Historians in Lockdown: The Covid Diary of Dr Miranda Sachs

Dr Miranda Sachs is

Miranda Sachs is Visiting Assistant Professor in History, Denison University, Granville, Ohio.

Note: I wrote this COVID diary over a week ago before the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the many days of nationwide protests. For multiple days, there have been protests in my city. Over the weekend, I found out via an alert on my phone that the authorities had imposed a curfew. I encourage others to continue following the coverage of these events.  

A short-lived quarantine card project

Lately, I’ve noticed that people have stopped making eye contact on the street. Passing another person on the sidewalk, we both strain for the furthest edge of the pavement, both willing the six feet that just isn’t there. Somehow, looking down or away lets us believe that we’re far enough apart. 

For my partner and I, our daily walk has become one of the cornerstones of our lockdown routine. Over the last two months, we’ve developed a clear quarantine schedule. Work, lunch, work, walk, dinner, movie, repeat. I recognize that we are privileged in many ways—we can work from home, we both have jobs, our time is our own. However, as a thirty-something, it’s striking to realize that my once frenetic lifestyle has morphed into my grandparents’. They too spent the day worrying about whether the sun would come out and allow them to take a walk. They too treated themselves to a movie each night. They too occupied a limited space in the city where they lived. 

In mid-March, once my university in Ohio closed for Spring Break, I threw everything I might need for the foreseeable future into my car. I drove ten hours over the mountains to the East Coast to join my partner, who was finishing up his PhD. I had a vague fear that the state borders might close suddenly, although that has not happened. For six weeks, we lived and taught in a one-room studio. One side of the room (the one with the better backdrop) was for teaching, one side for writing. We’d swap places over the course of the day. Once he finished his doctorate, we did the trek again back to the Midwest. 

Since we’ve spent quarantine in two places, we’ve had a chance to observe how people in different regions of the US are approaching quarantine. In Connecticut, we were two hours away from New York City. People willingly waited in line to get into the supermarket and many businesses were closed. And yet, only a third of the people we encountered on the street had on masks. As the weather got warmer in May, we increasingly saw larger groups out together—multiple couples sharing a walk, groups of friends playing tennis. 

Returning to the Midwest, we’ve found that almost no one in our neighborhood wears a mask. When bars first opened their terraces, one near us was so crowded that it made the national news. We live near a large public university with a giant campus. The university also has many fraternities and sororities who occupy giant houses emblazoned with Greek letters. The one time we ventured in that direction, we discovered groups of students having parties outside on their lawns. 

In addition to the opportunity to visit Animal House, another thing that distinguishes the US is its size. For me, one of the highlights of this time has been connecting with so many friends. My nearest and dearest are scattered amongst six or seven different time zones, making staying in touch challenging under normal circumstances. In the empty time quarantine has opened up, I’ve had a chance to connect via happy hours or game nights with these far-flung friends. Although it may soon be possible to catch up with friends locally, I’m not sure when I’ll see friends and family who are further away. My family is a long plane ride away in California. The idea of getting on a plane now is unfathomable, but so too is a thirty-six-hour drive. 

Bison in the Midwest

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As a historian of childhood, the present moment has gotten me thinking about what it means to be a child or a youth in exceptional times. COVID and the ensuing lockdown have transformed so many of the basic structures that define modern childhood. Major milestones that until now seemed necessary, like prom and graduations, are gone or unrecognizable. But so too are the more quotidian parts of childhood—playdates, slumber parties, outings to the mall. At the same time, COVID has mostly spared children. Usually we think of children’s bodies being more vulnerable, but their relative immunity has flipped the script.   

As with a number of the other contributors, the World Wars have also influenced how I view the present moment. In particular, as I prepared to transfer my courses online, I thought about a section in Tara Zahra’s book The Lost Children about the Theresienstadt Ghetto. In spite of the horrors the Jews at Theresienstadt faced, they managed to operate classes for young people. By giving children this one routine, adults could cling to this one shred of normalcy. Living in a ghetto during World War II is in many ways not comparable to our present. But I do think my doggedness to keep some routine going for my students or the efforts by so many primary school teachers to continue providing content for their students comes from a similar impulse. 

Towards the end of the semester, I asked the students in my “Global Teenager” seminar if they thought adolescence could still exist in extraordinary times. Many of them talked about how the normal changes in exceptional times or how the abnormal becomes a new normal. Given that the goal of the class was to get them thinking about how the meaning of age categories vary depending on time and place, I was pleased and impressed. But then one mentioned how her brother was sneaking out to meet with friends. Another started talking about missing out on graduation. Even if they can grasp that adolescence isn’t a fixed experience, they haven’t fully adjusted to this new version. 

The view from our studio

But this particular moment in time has also laid bare the very real inequalities that exist within childhood. My own research is about the differences within the seemingly universal experience of childhood (in Third Republic France). Childhood is a privilege and COVID has reminded us that this privilege is not universally accessible.  Some of my students have to work essential jobs during the shutdown, others are home bored. Some kids have access to their own iPads and are interacting regularly with their teachers. A friend who teaches first grade in an urban public school rarely has more than five students come to class. When we one day face the sortie du COVID, I hope that we do recognize the variations in children’s experiences of this time. This period of crisis will only accentuate the gaps within childhood that exist even in normal times. 

NOTE:  I wrote this COVID diary over a week ago before the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the many days of nationwide protests. For multiple days, there have been protests in my city. Over the weekend, I found out via an alert on my phone that the authorities had imposed a curfew. I encourage others to continue following the coverage of these events.  

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