Nigel Pulk rides his bike three miles every other day to do schoolwork on the steps of the library to utilize the internet. Photo by Lillian Lake

While heading headed to New Hampshire on a recent bone-chilling morning to make an emergency food delivery, I feel anything but carefree. My daughter was recovering from being ill and had lost her job due to cutbacks. Thanks to COVID-19, there would be no hugs; no loving kisses.

As I drive by the Jay Niles Library in Jay, Maine, my attention draws to my right, where I spy a young person sitting on the front granite steps. Noting that it is a curious sight considering the weather and knowing the library is closed, I turn my car around.

After parking in the mouth of the library driveway, I climb out and, not wanting to startle him, I cautiously approach who I now see is a young man. With the lawn and garden between us, I call up to him as I introduce myself as a writer. I ask if he minds my asking him a few questions. The first one, of course, being “what has you sitting on the steps of the library in this weather?”

To my surprise, he says he is doing school work! Because schools are closed, he rides his bike three miles every other day to do schoolwork on the steps of the library to utilize the internet. His family has an internet connection, but it is weak and doesn’t allow him to stream with his classmates. My heart sinks. I know it is a struggle for kids to lack the structure they were used to and find it challenging to connect with friends and classmates. “Stay at home,” the governor proclaimed. That’s fine as long as a home is where you have everything you need to survive and thrive.

Nigel Pulk is a seventh-grader in the Jay school system. He has the easiness of someone who takes life in stride, knowing changes are part of life, and struggles are real, but so are solutions.

He takes off his headphones, pushes his curly hair back out of his face, and puts his computer aside as he answers my questions. He shares that it feels strange not to go to school and misses his friends. They don’t live nearby, and even if they did, they aren’t supposed to get together due to the “stay at home” rule. Not only does he not have a strong internet connection, but he also has no personal phone. Nigel’s face is serious as he wistfully says he hopes everything will go back to normal. Then his face brightens a moment and he grins. “At least I don’t have to worry about getting detentions.” We both chuckle, but then he once more gets serious as I ask if anything worries him. “Yes, he said. “I have a friend who I don’t get to see. Thinking globally, I worry that someone in my family will get sick or die, and I won’t be there. I’ll be really sad. I’m trying to get used to this until it’s over. And I don’t get to know what to do with my schoolwork because I don’t have a good internet connection. I’ve had one packet of schoolwork delivered to me so far.” At that moment, it felt especially poignant that there was a lawn and garden between us. The heartache was palatable, and yet there was nothing to be done to heal it.

My hands are freezing as I try to scribble notes. I wonder about this young man who is determined to learn despite his circumstances. I ask him if there are other options for an internet connection. He shrugs and says the next closest is another two miles away.

What makes him happy? Grinning, he responds and gestures around him. “This makes me happy. Sitting here and watching. I see some of the funniest things.”

Upon leaving him with words of encouragement, praise, and warm rolls I had baked for my daughter (I knew she would understand), I get back in my car and wonder what would the future bring for this young man?

The Jay Niles Library’s outgoing message informs they are closed and ends cheerily with “the internet is available from the warmth of your car.”  There is no warm car for Nigel.

Thomas Jefferson said, “Educate and reform the whole mass of the people. They are our only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

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