COVID 19 Oral Histories – Peter Melman
For the past few weeks, Packer’s Upper School History Club has been working on an oral history project that documents the Packer community’s experience with COVID-19. Through 30 minute interviews with various people in the community, we have been recording people’s feelings, thoughts, and stories about this global pandemic. In addition to posting select parts of the interviews to the Prism website in both transcript and video form, we are also archiving these interviews at the Brooklyn Historical Society so that we can keep a visual and written record of these testimonies for the future generations. As for now, we hope this project is a way for people to stay connected and share their unique personal stories. Each week, new interviews will be posted, so keep coming back to learn more about your classmates’, teachers’, and colleagues’ experiences during this difficult and unusual time. We hope you enjoy!
-The Leaders of History Club: Sadie Sadler, Amelia Killackey, and Nick Yohn
Peter Melman: Upper School English Teacher and Packer Parent
Interviewed by: Ariana Topper-Kroog
Q: How have you been feeling about all of this uncertainty?
A: Uh, you know it’s interesting. I’m gonna share something with you that may know. Um, last year the Melman household had some real concerns, my wife had cancer, and so uh it feels like my baseline has been anxiety or stress for forever. Um, in some regards I think it has prepared us for the problems of the moment and in other times, it feels compounded and my knees feel like they’re buckled under the stress.es U, it depends on the day. I know that I’m loved and that I know that my family is loved but, you know, there are additional elements that are uh very very sad to me uh in the, you’ve asked me to interview me so I am going to be as honest as I can. Um, my father is um suffering from some of the later stages of Alzheimer’s uh and I was supposed to fly out there in April to see him and then I was supposed to fly out in June and all that is uh, so some of the hardened realities are that I’ll always know my father but the next time I see him I won’t necessarily be registered as his son, you know what I mean? Like he, and so like all of this stuff is incredibly emotional on a personal level but on a global pandemic level it’s just the extent to which there is the stress and the anxiety has been uh profound you know? And, as a teacher you know I am also sort of a dime source psychologist for a lot of my students and to see some of the grief and the frustrations and concerns and anxiety hat they’re wearing as well, I internalize them. Um, you know, it’s a lot, you know, which is why the moments of grace and appreciation are also incredibly important to take a breath and understand how fortunate I really am.
Q: Do you feel that you have gone to a deeper level with students during this time in a way that you haven’t previously?
A: You know it’s hard um there’s an interpersonal empathy that I can feel like while I am not living their lives, and I don’t have their lived experiences, we are all sharing a unifying moment, right? And it’s not across the table, is a unifying moment. In our own respective ways, we are all negotiating this to varying degrees but we are also negotiating new context and what I mean for this is when you’re three and you stub your toe, that’s a new pain, right, and when you’re four and you bump your elbow, that’s maybe a different kind of pan but you’ve got the context for what that pain stubbed to was so you have some degree of pain. And as you get older, you crew more and more context for circumstances so you have new experiences but you have some degree of catalog element for which you can identify from the past, does that make sense? Do you know? Heartache and love and all that sort of thing but this, this is so new for all of us, right? We don’t have a contact, I mean unless you’re what 102 years old then the Spanish flu, I mean like this is it, right, and so we are all trying to negotiate this together and sometimes kids will ask me for degrees of wisdom or empathy and I don’t necessarily have it but I am going to try to be me but like the time that we do have together is a balance of calibration. Right, like we have a half-hour, 2-3 times a week um and there’s also an obligation to try to get through some material um and some kids, uh you know the hardest thing for me is to see the kids that are walling themselves off. And, it’s obvious and we’re trying to do everything we can as a caring faculty but to watch the retreat, the turtle shelling, that for me is, because when you’re at Packer, you can grab a kid by the elbow and say listen, you got 5 minutes? And you go sit down and even if they don’t wanna talk to you, there’s that moment of contact and um you know like one of the the the things that struck me as we read Beale Street, umm, I’ve got my copy here, um on page 4, you know, he says “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.” right, and that line always struck me but more from a racial and social point of view but also from an emotional point of view, like I, fortunately, god bless, have never been unjustly incarcerated I’ve never had anybody that I love be incarcerated, so I’m not gonna own that experience, you feel me, but the notion of the distance of uh that we are now obliged to love each other through glass is not the same thing. It is just not the same thing. And some people can argue that it’s a deeper uh love in that regard and perhaps we’re learning new ways to love but it’s not the same, you know? The- thi- somebody sent or the nuances or the touch, I mean like, and we’re loving each other through glass and that is um hard, you know? So…
A: I mean I think that we can, I don’t think this is false optimism, this is not forever, this is for now, but the uncertainty that I think we may all be feeling is, alright, so if not forever then when? You know, like when? And you know its problematic in dealing with, its shows some of the schism in terms of politics in the nation as well and um and uh what seems to be gross uh illogic umm but you know, the only thing that I would you know to recommend of you and I have done this is that like, rather than being the turtle, um I don’t know, be the giraffe, you know, um when you need to, reach out, as opposed to retreating. I’ve got friends I got friends in my own life adults who are retreating and who have become uh immune to text and Zoom requests and phone calls and they’re just hunkering down psychologically and while I certainly would never judge a person for the way in which they negotiate these sorta things I would much rather be emotionally expressive and because I think that right now the tendency might be hunkered down and I’m noticing that in a lot of my friend groups you know like early on you know, we were Zooming and texting and like, have you noticed of that sort of like faded a little bit like, yeah, um but I’m gonna remain um like determined um you know uh and keep doing it until, hh. There are days when you know I pull a turtle as well, but can I show you something? Lemme show you this. The other day, I was running and I saw this little guy on the road, can you see that? A fifty-cent piece, maybe a quarter-sized little turtle. And I was thinking, how much fun would it be if I brought this little guy home, and I immediately put her back in the water because the last thing, I would want to do, you know maybe what I’ll do is I will send you a photo of the turtle. And, and the rationale and the metaphor that I saw this as cute as it is so cute and I thought my boys back home are gonna love this little dude, they’ll be able to feed him and pet him, but I put him back safely in the water because I couldn’t, I couldn’t reconcile imprisoning anything in a time in which we all feel so imprisoned. It’s just the metaphor of taking this thing and denying it the freedom that I think so many of us feel right now and again I’m not comparing myself to i- any- true incarceration, I’m talking about like an existential sense of being bound, um anyway this little turtle and the caption I gave it was “shelter-in-place” but I misspelled shelter with 2 L’s. Hahahahaha. Anyway so that little turtle you know was cute, but it was time to go home.
See more of Dr. Melman’s interview in the video below: