By Dania Vázquez
I gathered my key staff in early March to have a conversation about what we would do if someone with Coronavirus were in the building. Someone said, “Why are you worried about this? This won’t happen.” Ten days later we had to be on lockdown.
March 16: I was rushing the kids in and out of the building, giving them computers and materials. I gathered the teachers and said, “Take your most important stuff, whatever you need. But I think we'll be back, at the latest after April vacation.” Little did we know what we were heading into, not just the uncertainty but the fear.
Time really rolled on, and we had to figure out how to do remote learning. What is that? We were literally building the plane while flying it. At the end of April, I decided to go in the building because I felt like I needed to be there.
I call the building “The Old Lady” because she's in her 50s and we take good care of her. In turn, she takes good care of us and our community. She holds us. And I think that's why I needed to check on everything and be there.
It was so quiet; it was me and a custodian in the building that day. The classrooms felt like “The Twilight Zone.” It was weird, there were still books on the table, stuff everywhere. It was like we were coming back in a few days, but we hadn’t. It was so quiet, cold and dark.
I remember sitting in a room and having flashbacks to my own youth. I grew up as a Latina, as a Puerto Rican, in Washington Heights in New York in the 60s and 70s in a working class family. There were many times that it was paycheck to paycheck. I had my fair share of struggling with my identity and discrimination early on in my life, but this pandemic blew all that out of the water. Whatever I experienced as a young person, my Latino community, my black and brown kids, they were experiencing something that was warp speed; it was just different.
A mother called and asked me for help activating a P-EBT Card. You need a double PhD to make that thing work and get through the bureaucracy. How are people who don’t speak the language supposed to get through that? It’s really infuriating. Another mom called me because she lost her job, she had Coronavirus, and she didn't know what to do because her son, who was my student, was in his room freaking out. That was heartbreaking and we had to together figure out what to do. There was another mother who was in her final term of pregnancy and didn't have food.
And we had phone calls from students who couldn’t believe graduation was not going to be in-person. No one was going to have a regular graduation, but for a Latino kid who is the first in their family to graduate, they are missing that marker, that big event. It was just painful.
My staff are heroes. Not only were they teaching, they also delivered Chromebooks, got food to families, and even figured out housing vouchers. We were doing everything to hold our community.
Then if the trauma of the pandemic wasn’t enough, we had to witness the murder of George Floyd. It challenged all of us to figure out how to hold the community in that moment—with these cascading emotions, in the multiple pandemics, and all through Zoom. It was really challenging, but we found the strength and the resilience to really hold each other, even if it was through a computer.
The fall was confusing: We’re starting, we’re not starting. One of my teachers was so fed up and said, “I need to go see this kid, I'm gonna wear a mask, a gown, and gloves, I swear to God, just let me go see him, I'll stand across the street.” We missed them so much.
Finally, in February high schoolers and certain kids were allowed to come back into the building. It was messy, complicated, and nerve-racking, but it was really joyful. By late March more kids were coming, and we were encouraging others to come, giving them confidence that it was safe.
One morning one of my boys, Emilio, was doing this very happy and jazzy merengue in the hallway. He was dancing all by himself. I asked him what he was doing and he said, “Miss, Miss. I'm waking up.”
I said, `”Yeah, you have pajama pants and a hoodie and chancletas on. Did you just roll out of bed?”
He said, “No Miss, you don't understand. I'm waking up. I've been at home for so long and haven't seen many people. Now I'm here and I feel like I'm waking up.”
That was precious. It inspired me to write a poem. It’s called “Getting Out of Zoom-bie Land.”
Getting Out of Zoom-bie Land
By Dania Vázquez
Like the zombie movies
The living come out
Into the sun
Ours has been a crazy
Real and weird
The vaccine spurs hope
As we each crawl out of
Our dark cocoons.
It’s been a slow trickle.
They walk in, hoodies up
Saggy pants, heads down.
So good to see you!
A grunt in return
Slow walk to the classroom
Hunched over staring at the screen
A few weeks pass
A few more join
Hoodies slowly come down
A smile appears under the mask
Long walks outside, lunch in the café
Seniors get to go to Happy!
A few more join
Six feet apart!
Tomas, you have a soccer ball?
A few more days pass
The third floor is coming to life
Sounds of voices
Someone zoom teaching
Startled by another who walks by
Water running in the bathroom
Someone opened the hall windows
Pull down the old bulletin boards
One made me cry
A relic of a year ago
New cheery colors
New schedules, new lists
Pods - a new zoom-bie vocabulary word
The Mother Ship is waking up
We are coming back
At least some
Zoom-bie land still has a grip
Maybe a little less
With each day passing
With each one walking
Through the doors
Smiles under the masks
Sounds in the hallways
The sun shining through
The colored windows
We are all waking up a little more
We have to do this together
Pulling each other up and out
It’s a slow crawl out of