Blankenship column: Bookends

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 8, 2022

This is version three.

My first attempt started off with a romanticized recounting of my first days at the Post and coming to a new place. It was complete with my comically rapid move from the mountains back to the Piedmont, waiting in a clinic for a drug screen on the first day and waiting for Rowan’s first baby of the year to be born on New Year’s Day just to have to wait until Jan. 2.

I talked about the unfamiliarity of East Liberty Street on New Year’s Eve. I got bored of my internal musings about the reporting process and scrapped that one.

The second one, a reaction to the first, was about how no one cares about your opinions and telling people about them isn’t that great either.

OK, so I’m staring into the void and honing in on what emotional state I want to plant in the hallowed pages of the Salisbury Post during some downtime at the Aug. 22 school board meeting.

I’m leaving.

That’s not as elegant as the one-line kicker my colleague Ben Stansell skated into the sunset on back in July, but you get the idea.

 I’ve been here for nearly three years and I’ve written about 1,400 stories. Most of them are about education. A lot are about parks. A few are about wolves. One is about pollen.

I’m fixing to toss my critters into the back of my compact and haul down to the beach. In a move that would have surprised me a couple years ago I am headed to Wilmington.

My professional career keeps pulling me East, to lower altitudes, flatter land, and now less land altogether. I’ve gone from a mountain transplant to a coast-dweller. The next step will be to set up shop on a floating colony in the Atlantic.

I already resolved to get a boat of some description, and a crusty little dinghy sounds up my alley. John Carr, the Post’s publisher, has already advised me to avoid the headache of getting an outboard motor, but I haven’t decided if I’ll take his advice yet.

I’ll still be writing a lot about schools, and I might even end up writing more about schools. I am sad about some of the ambitious stories I just couldn’t get to.

I spent my pandemic in Salisbury, and somehow that makes it special. I feel like the latest person in a wave of folks to filter out as the pandemic groans to something like an end over the course of months. The pandemic is not officially over. The disease still infects people regularly and is cause for concern, but as a Scientific American story pointed out in March, people functionally decide when a pandemic ends before science does.

I see very few masks in schools and grocery stores. Events are held, restaurants are open. It pains me that there are still so many people who are vulnerable to the disease, but things look a lot more like December of 2019 than March of 2020 whether that makes you happy or disturbed.

I had the privilege of seeing parts of the pandemic as a beat reporter most folks didn’t, even if they worked in schools. I went to the bizarre weekend meeting to discuss how to continue in March of 2020, after schools were ordered to close. I saw school supplies get passed off to students from a pickup at Overton Elementary.  I stood in the cafeteria at Knox Middle School with Jon Lakey the next day. The first wave of meal deliveries were about to go out. Everyone was standing very far apart and gloved up. This was before masks became the standard PPE.

All this was inspiring, because I saw people honorably discarding self in a way we don’t see often in this country, but the implications of why it was happening were terrifying,

I went into schools when quarantines were at their peak in August of 2021, I went to the dramatic school board meetings and witnessed the constant legal tightrope walk districts were forced into. I compiled a list of hundreds of people who died in Rowan County after contracting COVID-19 by hand.

Does anyone remember plans A through C? The state’s toolkit for schools? Meals delivered to classrooms? Cluster reports? All the money that was dropped in districts’ laps?

I think often about a quote then-assistant superintendent Julie Morrow gave me in May of 2020, right before she retired:

“I would have never dreamed, in a long time, that this could happen in our country, but I guess I was naive to think that,” Morrow said.

That is one of my favorite quotes. It is a concise and affecting expression of popular disillusionment. The early days of the pandemic were exciting, and uncertain. Eventually it settled in and I, like so many others, had this thought: “Is the end of the world really this boring?”

After the initial flurry of activity everything went dead. The schools were closed. Most places were closed. There were fewer people on the streets and trying to find a roll of toilet paper was a favorite pastime.

For reporters, we were stuck at home, glowering, poring over numbers, cancellations and policy changes with that flat line of dread on the horizon that the medical system, the economy or both would collapse.

We all experienced our own variation of 2020, and even though swaths of the pandemic were devastating, I am glad I spent it here. I’m glad I saw the beautiful park go up across the street after seeing it as a construction site for almost two years. I’m glad I got to feel some of the historic charm and call this place home for a red letter period.

Life is about the endeavor, and I’m off to the next adventure, but I’ll never forget how I spent my pandemic in Salisbury.

About Carl Blankenship

Carl Blankenship has covered education for the Post since December 2019. Before coming to Salisbury he was a staff writer for The Avery Journal-Times in Newland and graduated from Appalachian State University in 2017, where he was editor of The Appalachian.

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