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What's the Plus?

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Through Storytelling, Students Are Keeping Their Community Together

“Survival is insufficient.”

This short quote has been on my mind a lot lately. Originally from a Star Trek: Voyager episode, the phrase is an anthem of sorts for Emily St. John-Mandel’s post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven, where characters roam about a virus-destroyed world attempting to reclaim humanity through the power of storytelling.

I have to admit: It hits all the right notes for this high school English teacher.

Of course, the pandemic has brought it to my mind. Since schools closed in Illinois in March, I’ve struggled to cope with creating meaningful yet accessible assignments for my students. I’ve wrestled with wondering if they’re OK — especially the ones I have yet to hear from. And I’ve really started to feel the weight of just missing them.

Then, I got an email from a current student. Jenna is a junior in my Honors English 3 class, and she wrote to tell me about a shared document she started. “I remember what we talked about in English with the book The Things They Carried,” she said. “So now I have created a place where people can put their stories to relieve stress about coronavirus and see other’s stories.”

Who knew that our discussions back in February on the power of storytelling would be so timely? I clicked on Jenna’s link, and I was blown away by what I saw.

Here, more than on any formal assessment or state-required test, am I witness to the learning and growth of my students. As I scroll through story after story, I’m reminded again of that line from Station Eleven. Through storytelling, my students are refusing to let go of community in the midst of this pandemic. They are shouldering each others’ burdens. Why?

Because survival is insufficient.

What an emotional week. From 3rd quarter ending, to band student-leader stuff, to Schnucks remodeling (trust me that’s important stuff), and now a virus. I decided to spend my newfound freedom to rewatch all of Ducktales and work on my Scottish accent. It still sucks. … I hate staying indoors unable to see friends. I mean I just got my license after waiting like four months, and now I can’t go anywhere. I’ve been voice calling some, everyone seems to be just as bored and it turns out I’m not as good at entertaining myself as I first thought.

― Gannon, 16

On the last day of my vacation, I had a late flight. The airport was completely dead. It felt like I was in an alternate reality. I have not seen a place as dead as this airport. The security checkpoint was making sure we were six feet apart at all times while doing through. I had to get some caffeine so my natural instinct in an airport was to get Starbucks. I got my usual drink, and I headed to the other side of the airport. As I sat down, I used a Clorox wipe that I brought from Illinois on my seat. At my gate, there’s only a person per row unless it’s a family. Everyone was making sure they had the distance they needed and no one would sit next to them. It felt like you were the outcast at lunch trying to find a table to sit with. As I sat, the family on the opposite side of me kept looking at me. I would clear my throat and all of them would give me such a look. Everyone did. I began to get super anxious as I sat, trying to use music to drown out their stares.

― Madison, 17

When coronavirus first started happening, I never thought it would affect me. I saw things all over Snapchat and the news, but I never thought it would go this far. I heard it came into the USA but I still wasn’t concerned because Illinois is not close to the coast. Everyone was making jokes and things about it, so I wasn’t even worried about it. I thought it was just one of the phases people go through. Turns out, it is really real. It is affecting people around me. It became real when school got cancelled. We are not going back to school until who knows when. The date as of now is March 31st, but my mom says she doesn’t think we are going back. Colleges, churches, restaurants, and sports are shutting down. When I walk outside I don’t hear cars running or kids playing. Everyone is hiding away. In order to stay in touch with my friends, I have to video call. To have church, I video chat with my youth group. I never even thought something like this would happen. We are all stuck inside our homes.

― Jenna, 17

Knowing that I won’t be able to see [my friends] for a while really hurts. It might sound weird, but FaceTiming makes me feel worse because I can’t see them in person. Before it reached Bethalto, I was in some denial. I thought to myself, “There’s no way it’d come here, right? It won’t affect people I know, right?” Now, Bethalto has some possible cases of COVID-19, and I feel as if I should’ve eaten my words.

―Amelia, 17

You’ll find me staying inside: eating, sleeping, watching over my siblings while my parents risk themselves working outside in the fields. I’m grateful to have my parents not only help my siblings and I but others as well. I had my best friend over last night. It was the most fun I’ve had this week: She reminded me what joy I can make with literally doing nothing. … 2020 has been a long year so far, mostly because of the craziness and sadness that has hit me. It almost feels that the days get slower and slower, harder and harder to get through, but by the support of my friends, family, and those around me, I push through. We’re not even halfway through the year. I understand that this virus is very serious, but I’m worried about how the world is. We cannot control this virus as of now, but we can control how we react to it. This is why my best advice to myself and others is to be smart, prepared and more importantly, to stay calm.

―Guadalupe, 16

It’s my senior year, and everything is either being pushed back or cancelled, and I’m now stuck worrying about whether or not I will be able to walk the stage in a little under two months. When this all first started, I didn’t think it was going to be this big of a deal, but now that it has impacted our area, I am realizing just how much it is affecting. I have worked extremely hard since my freshman year for a solo in band, and I finally got one, along with a duet, and now I don’t know if we will even have a spring concert. Our cabaret concert for choir was supposed to be on March 30th, and that is definitely either cancelled or being pushed back. Prom has to be moved back until after May 1st, and of course, who knows how long we will have online schooling for. … Normally, I don’t pray, but for the past week, I’ve been praying that things will turn around and get better. So many people around me could be hurt far worse than I would be in the event of infection, and it breaks my heart to see them suffer. There are so many families that are losing family members over this virus, and it just seems to be getting worse.

―Kya, 18

Jacob Carlson teaches English at Civic Memorial High School in Bethalto, Illinois. He is a 2019–20 Teach Plus Illinois Rural Teacher Leader.

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