Canceling Class and the Art of Social Distancing

On Friday afternoon I received official word that my class, “Grace Raymond Hebard and the Pursuit of Wyoming,” must be canceled after only one meeting due to COVID-19.

As each day after our first class meeting brought more news of the coronavirus spread, my concern for my students mounted. I felt nervous that I could carry disease to my students, all retirees and at higher risk, and grateful that I no longer taught at the high school with all of those germs. I washed my hands obsessively and tried to limit my time in public, just in case we met again this week. Now, I no longer have to worry about being a vector of disease to my vulnerable students. Instead, I contend with disappointment and managing a tighter budget.

Big Piney Examiner no. 6 December 12, 1918, page 8
Big Piney Examiner no. 6 December 12, 1918, page 8 Wyoming State Library

It is strange to anticipate and work so diligently on a project, just to have it stop as soon as it begins. Our first meeting went wonderfully, my students embraced my conversational teaching style and contributed their impressions on the information I presented. I knew that as the class went on, they would enrich my understanding of Dr. Hebard and her life. Their contributions had been the aspect of the class that I was looking forward to the most. All of my students brought a unique perspective to the class, from a former nurse to my high school math teacher. Despite being in Wyoming, I was still floored to learn that one student was a former student of T.A. Larson, another the granddaughter of another famous Wyoming Historian A.J. Mokler, and I had TWO students whose mothers took classes from Dr. Hebard, both going into rural education. I suppose I should not have been so shocked to find a class with deep roots in Wyoming and connected to my chosen subject, but there I was over the moon to find such a knowledgable gathering.

Fortunately, I was given the option to offer my class again this fall. While it does not make up for the April paycheck I anticipated, it does help to have a continued work offer and paycheck this fall. It also helps to know that my work will be shared… eventually. I can only hope that some of my students decide to sign up for it again and finish the class with me. In those surface concerns about who will sign up for my class next fall, is an underlying hope for all to be well with our most vulnerable and for them to still be with us in the fall.

It isn’t the first time a virus has disrupted my life. I don’t remember much about the public panic around the H1N1 swine flu, mostly because I was in and out of a feverish state quarantined with it for two weeks in college. But I do remember that my college didn’t shut down for a month as we are seeing happen across the country now. It feels surreal to see everything around me canceled and closed.

Laramie Boomerang no. 244 October 16, 1918, page 5
Cartoon depicting a man sneezing; Laramie Boomerang no. 244 October 16, 1918, page 5; Wyoming State Library

Still, this isn’t the first time that Wyoming shut down schools and businesses due to a pandemic. Two global wars raged in 1918– one a war of trenches, bullets, dogfights, and poison gas; the other, a war fought in hospitals and sick beds, full of fevers, chills, and body aches. Both wars wrought death and devastation. And in Wyoming, both wars saw Dr. Hebard on the frontline raising money for the war effort during WWI and trying to prevent the spread of disease in her role as University Librarian.

As I prepared for my first class on Dr. Hebard, I pulled locations from the Traveling Library folder in the Hebard Papers to create a map on Google. Active from 1917-1919, the Traveling Library brought university resources to rural Wyoming. So rural in fact that I struggled to place every location. “Shorty” WY, a town that no longer exists, did not make it on to the map, impossible to find as of now. Several other libraries traveled to families or individuals not tied to a specific township. Below are the places I was able to locate, each location giving the name of the person who corresponded with Dr. Hebard. Discussing the library project with my class, one student called it the first “bookmobile,” another compared it to the interlibrary loan system that exists today. 

Shared books, especially those that travel, can spread disease. Our bookmobile for Natrona County is parked until April 13, 2020, again due to the current pandemic. Dr. Hebard and Ethel M. Cross of Savageton, WY shared the same concerns about traveling books as our modern-day librarians. During the fall of 1918, Cross wrote to Dr. Hebard with her concerns about sending the books on to the next location requesting them. Dr. Hebard concurred that with the ongoing flu it was best for the books to stay put for the time being. Across Wyoming school closed, events canceled, and thanks to Dr. Hebard and smart Wyoming women traveling libraries stayed put.

Laramie Boomerang no. 237 October 08, 1918, page 1
Laramie Boomerang no. 237 October 08, 1918, page 1; Wyoming State Library

When I read those letters the second time, the news of coronavirus had just broken. I wondered if we would find ourselves taking similar precautions and at that point, never imagined that my class would be canceled altogether. Yet, here we are today with more and more closures and being told to “social distance.”

Dr. Hebard took common-sense measures to stop the spread of the Spanish Influenza and I think I agree. I’d rather miss out on this paycheck and cancel my class than put someone at risk. Glancing through the Wyoming newspapers from 1918 digitized by the Wyoming State Library, I see the hardships of a pandemic hitting small towns. Social Pages, usually full of fun little travel tidbits or gossip, were full flu notices tracking who was getting better and who grew sicker. Front pages of small-town newspapers shared devastating news of local deaths, often more than one. If staying in can stop the spread of this heartache, I gladly embrace the indoors.

Luckily, right now, there is always work for me to be doing. That lonely work of writing and researching, done from the comforts of “social distancing.” I find myself in the minority of those perfectly fine staying at home because I have just so much I need to do here. My brother-in-law sent an encouraging article on Isaac Newton inventing calculus while stuck at home, his university closed due to the plague. I only hope to be half as productive. I don’t need to invent an entirely new theory and method of understanding– just put some words on paper, transcribe more letters, and deepen my understanding of the stories I am trying to tell.

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