Pandemics, Prisons, Political Tensions—and the Brain

As the pandemic surged and political tensions mounted, I thought of Jon.

“You’ve got to apply yourself,” I told him once.

And he just looked back at me through fogged-over eyes, like he could barely make me out.

He was a smart kid with a boatload of challenges. At lunch, he’d head to the corner window, the one that faced the state prison across the fields. And he’d stand there and stare. If yearning could unlock doors, his dad would have walked across the prison fields, through the school yard, and up the steps to my classroom. At home, Jon held it together for a falling-apart mom—stretching money, running herd on younger brothers and hiding his own angst to protect his family.

“Don’t ruin your future,” I’d tell Jon, “by messing up in school.”

And he’d try. But he couldn’t concentrate. Even what he already knew seemed to mysteriously vanish, as if someone had reached into his head and plucked it out.

This thief, I was to discover later in graduate classes was stress. Under pressure, the brain has trouble processing incoming information and retrieving what’s already known. Stress hijacks the brain, putting it into survival mode.

Jon’s incarcerated dad and falling-apart mom, I can see now, were right there in the school room with him. And he was already applying himself—trying to find a way through troubles more compelling than solving a quadratic equation. No wonder he blanked out on the Zero Product Rule.

In the last weeks, as the pandemic has closed in on more people I love and political tensions pulled people apart, my focus derailed. I stared at blank screens that should have been filled with words and sat in meetings with no fresh ideas.

And I thought of Jon—wishing that I hadn’t parroted all those pat answers, that I had walked over to that corner window and just stood there with him in silence, mourning and exuding mercy.

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