Quarantine story: Charles Witmer – bass, biologist, brother

Awoken by the sound of a blaring alarm, Fourth Former Charles Witmer rolls over in bed to silence the ringing. It is 7:30 a.m., but Charles turns and quickly falls back to sleep, trusting himself to wake up in time for school. 

    By 8-something, he climbs out of bed, lured downstairs by the tantalizing scent of freshly-baked cornbread, the sizzle of pancakes, and just the thought of a moist blueberry muffin. Scarfing down his carbohydrate-rich breakfast, he converses lightly with his parents, then heads back upstairs to his computer, just in time for first period.

    Charles sits down at his lacquered wooden desk. Books and papers are scattered over every square inch of its surface in an organized chaos. Such a description is appropriate for the rest of the room as well, which has an international flair. The walls are painted in wide bands of orange, white, and green, “like the Indian flag.” Three small Russian flags hang from the bookcase. Shelves and drawers are filled to the brim with books and knick-knacks, like a model pyramid.  A bottle of Airborne pills, a half-eaten box of Triscuits, and an unraveling roll of toilet paper seem to imply Charles is either coming from or going somewhere.

The organized chaos surrounding Charles Witmer’s daily work environment – photo by Charles Witmer ’22

    But like the rest of us, Charles is stuck at home. Still somewhat sleepy, he sits at the desk, signs into his virtual advisory meeting, and zones out. He stares at the half-full box of Triscuits adjacent to his computer. The daily thirteen-step climb up to his room leaves him feeling far more distant from school than his usual fifteen-minute commute. An eclectic range of topics flit through his mind, including a harmonica accompaniment for “God Save the Queen.” 

    The millisecond it takes for this thought to appear and vanish in Charles’ head reveals a rather involved series of life events. In third grade, Charles joined the Philadelphia Boys’ Choir as a high soprano. He has been singing ever since, participating in the Centennial Singers and the Celebrates in Middle School. By the eighth grade, after his voice had become much lower and Mr. Stroud recommended Charles try out for the Notables. Thus by, sophomore year, Charles landed a spot as a bass, singing low notes rivaled only by Mr. Hightower. 

    Through his vocal transition, Charles continued to sing with the Boys’ Choir, including virtual rehearsals during the pandemic. His choir director inspired him to make a musical arrangement of his own, and “God Save the Queen,” a choir standard, was Charles’ song of choice. He thought an instrumental accompaniment would fill out the performance, but he didn’t fancy the idea of setting up his cello or learning the piano. The conclusion, naturally, was the harmonica, which he intended to teach himself over the course of the coming days. 

    Charles’s eyes drift back to his screen to find that advisory has ended, without him saying a word. With ten minutes before his first class, he sets up the Google Hangouts link for Modern World History before switching tabs and browsing Reddit. History memes, Minecraft builds, and videos of Russian gopniki fill his feed. 

    Classes that day pass by in a blur. Charles forces himself to remain focused, but he often forgets to take notes, a task usually subconsciously prompted by the hum and cool fluorescent glow omnipresent in the pristine Wilson Hall. 

    Nearing the end of last period, Charles hears a knock on his door as his mother brings in lunch – usually pasta. Today is ravioli in red sauce. “谢谢,” Charles says in thanks using his mother’s native Chinese. Beyond knowing the odd vocabulary word (“stuff like 冰淇淋” – ice cream), Charles’ Mandarin ability is on par with his fellow Chinese II classmates despite his maternal Chinese heritage. He recalls attending Chinese school when he was younger but was deterred by the rigid curriculum, describing it as a “fascist state.” Whenever his grandmother (“外婆”) is around, however, he must speak with her in Mandarin, as she doesn’t know English. 

Charles recalls a very young version of himself diagraming the phases of mitosis on a chalkboard out of sheer boredom.

    His family also helped Charles become fluent in a different subject: biology. Since he was three years old, Charles would spend much of his time playing with science equipment waiting for his mother, a biology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, to return to her office. The molecular model kits were his favorite toys.

    In a particularly notable memory, Charles recalls a very young version of himself diagraming the phases of mitosis on a chalkboard out of sheer boredom. Scanning a row of biological texts on the bookshelf above his desk, he recites the steps in his mind, “prophase, prometaphase, metaphase, anaphase, telophase.” Charles admits he isn’t naturally gifted in biology, or any particular subject. It’s just something he does.

    Charles’ biology knowledge prompted him to found a club early sophomore year to recruit some like-minded classmates. He wanted to form a team to compete in the International Brain Bee, a neuroscience trivia competition open to high schoolers. Charles ranked in the top three in the region the previous two years, the first time narrowly missing first place with a question about prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces. Unfortunately, the club never found its footing, and upper levels of the 2020 competition have since been canceled.

