About once a year since the pandemic began,1 I’ve had my students write poems where they get to talk directly to covid. One time we did character building exercises first, so they had an imaginative sense of who they are talking to. Other times we’ve played Essences first (more on that in a second), and used the images that game generates to make something as abstract as a virus feel tangible. Their poems are wonderful, vivid, and full of humor, anger, and beauty.
Earlier this month, I decided it was time to check back in with old Covid-19, who according to one young source is also known as Brian.
It was interesting to me how the poems (and stories) shifted from earlier years. There were several covid interviews conducted over zoom, with lots of humor around passwords, mute buttons, and how Covid’s2 mom needed to make them a snack. In many of the poems, Covid was lonely, and wanted to be friends. Several students asked Covid about why they had caused the pandemic, and the answers were less villainous than in previous years (though there were definitely poems where Covid expressed maliciousness as well). In two students’ poems, Covid said that they were trying to save the earth from human-caused destruction, or to balance our excesses. Why do you affect the lungs? one of those poems asked, and Covid answered that it was because we hurt the atmosphere with our carbon emissions. That answer struck the poet and ecologist in me as eerily deep.
In general, a great amount of fear had left the poems. Covid was less often a monster than previously. Even in the poem where Covid tells the poet they are there to kill him, the poet just says no, and Covid goes away. The students were no longer wrapping their minds around the appearance of something new and frightening.
Why do the same exercise over and over?
For many reasons: because things shift. Because it is a chance to dip into something students engaged in intellectually again, to develop thoughts they had earlier. Because a year is a long time in a child’s development. Because if the exercise is worth doing, it will be different each time.
But another reason is that the very repetition is satisfying. Kids love traditions. They love going to the same restaurants and camping spots over and over, reading the same books over and over.3 I repeat a lot of prompts in my classes, mixed in with new things, and even though some of my students take my class for five, six, seven years, it’s rare for a student to not be excited to repeat a prompt they did before. Sometimes they need help — or permission — to take it in a new direction. Sometimes they just launch in with all the confidence of a seasoned pro. Sometimes they dig deeper, having used up the obvious path the year before. Maybe I’m just not seeing their poems from different years side by side, but I don’t recall many instances where kids just write the same thing over and over. They are different, so the prompt is different, but still comforting in its surface familiarity.
And what is this prompt? Can you repeat it please?
Write a poem or scene where you get to talk directly to covid.4 You can ask them and tell them anything you want. They can talk back if you want them to.
Imagine as you speak to them that covid has a personality. What do they look like? What do they want? What do they say? What do they do?
If you want, you can have any protections in place to make this conversation feel comfortable, whether you have it over zoom, six feet away and masked, or with your best teddy bear beside you. You get to choose.
And what is that Essences thing you were talking about?
Essences is one of my favorite talking games. I learned it on Sierra Institute, a backpacking field studies quarter I did in college and have loved it ever since.
One person thinks of someone else in the group. Then everyone asks questions about the mystery person’s essence, which the thinking person answers:
If they were a tree, what kind of tree would they be? A big leaf maple.
If they were a vehicle, what kind of vehicle would they be? A minivan.
If they were a dance move, what dance move would they be? The jitterbug.
Note that it isn’t what kind of tree the person likes, or what kind of car they drive or dance they like to do, but the answers that best fit their essence. Soon, a description in images forms. Eventually, people try to guess who is being described.
For our covid poems, we played backwards. Everyone thought of covid, and I asked a list of questions, and they thought of answers that fit covid, ending with a description of covid in images and metaphor. Then we used those to help inspire our poems.
How’s that for a horrific phrase?
Covid gets to be a proper noun, since it’s personified here.
And over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over….
Also fun getting to talk to other beings — animals, trees, even the sun.