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Saturday, March 2, 2024

News at 11: Kid Reporters Tackle the Coronavirus

The day after San Francisco closed its schools, I noticed right away two children in my house. They were my children, I observed—not off getting educated but here in my living room, eating cereal, occasionally looking up at me. Texts from friends suggested similar situations all around town. Once in a while a stray bit of clarity drifts in, and on that morning, March 16, four days into what was officially but still only distantly a national emergency, I saw that 56 million children across the country were about to lose their minds.

I'm not talking about the intense boredom and unease their new isolation would unleash. Anyone half paying attention had seen that problem coming. What concerned me were the 7,000 other things going on inside our children, the complex internal rearrangements we wouldn't begin to comprehend, let alone address, for years. Hell, we have no idea what's happening in ourselves these days.


But adults have whiskey and teletherapy for managing our feelings. Most kids can't manage a can of chicken soup. What's more, they're emotional ciphers. As a parent, you do your best to get out in front of any trauma they're experiencing, but you have limited access to their inner worlds. Even in the absence of a global pandemic, a sideways glimpse is often the best you can hope for. Your kid talks about Minecraft and burping contests all day, and only in bed that night do you realize she was processing some awful thing someone mentioned about the Holocaust.

On the afternoon of March 16, as my son and daughter ate lunch, I dashed off an email to a handful of friends and neighbors with school-age children. Might their kids consider jotting down some impressions? A journalist with a slew of postponed assignments, I was now directing the impulse elsewhere. The internet was overflowing with news of the global variety: prospects for a vaccine, testing shortages, government ineptitude. I wanted to know what was happening locally—on kids' blocks, in their homes, in their heads.

I was starting the country's first local coronavirus newspaper by and for children, my email announced, to myself as much as them. It was early enough in the pandemic that such assertions were likely true; if you wanted to start the first coronavirus hedgehog club, the claim was yours to make. Kids would name the paper, and they could write about their experiences however they saw fit. My editorial policy would be yes.

In less desperate times, one of those parents might've asked whether I'd ever done this before, whether I even knew how to make a website. (No and no.) But sudden homeschooling is the mother of acquiescence, and everyone promised to pass along my invitation.

Our neighborhood, Bernal Heights, is a quirky little zone. Situated just south of the Mission, its working class and bohemian roots remain, though gentrification walloped us good; our main drag features both old-school nail salons and fancy artisanal shops. We're squarely within city limits, but a small-town vibe runs through the place: The manager of the local grocery sits in a dunk tank at our annual fiesta, and kids wander freely, from the playground to the library to the enormous grassy hill rising up over the southeast side of San Francisco. And now those kids were locked indoors, wondering what they were missing outside, forming impressions about life inside. I figured I'd receive at least half a dozen haiku about Purell.


I awoke the next day to a torrent. My call for submissions had made the rounds, and then other rounds. Here was a local 8-year-old's description of lockdown from a cat's perspective, and a 6-year-old's proposal for a social-distance-enforcing Hula-Hoop. A teenage data journalist created a map of Bernal's struggling restaurants, complete with status and new hours. A 9-year-old wrote about going on a grocery run with his dad and seeing masks on so many faces. His piano lessons kept getting canceled, and he was afraid some grandparents might die. “I don't know what the coming weeks will be like,” he wrote.

A handful of non-Bernal kids sent in submissions, too, so immediately a robust Foreign Correspondents section was born. An 11-year-old wrote about being trapped with her family in Tahoe. She reported that her daily routine was getting dreary (“the same boring eight boring hours of the same old thing”), but at least there were breaks for going outside and making snowmen. On Google Hangouts, all her friends said the same thing: “I want 2 go back 2 school.”

The contributors suggested names for the paper, which I then put to a vote. In a disillusioning blow to my 7-year-old, Bernal Butts was narrowly defeated by Six Feet of Separation. I worked with the kids on their pieces, marshaled my nonexistent layout skills, and frantically Googled cheap publishing software, ultimately settling on a godless app presumably designed in the 1940s. You could flip through our digital newspaper like it was the real thing, even if the pagination feature sometimes spit out a few extra page 6's.

All the while new submissions rolled in. They were earnest and sharp, sweet and raw, and often wildly unrelated to the pandemic at hand. Neither of the two reviews of The Good Place quite touched on the virus, nor did an 8-year-old's refreshing critique of the Terminator film franchise (“most of the actors are British people, and I like that”). The pieces were human, in other words, and within three days I had more than enough material for our first 29-page issue. Clearly the kids had found a dollop of diversion in these strange times, but it wasn't just that. A world was beginning to take shape in my inbox.