    Charles is perhaps best known at Haverford for creating the D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) club. His classmates may recall a humorous video he produced to promote the club in October of his freshman year. 

    Since its founding, the club sports a half-dozen members who engage in spirited fantasy campaigns of exploring realms and killing monsters. Charles took a liking to the game in eighth grade. His younger brother, Andrew Martin Witmer (“we call him Marty”) had a tutor from Haverford College who introduced them both to tabletop gaming. 

    A year later, Charles wanted to share the experience with the Upper School. Although virtual Haverford has halted in-person meetings, the club hopes to play a game online sometime soon. 

Charles Witmer in his “natural habitat,” moderately enthused as always – photo by Marty Witmer ’26

    Even before quarantine, Charles spent a lot of time at his desk. So much so that his parents contend he will “definitely die” if he continues to spend all day cooped up in his room. He looks out the window to his right to find a beautiful sunny day. He reaches across his desk to grab a magnifying glass and heads outside, his brother Marty close behind, knowing that the instrument signaled one of their favorite outdoor activities – leaf ignition. 

In fact, leaves are not even his kindling of choice: they are too combustible, “great if you want to draw a smiley face of charred ash,” but not good for getting a strong flame. Fern fronds are better for that.

    Unfortunately, it had rained the night before, so a thin layer of moisture covering everything outdoors (fallen leaves included) thwarts Charles’ goal. Charles knows water will do nothing to aid in the burning process. In fact, leaves are not even his kindling of choice: they are too combustible, “great if you want to draw a smiley face of charred ash,” but not good for getting a strong flame. Fern fronds are better for that. Their thickness helps to spread the heat. But he doesn’t see any around.

    Charles instead turns to his garage to see a pair of bikes next to two duffel bags. Charles’ father has been building a rock wall in their backyard for many years. Charles and Marty were the purveyors. They would bike around town to local parks and pick up rocks to bring back for the construction project. The wall, now almost a foot high throughout the yard, represents a structure sourced from the community built by the whole family. 

The Witmer family rock wall, built after dozens of bike-runs spanning throughout their neighborhood, and their cat, Milky – photo by Charles Witmer ’22

    Marty slings on his duffel bag and hops on his bike – a gray hybrid. Marty had recently grown interested in biking, forcing Charles to go out and watch over him. Not intending to run alongside Marty’s boulevard escapades, this left Charles with the only other bike the family had: a scrappy city bike whose black color has long since been eaten by dense, orange rust. 

    The bike is perfectly functional – besides a broken rear wheel brake – but makes “a whole orchestra of weird sounds” when peddled. Hopping on to catch up with his brother, Charles hears a vocal clink clink clink as something on the bike starts repeatedly hitting something else, as if the peddling roused the bike, annoyed, from a peaceful slumber. 

    Arriving at the park, the two brothers start the hunt for suitable geological specimens. The scene’s warm spring sunlight and boyish thirst for adventure could have come from a panel of a Calvin and Hobbes comic. Anything they deemed inadequate – too flat, too round, too bumpy – they toss in the nearby stream. 

They spend the next 45 minutes trying everything they can think of to get the rock out of the ground. Earth is dug, sticks are levered, yet little progress is made.

    They stumble across a rock as wide as Charles lodged in the ground. After some preliminary excavation with sticks, they discover that the rock is far larger than they first assumed. They spend the next 45 minutes trying everything they can think of to get the rock out of the ground. Earth is dug, sticks are levered, yet little progress is made. In a last-ditch effort, Charles finds the largest rock he can reasonably hold and throws it at an angle to try to dislodge the larger rock from the dirt like a game of human-sized marbles. This shifts the rock slightly, but does nothing to remove it from the ground. The two brothers shrug with defeat, gather their day’s loot – a mere four medium-sized stones – and return home. All the physical labor has made them hungry. 

    Dinnertime is nice and early, usually between 4:30 and 5:30. Charles’ father often cooks and will have something interesting prepared, anything from barbecue breaded chicken to home-baked sourdough. Each Witmer grabs their portion and heads to their respective room. Charles is usually too distracted to get his homework done during this time, instead preferring to return to Reddit-browsing. 

    Charles usually does his homework in the late evening, but not before a nine o’clock biology tutoring session with his mother and a few family friends. Tonight’s lesson is on embryonic development, “blastula and gastrula and all that.” 

    With the lesson concluded by ten, Charles returns to his room, exhausted by a long day of retrospection and rock-moving. He throws on some pajamas and climbs up the steep four-platform staircase leading to the top bunk of his bed. Visions of harmonicas, dragons, and embryos swirl through his mind. Surely his homework can wait until his free period tomorrow.