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Every weekday morning, a 12-year-old refugee named Génnezys logs into her seventh grade online classroom. She sits at a tiny table in a corner of her cluttered living room. Before logging in, she tapes her phone to a chair and dials my number on FaceTime. Once we’re connected, I peer into the screen of a laptop lent to her by her public middle school. For hours, I observe coronavirus pandemic-era education for Génnezys and about 20 other children of multiple races, nationalities, and economic circumstances. What I see is both heroic and tragic.
Génnezys is one of the thousands of immigrant children who were torn from their parents in 2018 by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” family separation policy at the U.S.-Mexico border. I wrote about the desperate efforts of Cruz, her incarcerated mother, to find her 10-year-old daughter. They were reunited after about six weeks. Cruz later borrowed $6,000 from a friend for a coyote to smuggle her three-year-old daughter into the U.S. The child was detained for a few days then released to Cruz.
I asked Génnezys to invent a pseudonym to protect her family from U.S. government reprisal, and she came up with a fanciful one based on the Spanish pronunciation — HEH-neh-sees — of the first book in the Old Testament.
Today the family resides in a small Southern city. Cruz works as a janitor, earning a bit less than $10 an hour. They live in a small apartment with one bedroom, which Cruz and the girls share with her boyfriend. He is also an immigrant, and he pays half the rent. He’s employed in construction, and he leaves for work very early in the morning. Cruz goes to work after taking her four-year-old daughter, whom I’ll call Bety, by bus to a daycare center. With school strictly online now because of Covid-19, Génnezys stays in the apartment all by herself from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., often supervising an 8-year-old girl who has her own school computer with headphones. This child’s Latina immigrant mother works, too, so Génnezys acts as babysitter. Before online school started in September, she worried intensely that being without an adult in the home would be lonely and scary. I live hundreds of miles away, so I volunteered to sit with her via FaceTime. She says that she feels much better when I’m with her.
During the first two days of remote school, the teachers, all young or middle-aged white women, cycled though a dither of confusion and kind but mostly fruitless efforts to actually see and hear their students. One problem was that the online platforms were glitchy. The class links often crashed, leaving the students, including Génnezys, with blank screens. But by week’s end, the kinks were worked out — yet the students remained silent phantoms.
“Know that I see you. I hear you. I’m with you,” one young teacher intoned to the kids right after introducing herself. They had names like Hassan, Rasheeda, Yennifer, and Travis. “Black Lives Matter,” the teacher added. She was met by silence from her new students, and she could not see their reactions either. She asked them to turn on their mics and cameras, but getting them to comply was harder than pulling their teeth. “What did you do all summer? How did you deal with Covid? Talk about your family!”
A boy with an Arabic name turned on his mic just long enough to say that he had a baby sister. Indeed, the loud wailing of an infant could be heard. The teacher skipped a beat, then the boy’s mic went dead. No other students turned on their microphones. Not even Génnezys, who had earlier proved she was not shy. When the teacher mispronounced her name on the first day of school, Génnezys politely but firmly corrected her. She is a brilliant girl who knew no English whatsoever two years ago yet speaks it almost perfectly now, and who scrolls through the internet on her own initiative for details about the accident that crippled Frida Kahlo.
Though she has defended her name and sometimes has been the only student to answer her teachers’ questions about math, Génnezys remains strenuously silent about most of the details of her life. The family all got sick in late May, with many days of fever, coughing, muscle aches, nausea, dizziness, and diarrhea, as well as loss of appetite, taste, and smell. They recovered, but Cruz is suffering now from hair loss — a condition just recently recognized as a complication of Covid-19.
When Cruz got sick, she was employed in housekeeping at an upscale chain hotel. She said she fell ill after being ordered to enter and clean a room occupied by a woman who was coughing. She was not given PPE for the job.
Cruz estimates that in her building complex of a few dozen apartments, about 20 other people came down with Covid-19. “No one died, but some were carried off to hospitals in ambulances,” she said, adding that all were immigrants from Latin America.
Latinos comprise fewer than one in five residents in the county. But they make up about half of the people in Cruz’s census tract, while just across a main thoroughfare almost everyone is white and owns a house. In Cruz’s tract, many of the Latinos live in cramped little rental apartments.
During the outbreak and their own illnesses, Cruz and her children were never tested for Covid-19. Nor did she contact me, though she instructed her preteen daughter to call me for help if she took a turn for the worse. The family just stuck it out, but Cruz was fired by the hotel because of her sickness and missed work. She got the janitorial job just as soon as she felt better. She couldn’t self-quarantine: She had rent to pay, kids to feed. None of this is something Génnezys wants to talk about in online seventh grade.
She doesn’t turn on her camera either.
It’s hard to know exactly why the students as a group refuse to show themselves to their teachers or to each other. Middle school is the empire of peer pressure — pressure not to stand out, even in normal times, when rows of children are looking at and breathing with each other, along with a teacher in a real room. But the kids’ reluctance now seems at least partly due to how dispirited and disconnected their virtual classrooms feel. Génnesyz’s teachers practically stand on their heads coaxing interactions with the students, but the teachers’ energy seems TV-ish, abstract.
