How a just-turned-nine-year-old and almost nine-year-old understood Covid-19 in the late spring of 2020, as seen from Lofton County, VA:
“So, I was talking with my mom on the phone last night,” Louisa Dubois Chennault said to her first and best friend in Lofton County, Vertran Stepforth, “and she said la maladie is closing all the schools and they may not reopen in the fall. Do you know what that means?”
“Yep, I sure do, Louisa,” said Vertran. “What a blessing!”
“Summer all yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeear!” Louisa said.
“YES!” Vertran said.
In rural Lofton County, that was almost right.
“42 percent of the county is now too educated for its own good any way,” Sheriff John Nottingham said, “and the rest can make it up when they won't be bringing this super flu home to our servant class so that they bring it to us.”
In spring 2020, there still existed a goodly number of thorough good-ole-boy bigots in power in the United States of America, believe it or not. Lofton County's crew, anticipating the re-election of Donald Trump and the local slate very like him in November 2020, began openly stating and consolidating their positions.
The difference was that Lofton County had a lot of older leadership who KNEW: if the Black, Latino, and poor White communities got sick, wealthy White seniors would die too, because there were still a lot of families that had not lifted a finger to do for themselves since a little while after rearranging things after the Civil War, and not for hundreds of years before. Lofton County's leadership was enlightened enough to know it was necessary to contain Covid-19 for everyone, although not enlightened enough to make provisions for said control that were fair to everyone.
Result: public schools closed in Lofton County, with no plan for reopening and little attention given to distance learning. Sheriff Nottingham's deeply bigoted statement rode hard in the county; there was such resentment against the Black and Latino community that had so much of their way in 2019 that knocking their children and grandchildren back educationally in 2020 was seen as good payback. Poor White children were written off as collateral damage, as if punished for being White while their parents were not smart enough to get rich enough to put them in private school.
Of course, the Dubois and Stepforth families were not having ANY of that foolishness, not for themselves and not for the community around them. Thomas Stepforth Sr. and Major Thomas Stepforth Jr., Vertran's grandfather and father, were working in conjunction with the Black newspaper Lofton County Free Voice and the educators they worked with remotely across the country, and Eduardo and Dolores Espinosa from Una Voz Libre, the sister paper to the Free Voice, also joined the work. To that also came Louisa's uncle, Major Jean-Paul Dubois, with his legal skills brought from JAG in the army and ten years in Interpol.
All of this was centered in Tinyville, VA, whose law enforcement was led by Captain Ironwood Hamilton, late of the U.S. army. He was the son of one of Lofton County's most enlightened politicians, the late Isaiah Hamilton, and he quietly had inherited his father's mantle upon returning home. He also had 11 children with nine at home, and was not about to have anyone's children losing a year of education.
“That's every generation after us being held back, because educational gaps are often passed on. I'm just a police captain in a tiny town, but I can take a stand, and I will.”
Captain Hamilton set himself to learn the ins and outs of the new legal regime around Covid-19 and then to inform the people of the town of what he found … including the loopholes and his enforcement stance on areas on which he had discretion. Thus, he made Tinyville safe legal space, and safe living space, to find creative ways to both stay safe from Covid-19 and also continue necessary things for the community at large … and slowly, all colors of rural Lofton County not willing to have their children unjustly left back began to converge on that space as a model.
Louisa Dubois Chennault knew nothing about this and neither did Vertran Stepforth. No adult would burden them with the knowledge. They also lived in Tinyville. Captain Hamilton had dropped off a “Spread 'em Out and Run 'em Around” guide full of socially distanced games and activities for children with every home, with the six feet or more of distance framed for the children as just part of the fun.
Louisa and Vertran loved to yell back and forth to each other anyway as they were ripping and running around, and they lived in the outdoors when not doing things with their families, so, it was all good to them!
The only problem they had was figuring out: what was summer going to look like in October, November, and December?
“It ain't like what you're used to in Louisiana, Louisa,” Vertran said as he took his turn seeing how far he could jump into Emerald Creek, so named for the tall pine trees that shaded it and lent their reflection to it. “Winter is real here in Virginia – or at least it was until you know, summer got extended all year.”
“You don't think – oh, that was a good jump, Vertran! – you don't think the weather is going to cooperate, huh?”