How will historians make sense of this time? How will they unpack even a single day? When they look back on March 16, they may note that it had been just over 10 weeks since Chinese health authorities shuttered the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, a purported source of the outbreak; that Britain had yet to institute a shelter-in-place policy; that the Tokyo Olympics were still on the table; that fewer than 90 people had died in the United States.

Or they might assess the day on a more local scale: Shuffling around the house was strange and new. Americans streamed 156 billion minutes of fear-numbing entertainment that week, more than twice the figure from a year earlier. US alcohol sales rose 55 percent. We baked banana bread by the pallet, and “flattening the curve” was an interesting new idea.

Or they could consider the day via Ava, age 10. “It all started when my mom was gonna pick us up from school,” Ava wrote. She was waiting in the cafeteria when, without warning, the sprinklers overhead switched on. Instead of spraying water, they sprayed milk. That's when she realized she'd left her lunchbox on the other side of the cafeteria. She was soaking wet by the time she retrieved it, and then she woke up.

Historically I have not reflected much on the dreams of local 10-year-olds; I've endeavored to avoid hearing my own children's. But now I find myself with entirely different feelings on the matter. Precisely as children's worlds are being turned upside down, parents are being reminded how utterly impossible it is to extract meaningful intel from them. What does all of this feel like? (Shrug.) Are you scared? (Shrug.) Is our failure to imagine the long-term economic, psychological, and societal impact of this, like, messing you up a lot or just some? (We don't say that one out loud.) At the moment we most want it otherwise, we are living through peak how-was-your-day-fine.

But their days are not fine. These are people for whom satisfying even the most basic human urges—can you reach the faucet, please?—requires negotiation with nearby adults. Now they can't even touch a doorknob without a parent anxiously monitoring the operation. Older kids, meanwhile, will watch their graduations and proms and other coming-of-age rituals migrate online. They might do so with rueful chuckles, but the balance will eventually come due, as it will for all these kids. They may be asymptomatic at first. The incubation period may last months or even decades. Something is in there, though, rippling through their psyches unseen.

Yet writing has a way of cracking through and coaxing out whatever's stuck inside. From the earliest submissions it was clear that kids are fully convulsed by the pandemic, though not like we are. While their parents fret over vast existential questions, the young journalists generally focus on the minutiae of their new realities—changes in the breakfast routine, new screen time allotments. Little in the way of sentimentality creeps in. Amid the reflections on missing school and friends are quarantine horoscopes, elaborate recipes, comics about crime-fighting super fish, classified tips on acquiring candy, and impressive nature writing. (Bring it on, other neighborhoods' appreciation of the American kestrel!) An 11-year-old girl in India at first despairs at the emptiness all around her: “The tailor who mends clothes and sits under the tree has gone, the ironing man has left for his village and I do not have any friend to play with me.” But she begins to find solace at home, first by cooking potato wedges (“fried and not baked”), then by “training my dog, Besty, to jump over brooms and ropes. She is doing a pretty good job of jumping over the brooms.”

As the submissions kept coming—now from New York, now from Spain, Arizona, Florida—I devised a philosophy of youth publishing on the fly. Parental involvement would be tolerated only with the youngest participants. (My own children, 7 and 11, have contributed two articles altogether. Six Feet of Separation is the Chinese restaurant they live above and never frequent.) I would turn a blind eye to an ungodly number of grammatical errors, not because they're cute (a little goes a long way) but because the paper is a reflection of their sensibilities, not mine. My take-all-comers policy would be ironclad, though gradually I began nudging writers to dig deeper in their second drafts: Tell me more about the California slender salamander. What's it like, not going to mosque for Ramadan?

Within the space of just three issues you could track an evolution. Kids allowed themselves to get vulnerable. A 17-year-old who initially wrote about fun activities for homebound kids (“clean shoes with an old toothbrush and baking soda”) was soon tackling a peer's worrisome sense of listlessness in a new advice column (“Unmotivated But Otherwise Fine, I believe in you”). A high school senior composed an essay about dropping out of school last year in order to work, then reenrolling so her mom could see her in a cap and gown—only to be sent home again. “I'm gonna be in the real world soon with a missing part of me,” she wrote.

After a couple of issues were out, a radio station in Minneapolis invited me to talk about the paper. At one point I mentioned a short piece I'd loved from the first issue, a 7-year-old's review of the evening's dinner. He'd awarded it three out of five stars:

It had some really good meat sauce. A little too much pasta and too much parsley. It was chunky good. And the pasta was a little too flat. Oh and nobody asked me if I actually wanted cheese or parsley. Mom said it's part of the recipe.

I mentioned that the review had been funny, and heard in the radio host's voice something like relief.

“So this is not a newspaper for heavy, serious, depressing stories,” she said, or something to that effect.

