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Dispatches From Quarantine: How Young People Are Documenting History

Ciera Amaro's art is one of the submissions to a project called Dispatches from Quarantine.
Ciera Amaro via Alexandra Zapruder
Ciera Amaro's art is one of the submissions to a project called Dispatches from Quarantine.

It's been more than a year since the COVID-19 pandemic completely upended our lives. For young people especially, it reprieved them of fully experiencing the world during a crucial time of growth and development.

Parents all over the world are beaming with all sorts of questions to get a grasp on the pandemic's toll, such as: How has the pandemic been affecting our children? Has remote learning slowed their education? Has reduced socializing hurt their development?

Historian Alexandra Zapruder wanted to document what the young people of today are going through, so she asked a number of students to send her diary entries. The project, called Dispatches from Quarantine, launched in April 2020, and those questions were explored and answered through all sorts of mediums — like the stringing of words, the strokes of a paintbrush or to the strums of a ukulele.

"With the proliferation of social media, I started to think about how diaries have basically been supplanted," Zapruder tells NPR's Morning Edition. "And what's a little bit been lost is the kind of quiet reflection, the authentic preservation of experiences that are captured in diaries. And I'm very interested in preserving that."

Zapruder's interest behind documenting adolescence is simple: it's fleeting.

"It goes so fast and once it's over, it's lost forever, we cannot recapture that point of view as anybody who knows anybody who lives with a teenager knows how foreign in a way that perspective can be," she adds.

Stephanie Zhou: The Final Project
/ Stephanie Zhou via Alexandra Zapruder
Stephanie Zhou via Alexandra Zapruder
Stephanie Zhou: The Final Project

Zapruder was not invested in a generic writing project, but rather was interested in "the idea of showing young people how their writing in the present day could really exist on a continuum of writers who've been writing over more than 100 years." Although participants mainly wrote the obvious, such as their general grief over missing school or prom — there was still appeal in the fact there is so much that is unexpected.

Maia Siegel

I was ill until proven

healthy. My mother

left me small foods

laid on paper plates

on the stairs, running

away as I came out.

A date, some almonds,

a sweet potato stabbed

through with a fork.

I despised her for being so

scared of me, for crying

to the doctor If she comes down

I will feel panicked. I did not come down.

I stayed still for six days,

four of which I did not get out

of bed.

Through quick, blunt stanzas, 18-year-old Maya Siegel notes the initial wave of panic and tension that eased into her household as she was in quarantine.

"And she says, this thing that I absolutely adore, my mother starts to ration the seltzer water," Zapruder notes. "Like this little detail that is so potent."

Claire Hammond

I can hear the birds chirping all the time now. I never used to listen to the birds before; too busy running around from activity to activity. So many things have been taken out of my life and replaced. Yes, by worry and fear, but also by time, my silver lining. For the first time in such a long while, I've been able to just stop and sit. I've been able to focus on myself and heal a bit, in a world that's so broken.

In this note from 16-year-old Claire Hammond, she documents the small moments of mindfulness she's felt amid the chaos of the pandemic. Life has slowed down enough to the point where she can feel a little bit more free from the restraints of everyday life.

Fiona Dong

I still clearly remember when the coronavirus outbreak happened in China, I checked the data on the number of cases every morning after I woke up. I was worried about my family and friends back in China. The coronavirus became the topic that we discussed on the dinner table. I worried about my family every day, but what I could do was only take care of myself and watch people experiencing all those tragedies. The whole world is having a hard time this year. However, in human history, when there was a world crisis, it always brought us together to unite as a whole and fight against the crisis. I didn't have a chance to prove that before the virus's outbreak, but I strongly feel that now. People from different countries are fighting against our enemy together.

We shouldn't blame or compare each other at this time. If we are facing this together as a group, I believe our enemy will capitulate soon.

Zapruder told Morning Edition how glad she was to see the project reach an international scope. In this example, 16-year-old Fiona Dong was going to school in Massachusetts but was called to return to her home in China. Herfull submission leads readers on the journey back home — detailing the anxiety behind traveling in turbulent times and a two-week quarantine in a hotel in her hometown, Xi'an.

Sam Kofman

I had two tests yesterday, and the most stressful part of doing quizzes and tests is when you have to upload them. It's so much easier in school, where you just hand in a piece of paper. [...] Every single time I try to upload it, I have to do it at least twice because the Internet always crashes. We have so many people all trying to work on the same Internet. My mom and dad doing their work, and me and my brother and sister doing school. I'm really sick of this. I've been in quarantine for about 9 weeks. The only human interaction I have is with my family.

Sam Kofman writes about sharing the Internet with four other members of his family, and the stress of submitting a paper while the Internet keeps giving out.

"This is something that we're all living through, you know, and we want and need to preserve those little details, because that's the texture of daily life," Zapruder says of the excerpt. "That's the stuff we're going to forget 20 years from now."

Zapruder says the project, a collaboration with the Educators' Institute for Human Rights, reaffirms something she's believed so deeply — that young people and what they have to say matters.

The full Dispatches from Quarantine collection can be viewed on Zapruder's site.

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Phil Harrell is a producer with Morning Edition, NPR's award-winning newsmagazine. He has been at NPR since 1999.