When will the pandemic end?
Why won’t COVID go away?
I’d politely ask the virus to please go away.
Several times throughout the pandemic I’ve heard a version of the same question: Which age group has it worst? A New York Times article recently covered the loneliness and existential crises of young adults 18-24 years old. The article cited that youth is already so precarious, and social isolation only worsens this vulnerability. On the other hand, new parents worry their newborns aren’t getting enough socialization. Older folks fear for their life. Parents are holding down jobs while increasing childcare. And what about children? It’s been shown that virtual learning is not nearly as effective as in-person classrooms, so young students are falling far behind learning benchmarks. Professionals worry this time will have ever-lasting impacts on the development and mental health of children.
I don’t know if it’s worth answering this question of which age group has it worst. And I certainly don’t have the answer. What I can say, however, is that our younger community members, who often get ignored, have absorbed more than adults may realize. They’re not just orbiting in kid-world, totally removed from the struggle. Young people are observing, making inferences, asking questions and, like us all, absorbing the impact of this collective trauma.
I feel incredibly grateful that as a person with few young kids in my life I had the opportunity to meet the students at John E. White Elementary and Miles Exploratory Learning Center in 2021. The poetry lines listed at the beginning of this post are from these students. For those of you who have gone through the pandemic and social/political shift (Black Lives Matter, weird weather/climate change, and worker’s movements) without much kid-wisdom, you might find the perspective of our younger community especially insightful. It’s important to know that kids are also forming opinions in this time of radical change. And let me tell you, golden nuggets abound of kids telling it like it is and/or posing sticky questions that have yet to be answered.
I did a collaborative exercise with the students called, “Questions I’ve always wanted answers to,” and, in our discussion, students asked questions like the one at the beginning of this post: “When will the pandemic end?” Students posed their question to the virus directly: “I’d politely ask the virus to please go away.” These sentiments were obviously heartbreaking to hear; these students are far too young to live through something so existentially gripping as a global pandemic. But for me the real heartbreak was in how astutely they expressed the fatigue we all feel. In just a line, this first grader captures the exhausted feeling of: when will this just…end?
In our group poems, students asked the virus to please leave, or lamented how they want to go back to school. However, I believe students are absorbing more from this era than just the virus and pandemic itself. In discussions and in their poems, students expressed nuanced opinions and thoughts on topics such as class, fairness, justice, and on issues of money.
In response to the aforementioned, “Questions I’ve always wanted answers to,” a student enthusiastically offered, “Why isn’t everything free?” I smiled and said, “That is a very good question.” My quiet encouragement mattered little to her. She continued: “No seriously! No one’s been able to answer my question!” Who knows how long she’s been turning this predicament over—the question may have formed long before the pandemic; but I wonder if her desperation at finding a solution has grown in the last twelve months. She’s lived through a time of severe nationwide unemployment. This is a time when families are scraping by and waiting on may-or-may-not-materialize stimulus checks. Money and getting by has been as much a stress of this time as is avoiding the virus itself.
In one of our discussions the condition of being rich or poor came up. A student quickly interjected that we can’t just talk about rich and poor. This student essentially explained that class isn’t a dichotomy. She said, “There are people with all different backgrounds. There are people in between rich and poor. Middle class folks.” I was having a nuanced discussion of class with an eight-year-old! I pried more and asked what she thought it meant to be middle class. She responded, “Being secure.” Notice how she didn’t say “comfortable,” which is the much more polite (A.K.A vague) word I was taught as a kid. Security is a much more truthful gauge of economic status. Was this student attuned to just how many Americans are economically insecure? Interestingly, this student added that she was middle class. I was impressed she could identify her family’s economic status, but I was more impressed that she could describe class and the implications of it even though economic insecurity wasn’t her personal experience. I speculate that her opinions were perhaps coming from not just her home life, but from the collective, nationwide conversation on class.
Economic insecurity and the household were common threads in our discussion, and so was family. I like to think of family in terms of the biological as well as the non-biological when I’m in the classroom. In our discussions family can include figures like parent or guardians or friends. I recall the line, “Family: we love each other, but we also fight a lot and so sometimes it doesn’t feel like we love each other,” from one of our group poems. This line, boldly vulnerable, captures the deep devotion and love we have for our families, but also the exhaustion. Another, “We’ve been inside a lot, but I still love my family. I always will,” captures the intensely multifaceted nature of family. I’m apprehensive to say these poetic lines directly came out of the pandemic’s emotional tapestry; fighting, emotional distress in the home is, unfortunately, common--global pandemic or not. I do think it’s interesting that thus far I’ve mainly seen kids five to eight years old write positively about family (and if they do write negatively it’s usually extreme and we treat this as a cry for help). Never before have I seen such nuance in our younger friends’ writing about family.
These kids haven’t left the house to go to school for a year; parents are working from home; household members have been laid off and are at home. Everyone’s at home. The line, “We’ve been inside a lot, but I still love my family. I always will,” captures the strain the pandemic has put on families with, “we’ve been inside a lot.” Several things are going on in this one line: 1. We’ve all been in the same space. 2. We get annoyed at one another. 3. Us being in the same space is why we get annoyed at one another.
Children are aware of social nuance. They are aware of how the pandemic has affected their families, their community, and themselves. And these children aren’t just absorbing this epoch; they are processing--forming opinions on everything from interpersonal family relationships to questions of what “class” really means. “Who has it worse?” may be a pointless question to pin down. However, it is important to remember that even the youngest pandemic survivors are navigating these emotional waters. And importantly: they are the youngest generation. Their dazzling insight on the global COVID pandemic will be around the longest.
Group Poem “Questions I’ve Always Wanted Answered” from Erin Hines’ first and second grade class, Miles Exploratory Learning Center:
Why can’t I have donuts and watch T.V. for the rest of my life?
What things would someone see in Paris?
What do aliens do all day?
Who was the first person on Earth?
Why can’t I have a second dog?
Why are cats so cute?
Why does my dog bark at the wall?
When will the pandemic end?
I’d ask the virus, politely, to please go away.
Was the Earth a blank page at the very beginning? Why?
Why can’t I go to the beach?
Sophie Daws grow up in the Sonoran Desert and her poems revolve around labor, memory, and architecture -- all of which are explored in terms of nature/ecology and a feminine-queer aesthetic. Sophie received her B.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing in 2018 and holds a minor in Plant Sciences. She received the Hattie Lockett Award in 2018 and graduated with honors for her poetry manuscript and thesis, Snag.