One Year On in CoronAmerica (Part 1: Keeping It Together)

It was a year ago that I finally told my students that we were going to move our class online. Over the two weeks before March 10, student after student kept telling me about how they were worried, how they lived with parents or grandparents with comorbidities, how they themselves were scared for their own health. They wanted to know from me what to do. I had finally faced the reality of the situation. I was an idiot in February 2020, telling people that it wasn't any worse than a bad flu because I desperately wanted it to be that. Because I knew that if it wasn't, we were fucked, that a chunk of our short lives was about to be sliced out as a sacrifice to the coronavirus. And it wasn't just me - yeah, I had all kinds of things planned - it was the students. It was the kids of friends and in my family. I was and remain crushed by all that they have missed out on, by the stalled careers, the canceled life-affirming events like graduations, and more. But denial wasn't going to do anyone any good.

So I told my students that I was making the decision to go to remote learning. I'm also a chair of an academic department (yeah, I know, I'm as surprised as you are), and I had told my colleagues the same thing the night before, writing to them, "I see no reason not to respect the judgment of faculty who believe that their health may be at risk" when it comes to the decision to move online. By the end of the day March 11, the entire City University of New York, all two-dozen campuses, shut down, and the world became a new, alien place. 

On March 18, I wrote to my department, "I want to be realistic about things without being grim. But we're looking at this getting much worse before it gets better. There is a very good chance that at least some of us will get ill, if we aren't already, and there is a very good chance that at least some of our students will, too. You can add into that our loved ones and our students' loved ones. And we know that there is a chance that some will get very ill and even die." I asked them to practice a "pedagogy of compassion," where our empathy for the confusion and fear all of us were experiencing would guide our virtual classroom decisions. "If we're all in this together," I said, "then the more compassionate and forgiving we can be, the easier it will be for all of us when it's finally under control and we go back to whatever normal becomes. Hopefully." We thought it would be a few months until normal. Then a few more. And now a year. With more to come.

I've been fortunate in so many ways in this year. I have a job that I was never at risk of losing and could, with some adjustment, do from home. All my loved ones are fine. I personally know only one person who died of COVID; he was an elderly retired professor who was a lovely human being. I know many who got the virus, but all were fine with a few exceptions, including some who have symptoms that have lasted months. I went through a mild bout with the bastard but recovered quickly. I was never food insecure or threatened with eviction or bereft of medical care when I needed it. I don't believe in being blessed by an invisible sky wizard, but maybe there's a secular version.

Being a professor, I got an understanding of the suffering that so many families were enduring through students coming to me to tell me about their sick and dying relatives. For a period of time, at least once a week, a student had to miss class to go to the hospital to look after someone. More than a few did have to handle death near to them. Students got COVID, and it laid some of them out, making them unable to even come to a Zoom class. It was a snapshot of the pandemic in its worst months in New York City. They told me about lost jobs at restaurants and shops, or essential jobs, as EMTs or grocery store workers, where, frightened and worried, they did their best to keep society together for people who were just as frightened and worried. Many of my students are new teachers or teachers-in-training, and they found themselves thrown into a pedagogical world where their own young students' fears and frustrations were complicated by the Zoom distance. They found themselves acting as emotional support for young people. It made more than a few question their career choices. I tried to offer advice and comfort where I could, and maybe it helped for a moment or two, a salve for a pain that allows you to forget it for a little while until a twinge brings you back to reality.

This was the heart of my year in America during the coronavirus. CoronAmerica, if you will. Outside of personal relationships, this was what prevented me from falling into despair. The first couple of months, during lockdown, students clung to our Zoom classes as moments of attempted normalcy and of desperately-needed community. And so did I.

I don't know how I would have dealt with this past year without that because of the other overwhelming feeling, that of a burning rage that has never diminished in the last 12 months. More on that tomorrow.