Thursday, March 26, 2020

We Can Help Children Heal Through the Stories We Tell

I went for a long walk yesterday, past Seattle Center to the Olympic Sculpture Park, then along the waterfront as far as Pioneer Square where I hairpined back along 1st Avenue to Pike Place Market, before turning up Pike Street, to Westlake Center, then back home to South Lake Union. On a normally sunny spring afternoon, all of those places would have been thronged with people, but for obvious reasons they weren't.

There were people out, the solo pedestrians all spaced six feet apart, but there were family "pods" walking in groups, still maintaining a distance from others. The only people who didn't seem to be following the protocol were some of the mentally ill street people. Every conversation I overheard was about some aspect of the pandemic. People were sharing information, opinions, a speculation. They were ranting about politicians, sharing their fears, or expressing their fearlessness. There were people in masks and gloves. Indeed, for the first time since 9/11 at least, everyone seemed to share a one-track mind. No one was distracted. We were all focused on this moment and this crisis.

And then it hit me: this is what it looks like when it's all-hands on deck. Unlike 9/11 when we the people were rendered fairly helpless, left to our worries and prayers, this crisis is something about which each of us must do something, and from my perspective isolating here in downtown Seattle, it seems that everyone is taking action. 

It wasn't that long ago in human history that a virus like Covid-19 would pass through populations unchecked. We had no way of seeing it coming and very little ability to do anything about it even if we did. The first news reports I heard about this coronavirus were in mid-January. I recall it well because I was staying in a bed and breakfast in Keri Keri New Zealand and my host liked to listen to radio news as he fried my eggs. We had a brief discussion about it. He wondered if I should cancel my trip back home, but I dismissed it, boasting about my robust preschool teacher immune system. Besides, this wasn't the first time I'd heard about deadly diseases in other parts of the world. I wasn't worried.

By mid-February, it seemed like everyone had heard of it. Experts and early-adopters were warning us that the US "isn't ready," that we needed to start taking action right away, but most of us were still not prepared to take action. Or maybe more to the point, we were prepared to take action, but weren't quite clear what that action should be. Would it be enough to simply be more cautious: washing our hands more often, coughing into our sleeves, staying away from people who looked unwell. The warning voices were growing louder, there were more of them, and their advice seemed to be coalescing around this idea of "social distancing," of staying home form work, of closing the schools. For many of us, that still seemed extreme, but it was getting hard to ignore.

And then we reached a tipping point, at least here in our state. We went into the lockdown we are living under today. It seems to have taken us a long time to get it, but looking back I'm honestly rather impressed by what we've done in a relatively short time. In about two months, we more or less formed a global consensus about how we as a species were going to fight back and as I walked about yesterday I saw, at least in my corner of the world, how remarkable humans can be.

A virus in China mutated in a way that allowed it to not just infect humans, but be transmitted from human-to-human, easily, mutating continually as viruses do, killing some of the host bodies in the process. Our species, Homo sapiens, identified this novel threat, one against which we have no natural immunity. Or rather, our usual defensive method of contracting an illness, then allowing our immune systems to figure out how to fight it, was inadequate. We did the math, as a species, and didn't like where this was going, so we, collectively, through rapid communication, both mass and person-to-person, through argument and negotiation, have come to an agreement about how we are, again as a species, going to mutate to combat this. At least that's how I'd be looking at it if I were a space alien sent to study the lifeforms of Earth. I can hear Marlin Perkins enthusing about the remarkable and rapid adaptation of the Homo sapiens to the threat posed by this coronavirus in this ongoing "dance of survival."

As I walked the quiet, well-spaced sidewalks of downtown Seattle, I, like everyone else, was thinking about this virus, but I was also thinking about us. One of our biggest adaptive advantages from an evolutionary perspective is our incredible ability to communicate and cooperate. It's not always pretty. There are many useless or even destructive mutations along the way. And, of course, we still might fail if we can't reach some sort of consensus on things like climate change, but we are uniquely adaptable because of this ability to cooperate in large numbers and over vast distances.

There are weeks and months ahead of us. There are still many debates to be had, minds to be changed, and behaviors to be modified. And yes, there are still people who will get sick and die, but as that alien Marlin Perkins would likely point out, neither species, Homo sapiens nor the coronavirus, will wipe out the other, but rather we will end up finding some sort of balance as the novelty of the virus wears off and our immune systems add combating this virus to our repertoire.

We are saving lives by working together like this to slow the spread of this virus. As I mentioned in a previous post, we will emerge from this as heroes, bruised and bloodied perhaps, but that's usually how heroes emerge from battle. We are defending our species by working together.

I'm sharing this perspective this morning because it gives me some comfort. Indeed, it even fills me with awe and wonder, inspiring me to think what Homo sapiens can do because of our incredible ability to cooperate. People have been asking me for advice on how to talk to our children about this, how we can help them "heal" when this is all over. More importantly, I think, is that we think about healing ourselves, because for most preschoolers, this time at home with the family is a win. It is we adults who need to find a way to overcome our fears, anger, and sadness so that it doesn't damage our selves or our children. It all comes down to the stories we tell. In the aftermath of 9/11 we healed ourselves in part by sharing stories of the heroes. In this crisis, we are all the heroes. When I tell the story of now, I will talk about how we have all come together by staying six feet apart, about how we fought and agreed our way into cooperation, and how we will come out in the end, like our own immune systems, stronger than before. We will all come out of this with scars, but it will be narratives like this that will help us all heal as we re-build the way heroes do.


And now, another in my series of short videos for parents who find themselves suddenly homeschooling their preschoolers. I'm making these videos for parents. If you're a teacher, please feel free to share it with the parents of the children you teach. If you want to watch all of my tips videos, look at the bottom of previous posts here on the blog, or visit the Teacher Tom TV YouTube channel:

I hate to do this, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've just had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 6 months. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the donation button below. 

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