DISPATCHES: My Life Under Quarantine

Dillon AlexanderThe author sheltering-in-place in an island paradise. Photo by David Collins

BY DILLON ALEXANDER When I got a job teaching high school social studies in Hawaii, people tried to scare me with stories of island fever. Having lived here, on the most remote island chain in the world, for almost two years, I had a few pangs, but nothing to write home about. Now take that island fever, and add a pandemic and consequent mandatory-shelter-in-place order, and what do you have? Island Fever + Cabin Fever = Total Insanity? No, not for me. But I’m lucky and I know it. My experience with quarantine so far has been colored by my experience as a teacher attempting to navigate a jerry-rigged transition to distance learning, and a delicate balancing act of spending ample personal time to devote myself to projects, while staying informed about world developments without getting overwhelmed by their prospect for catastrophic change.

Inevitably, crises like the Covid-19 pandemic hit impoverished communities and groups the hardest. Hawaii is the most impoverished state in the country and its number one industry, tourism, has obviously been obliterated by Covid-19. I live and teach on the Big Island of Hawaii, in a small coffee-farming village called Kealakekua. Fifty-six percent of students at Konawaena High School qualify for free or reduced lunch, which qualifies the school for Title I funding from the federal government.

Because of the community’s reliance on the school to feed its youth, it was of paramount importance to minimize the effects of the closure of physical schools. Thankfully, the meals that schools provide students with have continued, after those working in the cafeterias were deemed essential. While the schools are offering grab-and-go breakfasts and lunches, there are still issues with students getting transportation to retrieve them. For example, I learned on a Zoom Meeting with the West Hawaii Community Health Center, that the Marshallese community, which is perhaps the most marginalized of all social groups in Hawaii, had to resort to sending students in vans to pick up their food, which obviously has serious implications for the spread of Covid-19.

Further, at a public housing project where I had tutored after school, property managers had been threatening residents that they would call the police if they didn’t stay in their homes. Again, crises like the Covid-19 pandemic will hit impoverished communities and groups the hardest. I heard this, sitting on my beautiful lanai overlooking the Pacific Ocean and I became painfully aware of my own privilege and my limited ability to affect positive change during this time. Fuck, it stung.

And yeah, as a teacher I could take you through the minutiae of Zoom meetings, enrichment opportunities and yada yada yada, but the real lived experience is entirely emotional. Over the past two years, I’ve advised a group of students who are now seniors. To make the phone calls and send out emails telling them that their high school graduation is cancelled? Making that call to the students who are the first in their family to graduate from high school? Fuck, that stings. They worked so hard. Imagining the students I know who have toxic or unsafe home lives, struggling without their school communities has been brutal. Reaching out to these students, calling them, with no answer? Fuck, that stings.

But the reality is, relatively ample free time has opened up in my day-to-day, and I can’t spend it stewing in anxiety over the lived experiences of others in my community; I have to focus on my direct sphere of influence, which usually boils down to me, myself, and I. So, with that direct sphere of influence in mind, I’ve stopped suckling on the twitter teet because the constant stream of reports of the apocalypse messed with my head to the point that I could no longer effectively use the time with me, myself, and I. Don’t get me wrong. I agree with the memes and articles that tell people that they don’t need to push themselves to commit fully to self-improvement during this time, because, fuck, it is a pandemic, and a crisis. But, like I said, I am in a position of privilege, and for me to maintain a healthy mindset throughout this, that’s the direction I’ve gone, because I think that my only alternative was depression.

So to avoid falling into a pit of despair, I have tried my best to commit myself to personal projects that I always struggled to pour myself into when I’m part of the normal grind. I finished writing a screenplay with my friend from my hometown. I try to go on a run everyday. I try to eat healthy. I try to watch great films with integrity. I try to stay in touch with my family. I try to play guitar every day. Don’t get me wrong. I house an entire DiGiorno’s pizza every now and then, or spend the entire day binge watching drekky TV in bed, watching my guitar gather dust. But, I am so much more prepared to cut myself slack when I slip up like this, because I’m also pouring myself into these healthy outlets, especially since I’m particularly cognizant of weeding out the truly toxic ones, like that damn twitter feed.

When I do consider this pandemic and its implication, I am struck by how it has exposed the fragility of society, which almost always feels like an unstoppable force. The halting of so much of what we take for granted has gifted a truly unique perspective, forcing me to evaluate what truly matters to me. And teaching has done this for me too; forced me to evaluate what truly matters to me. Family. Human connection. Empathy. Community. Truth.

It took me moving from Philadelphia to the most remote island chain in the world to crystalize these central tenets of my life, and a pandemic to boot, but I’m here, and I’m grateful as fuck. But this sense of gratitude is constantly contextualized by reminders that it is truly a product of my relative privilege, while this pandemic wreaks havoc on human lives, families, society, and civil liberties. The tension between these two things; gratitude and reminders of this world’s brutality, has been the primary crayon coloring this chaotic and unprecedented time for me. Clouds over the Pacific Ocean that I peer over from my lanai, as I write this.