“Oh, no,” he said. “I have relatives in Louisiana and we visit sometimes for a break – New Orleans is real warm and pleasant in October, and even in December, but it's not like that up here. We're going to maybe get summer to stay summer into the first two weeks of October if we pray hard, and then we can ask the Lord to let fall go through Christmas, but winter ain't about to cooperate.”
“Okay, my turn – here I go!”
Louisa and Vertran's approaches to trying to jump across a ten-foot creek were quite different. Louisa was the better mathematician and so was looking at arcs, and Vertran looked at if running, skipping, or jogging from different spots made a difference.
Result: they were just about the same size and strength, and so both were getting just about as far into the creek and out of the heat of a spring day in May that previewed Lofton County's hot southern Virginia summers.
“That was a good jump, Louisa, it really was!”
“I'm going to try a different curve – I asked Uncle Jean-Paul about how they used to get cannonballs and stuff around – did you know that today there are cannons that can use curves to shoot things for miles?”
“Well, we kinda figured that, Louisa … remember how we were on Zoom watching that documentary your father made about how Neil Armstrong got to the Moon?”
“Oh, yeah … Ms. Katherine Johnson drew a big curve for the spaceship, you're right. Gosh, that must have been a big cannon for that.”
“What I can't figure out is why they called her a hidden figure,” Vertran said. “That curve looked pretty clear to me, and she's a nice-looking great-grandma sort of person.”
“Beats me, Vertran. I'll have to get the info from Dad. Things were very different back then, before they had computers and stuff. But you know why I'm documenting these curves by hand, though? Imagine how smart people had to be, to do moonshots before computers and stuff!”
“Right, Louisa. This is why I see Grandpa still writing out contracts by hand. Gotta be smarter than computers if you're older than they are, and we gotta aim high – and here I goooooooooooooooooo!”
“Great jump, Vertran – I think the straight run is working better than skipping, although the skip splash was bigger.”
“Are you keeping track of that too?”
“Yep. We gotta talk about all of it later so we can get bigger jumps and bigger splashes tomorrow. It's so hot out here.”
“I know – summer came early! Spring often cooperates! Anyway, you ever notice that the Olympic divers have short runs and practically no splashes?”
Louisa thought about that, then came up with a solution.
“Reverse moonshots,” she said. “Think about it, Vertran – how big of a crater would a moon landing make, on that tight half-curve?”
“Right, right – makes sense,” he said. “But then, does moondust cool you down like water does?”
“It's moondust,” Louisa said. “It can probably do just about anything.”
“See, this is where Mr. Armstrong messed up,” Vertran said. “He didn't bring enough back so we could test it out.”
“Right, right – but you know, Vertran, you have to be a kid or really try to remember how to be one to think of everything.”
“Right, right – really nice jump, Louisa. I think the longer, lower curves get further into the creek.”
“Surely looks like it,” Louisa said as she got back up and got out of the way for Vertran's next jump. “I wonder if Mrs. Johnson ever thought about creek jumping with all that good math?”
“I hope so,” Vertran said. “It's sad when you think about all the things grown people are missing out on – smart people, too!”
“Does your grandfather still jump in the puddles when it rains?” Louisa said. “Mine does!”
“Oh, absolutely – Grandpa loves a good puddle when he is out with us in the rain! Say – have you ever played rain basketball?”
“No, but I'd certainly love to learn!”
“Grandpa invented that! He used to be a big college ball player back before computers and stuff! Bouncing balls and jumping in puddles is so much fun! But, we gotta let fall be fall just a little bit to do it.”
“Why – it would be more fun if it were hotter!”
“Yeah, but, thunder and lightning in summer thunderstorms. Basketball is a tall sport, and tall stuff attracts lightning.”
“Right, right … forgot about that. But, see, this is why I'm tired of American history! Neil Armstrong forgot to bring back the moondust, and Ben Franklin, with all that flying kites into thunderstorms, forgot to figure out how to keep the lightning off of tall sports!”
“I know, right?” Vertran said. “But Dad and Grandpa say it all the time: just because there are more White people in the school books than Black people doesn't mean White people are smarter. It just means they write a lot of the books, and everybody likes to show off. But in the age of computers and stuff, we all get to make and share our own history.”
“Right – that's why we need summer all year as kids, so we can make our own and share our own! A whole year, Vertran! We need this! We need this! You think you can get your big brother Tom to come video us when we get this creek jumping down pat?”