Poetry in the time of coronavirus

Here’s what happened in my 2nd-grade classroom as COVID-19 became a pandemic

5 minute read
What are you afraid of? Has it changed in recent days? (Photo by Sasha Hochman.)
What are you afraid of? Has it changed in recent days? (Photo by Sasha Hochman.)

On Monday, March 9, two days before the World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a pandemic, the principal waits outside her K-5 public elementary school, smiling beatifically and greeting students with hugs. I get one, too; I’ve known her for almost two decades, ever since I started visiting this New Jersey school each spring as a writer-in-residence.

When I ask about coronavirus, she is insouciant. “We’re not closing. There are no cases in the county. The kids need to be here.”

Elementary metaphors

And here they are: three classes of squirrelly second-graders standing in lopsided circles. For the next five days, I tell them, you’re going to look at the world through your “poet’s eye.”

We try it. Rain is not rain, one writes. It is a bear banging on the window. The sun is a copper penny, a soccer ball rolling onto the moon, a bowl of chips. I walk around, peeking over shoulders, keeping my distance from the sneezing girl in the flower-sprigged jumpsuit, willing myself not to touch my face.

And then I stop, because someone has written, “The stars are not stars. They are the dogs of dawn getting led to the good parts of your heart.”

How long can a virus live on a piece of paper? I ask permission from the writer—a shy, brown-haired boy—then I lift the sheet from his desk and read that line to the entire class.

Mindful moments

By Wednesday, the principal stops hugging. She starts each morning with a “mindful moment” on the public address system, urging everyone to “settle your body and close your eyes.” I dash to the bathroom during the Pledge of Allegiance, but I pause, for real, during the mindful moment. I feel my heart rate slow from its the top-of-the-news-hour canter. I stand in the conference room, eyes closed. I wait for the chime.

Back in the classroom, the kids add line breaks, goof with metaphors, and go shopping on “Alliteration Avenue,” where you can buy slithery snakes and cold cucumbers, but never pinto beans.

What is the taste of yellow? What is the feeling of green? What sounds live inside you? What’s going on with the girl who eats her school-provided French toast nuggets in the classroom, then sinks her head onto her folded arms? On Tuesday, the teacher gestures for me to leave the child alone. But the next day, after breakfast and a brisk antiseptic swabbing of her desk, she writes, “Inside me is my grandma humming her favorite song.”

A lyrical virus

While driving to school, I listen obsessively to public radio, the spreading vocabulary of disease. Aerosolized transmission. Abundance of caution. Social distancing. High-touch. Even the generic name for COVID-19, “novel coronavirus,” has a lyrical ring. A bug with kingly aspirations. Little germ with an outsized ego. I could make a found poem from the e-mails pinging into my box:

Out of concern
wash your hands
for the continued health and safety
for at least 20 seconds
of our audiences, artists and staff,
wet, lather, rub, rinse, dry
we will be suspending
sneeze into your sleeve
all public programming
stay home if you are unwell
for 31 days.
Do not panic.
We will keep you

Each morning, a new restriction. The barista at Starbucks can no longer touch my personal mug. Theaters and museums close, and my 19-year-old daughter will finish her first year of college from the couch. What will these next months look like? How will we stay connected? My partner shows me a video from Italy, an entire country on quarantine. A narrow, crooked street. People singing out their windows.

Back to class

The second-graders tug me back to this moment, this place. There is a girl whose every poem includes the words “oof-oof-oof.” Another who writes, “Blue is the sound of hand sanitizer.” They follow me around the room, holding their writing out like alms.

On Day 3, I lose 10 minutes of teaching time while the kids wash hands before lunch: they lather up at the single classroom sink, then form a new line to rinse and dry. Some mold the antibacterial foam into cotton-candy peaks.

On Day 4, they write about what scares them. Twenty students, and not a whisper about coronavirus. They are frightened of one-eyed monsters and Voldemort, of trees and porcupines, of going into the ocean. Four say they are scared of the dark. One writes, “I’m afraid of losing my friends family and teachers.” Maybe that is about coronavirus after all.

What will they remember?

I learn there will be no Day 5. The district calls an emergency in-service session so teachers can prepare for online learning. How will that work, I wonder, in a place where, for some, no school means no breakfast, no lunch, no access to the nurse? What about the kids whose homes lack Wi-Fi, or laptops, or adults who can afford to stay away from work?

Will there still be mindful moments? How will they learn, so far apart—these kids whose “ahas” come at close range: me kneeling by a desk, questioning and coaxing, our faces bent over a penciled sheet of paper.

We have 10 more minutes. I gather them into one final circle and recite a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye that ends, “There is a place to stand/where you can see so many lights/you forget you are one of them.” What I hope, I tell the kids, is that you won’t forget. That you will stay awake in the world, notice everything, then write it down. Words are not a cure—for coronavirus or anything else. But they can be a balm; they are connective tissue, especially at a time when we can’t touch.

They wiggle, they poke each other, and the girl in the jumpsuit sneezes, forgetting once again to use her sleeve. What will they remember from this week? What will I never forget? The dogs of dawn. The child whose grandmother hums inside her. The one who wrote, “I remember when it was summer for the first time for me.”

As I leave the room, I pump a glug of hand sanitizer. It sounds blue.

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