MIAMI — The door of Carlota’s room is ajar, so I peek inside to see what she’s doing. She’s sitting upright at her desk with her laptop in front of her. On the screen are a dozen of her schoolmates, all of them, like Carlota, participating in a virtual class.
I can tell that their teacher is leading the lesson from her home — I’m pretty sure they’re discussing fractions and decimals — but Carlota and her friends are following closely along as if she were talking to them in person.
Everything seems normal. And yet nothing is.
I live in the same house as Carlota, a wonderful, loving and brilliant 9-year-old girl, and the daughter of Chiquinquirá Delgado, my partner. Carlota brought happiness into my life from the moment I met her, just a few months after her birth, and I couldn’t imagine this house without her in it. “Good morning everyone!” she shouts from her bedroom when she wakes up. Her tireless energy — she loves to create dance moves — and curiosity has made the tedium of quarantine a bit easier to endure.
Carlota — like the roughly half of the world’s population living in coronavirus-induced lockdown — has been stuck at home for several weeks now, and there are times when her sadness and frustration rise to the surface. Like when she wonders, with tears in her eyes, if we’ll still be able to throw her a birthday party in May. Or when she wants to get together with her friends and doesn’t quite understand why they can’t come over. One of our biggest achievements as parents during the crisis was taking Carlota on a short bike ride with one of her friends. The kids enjoyed it, but saying goodbye without touching was really hard for them.
The truth, however, is that Carlota’s generation — there are an estimated 74 million children under 17 in the United States — is much better prepared than ours to face months of isolation. These young people have been unintentionally training for this moment all their lives. From a very young age, they’ve been communicating with one another using devices that never existed in my time. So when we told them they couldn’t leave the house, all they did was enter “virtual mode.”
Faced with adversity due to an uncooperative virus, Carlota has reproduced her old social world in her bedroom, with all her games, music and friends within easy reach; even her classroom is there. She often has three screens going simultaneously: the TV (where she’s watching a movie or a series), her smartphone (where she’s talking with friends on FaceTime) and her iPad. With all her devices, Carlota has created a digital geography that would be impossible for me to navigate. She’s lucky that the internet is working so well in the Miami area where we live. If we were somewhere else, like Brownsville, Texas, for example, the connection might not be so stable.
For weeks now, Carlota has been building an imaginary digital house using the simulation game Bloxburg, making videos based on Billie Eilish’s music on TikTok (her account is private; only her friends have access) and drawing amazing works of art with the Procreate app. This cyberswarm is the center of Carlota’s new life. For her and her friends, almost everything is temporary and disposable. “That’s so 2019,” she tells me when I ask her about apps and platforms she no longer uses.
The virus, however, is still here.
These days, Carlota has new fears. Her once quiet and predictable nights, which always included 20 minutes of reading, have become chaotic and irregular, almost like a teenager’s. Noises she once ignored now awaken her. Each night, she tries to soothe her anxieties with a different plush toy. She knows each toy’s name by heart and where it came from. The ritual of choosing the “plush of the night” is worthy of a reality show, with jubilant winners and vanquished losers.
As a family, we’ve established fixed mealtimes, with no electronic devices, and we try not to talk about the coronavirus when Carlota is present. But we don’t change the subject if she brings it up, and we try to answer all her questions as best we can. The virus haunts all of us, keeping us awake at night. It’s everywhere — on the door handles we touch, the packages that show up at our door, the phone conversations we have with friends and family, and in the new rules that keep us locked inside.
Carlota is unlikely to return to school to finish the fourth grade. I hear the school year may be extended a couple of weeks into the summer. I hope it will. Regardless, teaching our children effectively during a health crisis like this will require extraordinary endurance and creativity. Everything indicates that, even in the best-case scenario, we won’t have a vaccine until 2021.
The children of the 2020 pandemic have a lot to teach us. They adapt quickly to new situations and use technology with astonishing proficiency: Carlota and her friends can Google a solution to nearly any problem. I want to believe that if they were the ones in charge, they wouldn’t have wasted weeks — like our current leaders did — in confronting the coronavirus. In the future, I hope Carlota’s generation puts the interests of science and health above those of politics and prejudice.
Whether she knows it or not, Carlota is already a survivor, and she’s better prepared than I am to face the crisis ahead. I envy the strength and resilience of both her lungs and her attitude toward life.
I’m pretty sure that Carlota has the numbers of more close friends saved in her phone than I do. But, at least for now, she can’t play with them as I did with mine when I was her age. And I fear that social distancing will become an unhealthy habit for Carlota and her peers. No talking face to face, no hugging or kissing. They’re missing the sweetest things about being human.
I can barely make out half of Carlota’s back through the semi-open door of her room, but she sees me before I can walk away. “¡Te quiero mucho!” I tell her in Spanish. “I love you too!” she responds, with a giant smile. And somehow the two of us, with heavy hearts, resist the urge to hug each other.