come together for a break.

–Writer Nina Zhuo and illustrator Marina Takara are NCSSM students in the class of 2020 who serve in the position of Communications Content Creator. They focus on stories about life at NCSSM from the student perspective.