Writing in a time of coronavirus
Perhaps it was an omen.
In January, when we asked students in our Scribes writing program to pick a topic for their stories, we suggested that since it was 2020, they look 20 years ahead and describe the world of the near future. Our students are middle-schoolers and love science fiction, so many of them imagined doomsday scenarios involving meteors and climate disasters.
We had no idea how eerie it would all seem in a few weeks.
Scribes is one of the best things we do at the Wren’s Nest. Every year, we recruit media professionals to mentor middle-school students at the KIPP Strive Academy, a public charter school that occupies the former Joel Chandler Harris Elementary School building near our home in the West End neighborhood of Atlanta. Lain Shakespeare, our former executive director, started the program in 2010. More than 125 students and more than 110 different mentors — writers, academics, journalists, PR people — have participated. This is our 10th anniversary year.
My wife, Pam, and I — both semi-retired journalists — directed this year’s program in consultation with KIPP English teacher Celeste Clark. Twenty-five students and 15 mentors signed up. We would meet every Thursday after school and spend an hour working with the students, getting to know them, helping them choose their topics, talking about storytelling, critiquing their early drafts in Google Docs. You could feel the enthusiasm.
Then the pandemic struck.
We had just finished our March 12 session when the Atlanta school system announced that all classrooms would be closed because of the coronavirus. We were seven weeks into a 12-week course, and we weren’t sure whether we could continue.
We tried to mentor our students online. But as any teacher in America can tell you now, distance learning, while better than nothing, pales in comparison to classroom instruction. Some of our Scribes had internet connectivity issues. Many were distracted by the strangeness of trying to work in a shelter-at-home environment. Some no doubt saw it as an extended snow day.
The goal of Scribes is to produce a collection of stories that the Wren’s Nest publishes in a book. We’ve put out 10 Scribes volumes since 2010 — that’s last year’s cover on the left. Every Labor Day weekend, we host a launch party for the students and their families at the Decatur Book Festival, one of the largest and best book festivals in the country. I’ve been to many of these parties and have never tired of watching bright middle-schoolers become published authors for the first time.
It’s going to be different this year. More than half of the students have not finished their stories, so we don’t have enough content for a traditional book. Nor is the book festival likely to take place as it usually does, with tens of thousands of people roaming the streets and crowding assembly halls and church sanctuaries to hear authors talk. There will be no book launch party for our Scribes and their families this year.
So we’re doing what we can to celebrate these student authors. We’re editing the stories we have, choosing excerpts from some of the incomplete ones, and publishing samples of their work on the Wren’s Nest website in the coming weeks. It isn’t what we planned, but we’ve all had to change plans of late.
We promise these stories won’t be too apocalyptic. One of the unfinished ones, for instance, was going to describe a world overrun with giant cats. The working title: “Cat-pocalypse.”
If only our reality had been as cute.