Calkins: In a time of pandemic, can construction paper save us all?

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 28, 2020 12:11 PM CT | Published: March 27, 2020 4:49 PM CT
Geoff Calkins
Daily Memphian

Geoff Calkins

Geoff Calkins has been chronicling Memphis and Memphis sports for more than two decades. He is host of "The Geoff Calkins Show" from 9-11 a.m. M-F on 92.9 FM. Calkins has been named the best sports columnist in the country five times by the Associated Press sports editors, but still figures his best columns are about the people who make Memphis what it is.

It started the way things often do, on a whim, without any grand plan for the future, just a way to lighten up these dark days.

“We were in a conversation on Facebook,” said Melinda Henson. “Laura made a comment about how we haven’t even had a mailbox chat in the longest time.”


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That would be Laura Allen, who lives directly across from Henson in the Poplar Estates part of Germantown.

Henson and Allen even teach together at Dogwood Elementary School. Henson teaches first grade, Allen teaches fifth grade math.

So you’d think they would have seen each other all the time, right? Especially in the pre-pandemic days?

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But life can get real busy. At work as well as at home. Neighbors wave as they pull out of their driveways. Colleagues rush past in the hall.

“We didn’t see each other as much as we thought we should,” Henson said. “You know how it goes.”

Until last Friday, anyway. Just as we were being told to stay inside. Henson got out some construction paper. She drew one letter on each sheet. Then she assembled the sheets in her front windows — the windows that face directly across the street — so that the Allens woke up to the following message.

'SUP ALLENS?!

“We laughed, of course,” Allen said. “And we knew we had to respond.”

So Allen took out her own construction paper and assembled her own letters in her own windows to spell the following message:

LIKE A GOOD NEIGHBOR, STAY OVER THERE.

Did I mention there was no grand plan to any of this? Did I mention Henson and Allen didn’t expect to be doing this for seven straight days, with no end in sight?

But Friday was Day 7. Saturday will be Day 8.

“I started using printer paper, just printing out the letters,” Henson said.

Said Allen: “By now, I pretty much have the complete alphabet in several different colors.”

Day 3

QUARANTINE MEANS INSIDE JOKES

COFFEE YOU’RE ON THE BENCH, TEQUILA YOU’RE UP.

Day 4

1, 3, 5, 7, 9 . . .

I CAN’T EVEN.

“Being teachers, at some point, we decided to collaborate,” Henson said. “We started combining to tell dad jokes.”

Day 5

NOT FELINE WELL

SEE A PURRAMEDIC

Day 6

MATH JOKES ARE PUNNY

BUT ONLY SUM

Day 7

WORKING WITH YOU IS LIKE . . .

WORKING BY MYSELF

“No, we would not be doing this if not for the pandemic,” Henson said. “But we need connection. I’m an introvert. When we were first told to social distance, I’m one of those people who joked that I’d been preparing for it my whole life. But it didn’t take me long to realize that, even being an introvert, human interaction is crucial.”

That’s why so many mental health professionals don’t particularly like the phrase, “social distancing.” Because even at a distance, we are social beings.


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“We need physical distancing,” is how Memphis therapist Jennifer Valli phrased it, during a Friday interview on my radio show. “But we don’t need to isolate socially. We need to build and maintain social connections, just in different ways.”

This is more important than ever now that so many of our routine connections have dissolved. I received an impassioned email this week from Robert Laurie, who works in the restaurant industry. One of his friends — who also worked at a restaurant — died by overdose late last week. The friend had a history of substance abuse but was doing better, staying clean by focusing on work and going to the gym.

“He was supposed to work (the night he died),” Laurie wrote. “The lack of business resulted in him being given the night off. His normal night off routine, going to the gym, wasn’t an option. It was closed. What was going through his mind, no one knows. I suspect it was worry and fear. What was going to happen? Was he going to be able to get out of this?”

Laurie wrote me out of concern for others like his friend, for people who suddenly find themselves isolated and alone.


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“So check on people,” he wrote. “Of course, the elderly, but also someone you know that may be out of work during this time. See if they’re OK. See if there is anything at all that you can do for them.”

That’s why the construction-paper-in-the-window story matters. As whimsical as it may be, it represents an effort to reach out, to support one another. We have seen a million stories like that this week. We need to see 10 million more. And we need to be intentional about those connections, to seek out those who might otherwise isolate or be ignored.

Maybe it’s just a phone call. Maybe it’s a quick text. Or maybe it’s a message by construction paper. Whatever happens to work.

In the meantime, the Hensons and the Allens are still at it, still swapping one-liners via windowpane.

How long can they keep it up?

“Until we run out of dad jokes,” said Allen. “So maybe never.”

That sounds about right to me.

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