Complete isolation is a hard pill for an 18-year-old to swallow. “I was ill until proven healthy,” writes Maia Siegel about being in quarantine, sequestered alone in her bedroom for many days during the coronavirus pandemic.
Siegel shared her feelings about this in a poem she submitted to “Dispatches from Quarantine: Young People on Covid-19,” an ongoing project launched a year ago to collect and archive writing and other creative work by teenagers from around the US and throughout the world.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life for everyone, but it has taken a particular toll on teenagers, whose routines have been disrupted at a key stage of development.
“Dispatches” founder, author and educator Alexandra Zapruder, recognized adolescents’ distress and moved quickly in spring 2020 to give them an outlet for expressing their thoughts and feelings about life during the pandemic.
She was inspired to act based on her knowledge of how another devastating historical event — the Holocaust — affected the lives of adolescents and young adults. Zapruder’s 2002 award-winning book, “Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust,” preserves young writers’ reportage of their lives in ghettos, in hiding, on the run as refugees. These diaries provide accounts of daily life, and also the insights and feelings of the children and teens who penned them.
Zapruder also curated a permanent exhibition at Holocaust Museum Houston titled, “And Still I Write: Young Diarists on War and Genocide,” which opened in 2019.
In speaking with The Times of Israel from her home in Washington, DC, Zapruder emphasized that her intent was not to directly compare the pandemic to the Holocaust, but rather to show young people that they have a meaningful contribution to make to the historical record; what they write about their own lives informs how we understand collective life.
“Young people are open to nuances that we as adults might miss. They have their own senses of humor, insights, and culture. Their belief structures are still developing,” Zapruder said.
The author partnered with the Educators’ Institute for Human Rights, which involves networks of teachers around the US and in countries such a Rwanda, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia and Argentina. These connections were key to helping get the word out and invite students to participate in “Dispatches.”
EIHR executive educator Kate English and others at the NGO assisted Zapruder in devising creative prompts for young people ages 13 to 25 (most respondents were high school students). Each of the six thematic prompts was supported by a quote from the diary of a young person living through a 20th or 21st century conflict.
“To help teens understand the significance of their own observations on daily life, we decided to show them historical examples. We wanted them to see themselves on a historical continuum,” Zapruder said.
One prompt is based on a 2004 blog entry by a 15-year-old Iraqi girl documenting her family’s experience living under American occupation in Mosul. A second is a drawing from a diary by a teenager imprisoned in an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. Another quote is from a young man in ISIS-controlled Raqqa, Syria, who sent encrypted diary entries written on his phone to an activist outside the country, who in turn passed them on to a BBC reporter.
Three of the prompts are from diaries of young Jews during the Holocaust: An anonymous boy in the Łódź Ghetto, 15-year-old Yitskhok Rudashevski in the Vilna ghetto, and 17-year-old Alice Ehrmann imprisoned at Terezín.
Many submissions were prose or poetry, but a good number were examples of visual or multimedia art. All forms of expression were encouraged.
English said she was grateful for the diversity of voices in “Dispatches,” but said the project laid bare the inequalities exposed by Covid. For instance, many (especially American) students were assigned participation in “Dispatches” as a mandatory class assignment.
“The most vulnerable kids are not showing up to Zoom classes,” she said.
Even the students who had to submit something for class credit saw the benefit of reflecting on their lives during Covid.
“The isolation and depression associated with the lockdown completely destroyed any motivation I might have had beforehand to journal my life… [But] I was so eager to write for this project… People like talking about themselves, especially when they know others are listening. I think the need to process everything was there as well; I just needed the push to start doing it,” said Jack Trapanick, a 17-year-old 11th grader from Boston.
Trapanick wrote about how the pandemic led him to think about philosophical questions, and to appreciate the unprecedented amounts of family time that resulted from being stuck at home.
Siegel’s submission, like those of Kylie Masser and Shira Declau, was highly accomplished and poetic in nature. All three used language in a sophisticated manner, employing vivid metaphors and strong emotions about the difficulties of living through a period of fear, illness and death.
Siegel, who arrived home to New York from her boarding school in Michigan at the outbreak of the pandemic in the US in March 2020, wrote about the effects of her quarantine not only on her, but also her parents. Siegel came home sick, sure it was only the flu. However, with Covid tests not widely available yet, she had to isolate in her room early in the pandemic, when there was much uncertainty about the novel coronavirus.
“I was interested in writing about being in quarantine as a young person, and how parents become the gatekeepers of your loneliness, in a way, but also your health,” Siegel said.
Siegel, 18, made a point of writing a poem each day of her quarantine, “because I wanted a record that these days had existed, that I had existed, even though I was not a part of the outside world.”
Declau, an eighth grader at a Seattle Jewish day school, said she recognized the importance of capturing and sharing youths’ unique reflections of pandemic life.
“I believe young people face more difficulty and change in their lives because of Covid-19. The first 20 years of life are critical times of self-development and expression. By limiting experiences and decisions that young people can make, a part of that process is taken away,” Declau said.
Trapanick, whose Holocaust studies school trip to Eastern Europe to visit concentration camps was canceled, agreed.
“We’re coming of age in [Covid]. Childhood and adolescence are short and fleeting; one year to any human under 18 can feel like forever. So while for adults this will still leave an indelible impact… it’s nothing compared to having your senior year in high school ruined, or a whole year of middle school or elementary school ruined, because you’re still developing as a human being, and you’re changing much faster than an adult,” he said.
Only a few young people responded more than once to “Dispatches,” which has encouraged Zapruder to think of ways to strengthen and expand the project.
Submissions continue to be welcomed, and all of them will be saved in the project’s archive (the online gallery of 39 submissions represents just a sample of the 300 that have come in thus far). Next, Zapruder hopes to launch a pilot project whereby a select cohort of 15-20 teens will be mentored in ongoing documentation of their lives.
Zapruder would like to see the sustained practice of diary writing that regain the popularity that it once had, but that may be an uphill battle in a social media-centered culture.
Sixteen-year-old Masser from Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania admitted that although she likes writing, keeping a diary is not something that she has been able to stick with. She’s far from alone among her cohort, which uses social media apps to record their words and actions.
“It’s true that, in some ways, kids are more seen and have more of a voice than ever before through social media. But this form is mostly outward-facing and performative. It’s about presenting an image to the world,” Zapruder said.
“I see this project, and journal-keeping in general, as a much-need corrective to that aspect of prevailing culture for this generation… Best of all, diary writing is an entirely democratic form. Anyone can do it. Every perspective brings something of value,” she added.
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