I see-saw between self-pity and a desire to work for change. It’s a daily swing. No, it’s moment-to-moment. Sometimes it’s hard to find a perspective that feels right. There are so many to consider. I think of the kids in my class, and how this struggle affects them. For them, school is as much a social hub as an academic experience. The isolation feels like a solitary confinement to many of them. For them, most days before this had been scheduled by others. Now, for some of them, they’re making their own schedule each day, doing what I only learned (barely learned) in college. For them, there is this fear. Watching their parents navigate something that never happened in their own longer lives. The uncertainty in the people that kids count on for stability and assurances must feel scary.
I sympathize with those kids. I feel for those parents. They are now trying to hold do their own jobs, working in unfamiliar ways, and at the same time, they’re having to take a much bigger role in their children’s daily routine and learning. It’s the kind of multi-tasking that really isn’t practical. Half attention in either realm leads to problems. Yet, while I sympathize, I also have to step back and see the problems of those who are far less fortunate. Some people don’t have jobs that they can do remotely. They head off to work each day, leaving kids unattended or under-attended. Or, their work has simply disappeared, and they hope that there will be some way that their income gets preserved. While my school sent all third through fifth graders home with a Chromebook last week, many other students in neighboring communities have no such luxury. How do they “maintain their skills,” much less learn new ones or stay in contact with their teachers and peers. Chances are, they don’t. What can we do about that in the short run? What can we do about that in the long run? As my fifth graders would say, “That’s so unfair!” Of course, some of them would mean, “You mean they don’t have to have school right now? So lucky!”
This is one of those times when, like with 9/11 and its aftermath, I feel like I am living history. I know that this year will find a place in history books. I hope it will be a smaller place than 9/11, but I fear it may not. I want my kids to try to look at this moment with those eyes. I have a feeling that this is an experience that will shape them. I hope it shapes them in a positive way.
My parents grew up in the 30s and 40s. Their childhoods spanned two huge historic periods that certainly scared, scarred, and shaped them. They began their lives during the Great Depression. It took me many years to have a generous perspective on how that shaped them. We often snickered at their “waste not, want not” approach to everything from food to money to material things. My parents wouldn’t dream of leaving food on their plate at the end of a meal. How could their children and grandchildren be allowed that luxury? They rarely dined out. They rarely vacationed. My father repaired the mailbox on our house with a used cardboard box. “What? It works,” he would say.
“They’re products of the Depression,” we’d sigh, as though they’d been afflicted. “We can’t expect them to shed that, just because it was two generations ago.” I know why I sighed. I didn’t understand, never having lived through that kind of want or uncertainty. But I do know that in many ways I was shaped by their perspective. Their frugality, commitment to the underdog, interest in the larger world, and belief in the good that and enlightened government can do, has certainly molded me.
Their generation also lived through World War 2. For a child, how could that not shape how you see the world? My father lived in Sweden then. The war was right next door. My mother lived in New York. Every day they saw the concern of their parents. Every day they heard about terrible events. They were fearful. When France fell, my mother says, we thought England was next, and then who knows what would happen after that? They were uncertain. They made sacrifices. They became keenly aware of a wider world, and they understood how what happens in, say, Italy, affects us all. They adjusted to a new normal throughout their childhoods. They didn’t take peace, safety, or financial security for granted.
I think it’s possible that this time right now will shape us. I wonder how, though. Will we be the generation that finally grasps that we are one world and one species, that a rampant virus making no distinctions of race, class, or nationality, binds us? Will we be the generation who sees how the “what me, worry?” attitude about our planet’s future threatens our existence? Will we understand that refusing to heed the warnings of our best minds will leave us defenseless? We may very well be known as “products of the pandemic,” but what will people mean when they say that?
What I hope for the kids in my class is that they take from this experience what one of them wrote in his journal last week:
Everyday, it feels like the same day, Groundhog Day, right? What can I do today to make it feel different?
For them, as one of them said, “It’s my first time experiencing something worldwide bad.” Of course, I would never have wished this for them. No one wishes instability, isolation, or fear on the lives of anyone, much less kids. But there is the possibility that it will shape them for the better. Not, of course, if they focus their wrath on “The China Virus,” but rather if they realize the power of working together, the value of preparedness, or the wisdom of valuing scientific and public health knowledge.
That’s the shape I hope we take.