By Mr. Adam Jewell, History and Social Sciences Department Head
A Year of Fear: Reflections on the Pandemics of Covid and Racism
The flash and noise of sirens, the rush of adrenaline and fear, constant fear, all-around you, rushing out the door, jumping in an ambulance, and racing off to the hospital, is scary, to say the least. In the winter of 2016 and 2017 and again in 2018 this was the norm for my family, my daughter, all of one year old, growing into being a toddler spent winters suffering from RSV to the point that going to the doctor’s office, would lead to a trip to the hospital, often the ICU, NICU when she was really young. As Covid began to overtake us, first through stories and conversations with advisees from China and South Korea, and then finally here at our doorstep, these fears that seemed to have disappeared as she got older came roaring back. We shut down our campus, public schools also closed, and the thought of even interacting with others became a daily fear, a fear that brought back the days of doctor’s visits and ambulance rides and the very legitimate fear that my daughter just could not breathe.
Juxtapose that with the reality of my black and brown friends, peers and students. Look around at the overwhelming fear of violence and even death that surrounds them. These did not start with George Floyd’s murder, nor did they start with my most visible memory of police violence from my life, that being Rodney King. Indeed, as an historian, the long, destructive impact of systemic racism, lynchings and chattel slavery are chilling realities of the African American experience I spent nearly thirty years of my life researching, learning, and talking about. Those words, “I can’t breathe” etched into our collective memory by Eric Garner and the very fact that my own daughter often could not breathe represent to me personally the twin pandemics we are faced with today: systemic racism and Covid.
For over a year those once divergent pandemics have come together to impact the world, this nation, our school and our students in myriad, destructive ways. For me, and my family, the two pandemics have created a year of fear, anxiety, uncertainty and often daily dread. It has been hard to teach effectively, parent effectively, advise effectively, live effectively. As vaccines arrived and my own guilt over basically cutting the line to get the two shots faded and schools reopened and doctors assured us that my daughter would be okay, my own fears subsided, my ability to function more effectively in my job and my life was and is returning. But what about the other pandemic? There is no vaccine we can take and get back to ‘normal.’ Indeed, getting back to normal is the opposite of what this nation and this school needs.
This question is the one that persists and still haunts me as a friend, peer and human being. Sure the fear for my daughter’s health is still there, but if I may be honest, she is a middle class white girl on a private school campus…my fears for her are nothing in comparison to my black and brown friends and peers’ daily life. Add to that the violence, racism and xenophobia toward the AAPI community, some of whom are advisees and students I deeply respect and adore. If I am confused, scared, anxious, I wonder what they must be experiencing. I can never know what it feels like to be anything other than a white middle-class male. I know that and I am surrounded by reminders of that in my daily life. I have known fear for my kids’ well-being, as all parents have, and I have seen that fear overcome me and my family over the last year.
However, as I can see over the horizon of the Covid pandemic, I can see beyond that fear. But what about my BIPOC and AAPI friends, peers, and students? Does one verdict bring anyone over a horizon to a different day? Surely not. Therefore as I settle back into my normal, I hope we as an institution and as a nation do not become lax in our comfort and forget that we are part of a community. A residential, educational community that rises and falls together and a nation that does the same (and yet all too often has practiced the opposite). I hope that as our classrooms fill up again and our masks come off we do not forget to continue our fight and indeed double, triple our efforts to unmask the horrors of systemic racism in our school and in our nation. In our classes we talk about race, racism, hatred, bigotry, xenophobia, but also ideas and ideals of freedom, equality, democracy, equity and justice. I know that the only vaccines for the former are life-long commitments to the pursuit of the latter. As we get back to normal, let us not forget that for many ‘normal’ is not something we should get back to and instead seek a new normal, an accountable, anti-racist new normal that finally creates a nation with true liberty and justice for all.
Mr. Adam Jewell is a faculty member at St. Mark’s School and the head of the History and Social Sciences Department.