“No, it is,” I said. “It's for those and it's for funny reviews of the evening's dinner.”

The correct response to a pandemic, I wished to convey, is neither seriousness nor humor. There is no correct response. If the paper can reflect the fullness of that fact—that fart jokes and profound sadness can live side by side—I will consider it a triumph, five out of five stars. Six Feet of Separation isn't meant to mimic The New York Times or, for that matter, any aspect of the adult world. The adult world is failing these kids. It's failing to let them hug loved ones, to get normal educations, to keep them safe, to assure them a stable future. By God, paint a dinosaur holding a cat as it flies over Oakland. Describe the best quarantine pranks. Write a poem slightly critical of zebras.

“We're all in this together”—so went the hopeful cry of solidarity in the early days of the outbreak, generally from the kinds of people with the free time and emotional bandwidth to issue heartfelt platitudes. In truth, of course, the pandemic has hit the poor and marginalized harder than others. Young journalists aren't exempt from this divide.

Paying for a publishing platform, finding a friendly neighbor to figure out WordPress, having a whole network of helpful parents and the free time to email children every day—these are middle-class comforts. Which, you know, great. All kids deserve encouragement. But at a certain point it became clear to me that Six Feet of Separation wouldn't live up to its potential unless it sought out and raised the voices of kids otherwise going unheard.

This summer, with a grant from AT&T, I'm beginning a partnership with 826 National, the largest youth writing network in the country. It will allow Six Feet of Separation to reach into communities that are too often ignored, even at grown-up levels. Although born of quarantine living, the paper will evolve as the national landscape does: Long after the pandemic's medical phase is over—knock wood—there will be economic, social, and psychic impacts to process for years. My ultimate hope is that all manner of loosely connected satellite papers will spin off in neighborhoods around the country, each with its own voice and flavor.

Seeing your peppermint brownie recipe in a janky online newspaper will not redistribute the world's wealth and power. But it's also not nothing. With the publication of the brownie recipe comes a blast of confidence. Soon you're emboldened to interview the mail carrier. The mail carrier conversation is stressful but eye-opening, and next someone mentions a neighbor who delivers for Instacart. Now you've got the hang of it, and you start directing your questions inward. What's my story? How is all of this affecting me? What do I want, and who's standing in the way? Once the journalism section of the cerebrum starts lighting up—curiosity, skepticism toward authority, a dedication to community and democracy and truth and mystery—you reach a point where it's easier to keep plowing forward than stop.

That's my theory, anyway. This is all new to me—I don't know what I'm doing, but it beats scanning gloomy CDC predictions. Early on I realized that having a grabbable daily sliver of optimism would be invaluable in this crisis. I think that explains why the publication has benefited from a striking amount of goodwill. Dan Rather said it “gives hope”; the San Francisco Chronicle called it “a stellar reflection of humanity.” These words are lovely, of course, but I sense they say less about Six Feet of Separation than they do about ourselves, and our hunger for something hopeful. I get it. I'm hungry too.

In 1665, the bubonic plague swept through London, forcing King Charles II to relocate his court to Oxford. There he quickly found himself lacking a solid news source; courtiers, it seemed, didn't want to touch the pamphlets being published in the capital. That November, the first issue of the Oxford Gazette was born, a proto-newspaper that would eventually become The London Gazette, the oldest surviving English-language paper in the world. The election of the new lord bishop of Oxford, debates in the House of Commons, assorted Dutch naval news—these, apparently, were the events that needed to be recorded. Only on the last page, almost as an afterthought, would readers find mention of the plague that was upending the country: “The Account of the Weekly Bill at London runs thus, Total 253. Plague 70.”

The news we all feverishly devour these days—will it be the news our children value when they look back at this time? How will this time even register? Will it be the first of many insane crises in their lives—oh yeah, that thing with the masks. Will they feel we did right by them?

“This is a picture of the Katura tree in front of my house,” a 6-year-old named Rosetta from Washington state wrote in our second issue. Her mother had sent a slightly blurry photo Rosetta had taken, of a Katura tree growing in her yard, although adults call it a katsura. “I took it this Sunday morning when I was thinking of the outside because we are going to go on a bike ride and I was feeling happy. My favorite thing about this image is the Katura tree. The tips have really beautiful blossoms of red flowers. They make me feel good.”

In seven years Rosetta will be a teenager. Seven more and she'll choose her major, and a few more after that she and her generation will take the reins from our tired hands. But they're here now, biking around, looking at trees, making snowmen, dreaming of milk sprinklers, trying to make sense of the world we've given them.

CHRIS COLIN (@chriscolin3000) wrote about Marc Benioff, the founder of Salesforce, in issue 28.01. He's a contributing writer to California Sunday, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Outside, and Pop-Up Magazine.

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