My eleven-year-old son, Nathan, a fifth grader, is doing his best to deal with changes the coronavirus pandemic has brought to his life. Before this time, Nathan’s biggest daily worries have been keeping his school papers organized and staying on top of his sometimes rigorous homework assignments. Nathan has ADHD, which poses certain challenges to his learning and behaviors, making some tasks that have many intermediary steps nearly intolerable for him. Nathan’s learning is complicated by the fact that, while it has always been apparent that his learning style was different, his teachers and family (including me) have not always had the skills or patience to see Nathan’s exceptional gifts and insights from Nathan’s own point of view.
While his ADHD is a challenge, Nathan has a more ominous, lurking, daily concern. Nathan has a life-threatening allergy that has made him keenly aware that every visit to a strange house, every meal at a restaurant, every bakery product, every school treat, every friend’s birthday party, and even touching a doorknob or library book could mean a painful and terrifying hospital experience. Since his allergy was first discovered, Nathan has been keenly aware of dust, germs, and particles. He washes his hands to a fault, both as a result of ADHD compulsive behaviors and his deep awareness of his vulnerability to invisible, yet deadly particle foes. Nathan’s allergies also give him extremely sensitive skin, predisposed to eczema, severe rashes, dryness, and splitting, so gloves, soaps, and sanitizers are at once necessities and risks to the largest organ in Nathan’s body.
As with many ADHD people, Nathan has exceptional qualities that are not limited to the challenges he faces. Nathan has a compassion that is deep and precocious. He is aware of people’s hurts, and he has the ability to sit with someone in a state of worry and confusion empathetically and without judgment. Nathan has a keen sense of humor and is easy to laugh and easy to forgive. Nathan prays with a genuine holiness in his spirit, and he makes sweet and charming works of art. He loves penguins and cats because they exude playfulness and poise. Nathan is a budding artist, with a strong, already established vision for an art studio of his own and an emergent visual style that promises only to improve with practice and time.
Nathan is trying harder than usual to keep his room clean, to stay on top of his school work, and to help out in the kitchen. He sometimes cries and says that he wishes that the school year were already over because it is so hard to do the online assignments for each class, each day, each week. His technology sometimes fails, and when the work isn’t uploaded properly he is doubly burdened by the technology as well as by the assignment. Nathan reports being “sad” sometimes, although he doesn’t have a specific thing he identifies as the cause. Nathan has insights on his work and readings that he shares with me, but he understands these are probably not what the teachers are looking for, so he usually keeps his more brilliant or witty thoughts to himself and writes reports about symmetry in nature and the economies of colonial settlements.
I watch Nathan, and I am aware that every child in this pandemic is pretty much in the same boat. Each is precious, vulnerable to illness, fearful of losing parents and siblings, perhaps aware of personal mortal risk, and dealing with individual needs and challenges. They see their parents worry about money; they hear talk of delayed stimulus payments and unemployment checks. They are powerless to change things that will make a lasting impact on their lives from this day forward. They are mostly unvoiced in any meaningful, public way. Every child who gets up, does his or her work, makes a bed, and maintains a decent attitude in this time is one of the unsung heroes of this world tragedy.
This is why, when political figures and television doctors speak carelessly about an increased 2-3% mortality rate, the urgency of rebooting the economy, and the “appetizing opportunity” that reopening schools represents as a means to normalizing our Covid-ridden world, I feel a rage and a fury that is nearly boundless. Every child out there is someone’s Nathan. He happens to be mine. The language of numbers and percentages simply cannot be allowed to slip into our public consciousness innocuously. Whether we are speaking of the elderly, the immune-deficient, the healthy adult, or the preschooler, there can be no admittance of policy or practice that reduces the unique, irreplaceable human life to a percentage of acceptable casualties.
I have two sons. The reason I focused on Nathan in this essay is that he said something profound, as he often does in his uniquely perceptive and artful way. We were discussing a phrase that I have been reading in the news recently that marks the tipping point of this virus, after which life can return to some semblance of normalcy. The phrase is “herd immunity,” which can only be achieved through mass exposures or immunizations. Some thought leaders are supportive of achieving herd immunity through mass exposures, even knowing there will be a grave cost to lives and families. I am unspeakably appalled by the dehumanizing language of “herd,” which conjures for me images of zebras and wildebeests leaping fearfully and ineptly from the jaws of predators. Friends, this cannot be an acceptable metaphor or an admissible language for us to use. And, if “herd immunity” is the appropriate language to virologists and epidemiologists, scientists and strategists, I humbly yet ardently submit that we need a paradigm shift in language and vision.
I was speaking with Nathan about this idea of “herd Immunity” one night when he was having trouble sleeping. As he lay in his bed, we discussed what it would mean for things to get back to something recognizable. When I used the word “herd,” Nathan said, “but, we’re not a herd. We’re people. Shouldn’t we be saying ‘community immunity’?” Nathan was absolutely right.
It is our obligation to every child who is learning from home, every child who has lost a parent or caregiver, every child who is forgoing a normal senior year in high school, every child who will be forever imprinted by their youth in what was a miserably handled, politicized, and possibly avoidable pandemic, and especially to the memory of every child who has died, to remember that we are not a herd but a community. We have already saddled children with national debt, pollution, a dysfunctional healthcare system, and a nakedly fragile, globally damaged economy. Let us aspire to what is most noble in our humanity in our words and especially in our deeds. For, it is our refusal to sacrifice the weak, the injured, the young, and the elderly that will make us worthy to start again.
(To see Nathan’s artwork, visit https://inkspillstudio.com)
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie’s most recent book is Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.