The kids are alone. They have no books. The only class that resembles normal school is math. As in times past, the teacher writes figures on a board and explains what they mean. The other classes are a mishmash of hyperactive YouTube science videos with men who speak too fast, and a woman with a white coat and test tubes performing experiments — work the students normally would be absorbed with in a classroom lab, but which they can only stare at now from afar, wall-eyed. An art class features hip-hop music, whose teaching intention is muddled, and digital choose-and-drag stickers and emojis. Strange, sci-fi cartoon people in Génnezys’s American History class purport to recount the high points of the antebellum human bondage, the Civil War, and the Black Codes. After that lesson, I asked Génnezys if she understood what a slave was. She still didn’t know — though she did remember the cartoon guy saying that a man named Frederick Douglass had been forcibly separated from his mother. She knew what that meant, from firsthand experience, but didn’t mention it in class. With me, she minimized her experience. She’d learned that Frederick Douglass was an infant when he was taken. “But, um, I was 10 when it happened,” she said. “I was a big kid, not a little kid.”
One teacher conducted a lesson about why students should participate in small- group, online “breakout” chat rooms. “Because they help us get to know each other?” said Génnezys, daring to speak.
“Very good! Thank you for that, Génnezys!” chimed the teacher, saying all the syllables correctly. Then she warned the students that they must use “appropriate language” in the chat rooms, and that their language was being watched.
This teacher also held a “correct answer” contest, with her pupils silently checking T’s and F’s on their screens. “True or false: If you fight at a school bus stop, you will be punished as severely as if you’d fought a school. True! Right, Brian! Brian gets a point! He’s pulling ahead of Corinne! Next question. True or false: If you touch the private body part of someone else at school, whether on purpose or by accident, you will be punished the same, either way. Yay, Corinne! She’s back in play!”
But there are no school bus stops now. There are no “someone else”s at school.
Génnezys has another reason not to turn on her camera: She is ashamed of her clothes. She fits a girl’s 14 now, but her wardrobe dates from a year ago, when she was size 10 and 12. Her shirts are too tight for her rapidly developing body. In the morning she puts on her mother’s dresses. They are several sizes too large.
Cruz can’t afford to take her daughter shopping. She just lost another week of work, and wages, due to Covid-19. Two co-workers at her janitorial job tested positive and one is in the hospital. Because Cruz worked closely with both infected women, she was quarantined for 14 days. She had no proof that she had already contracted Covid-19. She had to stay home, along with Bety, who ran around the apartment laughing, yelling, and rifling Génnezys’s little desk while her sister tried to pay attention to online class.
An employee from the county health department came by to deliver some onions and pieces of fruit. Cruz finally got a negative test result but still had to finish the quarantine. Génnezys did not tell her teachers what was happening.
Génnezys also avoids the camera because of what Cruz calls “her obsession.” On the second day of school, a teacher asked, “What is your favorite thing to do?” Amid the mass silence, Génnezys activated her mic and bravely answered: “Play with slime,” she said.
“Slime?” said the teacher, nonplussed.
“Ah. OK. Yeah. Slime. Well, that sounds relaxing!”
“Yeah. It is.”
“Slime” is a faddish kid product that’s been around since the 1970s. Back then, it was valued by boys for its gross-out appeal. Now it’s prettier, smells nice, and is all the rage among preteen and teen girls. Many make it from a home recipe involving glue, borax, food coloring, and plastic beads from craft stores like Michael’s.
Génnezys was already into slime by age 10, back in Central America. Cruz’s partner there, an extremely violent man who was neither of the girls’ fathers, was terrorizing and assaulting Cruz and the children, threatening them with death. The girls witnessed the violence. Cruz made plans to hide Bety with her sister and flee to the U.S. with Génnezys. Meanwhile, Génnezys discovered slime. “In my country,” she remembered, “it was called moco,” which is Spanish for snot. She pushed it, pulled it, rolled and wrapped it, over and over and over. It calmed her, Cruz remembers.
After a grueling trip north, including a stay in a filthy, crowded stash house, things got worse at the border when the Trump administration took Génnezys from Cruz and shipped her 2,000 miles away to a child detention center. There, she was warehoused with mostly older Central American girls who’d come to the U.S. by themselves, pregnant or already with babies.
After spending six weeks with these young women, according to Cruz, 10-year-old Génnezys was using racy language and discussing sex. After she was reunited with her mother, she experienced night terrors and walked in her sleep for three months. She had three sessions with a psychologist. Then, said Cruz, “She entered a new phase of her life: adolescence,” and “she hardly talked about what happened.” Even so, Cruz added, “Two weeks ago, after Génnezys had an eye exam that showed a problem with one of her eyes, she mentioned to me that an older girl in the detention center hit her hard in that eye with a ball. That was two years ago. She’d never told me till now. Sometimes I worry about what’s in her head.”
Outside of her head is slime: jars and jars of it in all colors and textures, from shiny and glistening to rough and frothy. “I love YouTube slime videos,” Génnezys told me. The site has a plethora of young girls extolling their slime collections, as well productions with sexy women’s voices doing ASMR routines, and images of long, manicured fingernails digging languorously into the goo.
“I worry about it,” said Cruz. “It’s such a waste of money. But she would rather have slime, even, than clothes that fit her.”
If Génnezys were to activate her camera for her classmates and teachers, they might see her furiously and endlessly twisting, pulling, and punching her strange doughs as she fidgets at the computer and tries hard to do her schoolwork. A few months ago, Wired magazine interviewed a neuroscientist and psychologist who suggested that people might be gravitating toward slime during the Covid-19 crisis to simulate the feeling of touching actual people.
As a Central American refugee child, Génnezys has been traumatized by murderous violence, forced family separation, poverty, and plague. More and more, however, nonrefugee children in America are joining her in the grief and fear of being apart and alone. How many of these kids are scrunched over their own computers, secretly toying with slime?
“I don’t know,” Génnezys said when I asked her that question. “Maybe I’m the only one. Before the virus, I didn’t play with it in school because school was good. Now, I don’t think I could do school if I didn’t have slime. Without it I’d be dying.
“Dying of what?”