A Real Bag of Worms

I can tell I’m going to need a stash of new vocabulary words to get through this pandemic. “Dumpster fire” and “shit-show” are worn thin from overuse. “Stressed” and “overwhelmed” lost their meanings months ago.

Luckily for me, a fresh, unfamiliar phrase recently leapt out at me from a paper I was idly perusing in the journal Aging Cell. The name of the paper was intriguingly macabre: “Age-Related Degeneration of the Egg-Laying System Promotes Matricidal Hatching in Caenorhabditis elegans.” A few paragraphs into the article, my eyes found the phrase that I’ve now adopted as my go-to metaphor for this pandemic: A “bag of worms.” 

Due to a genetic mutation, age, or lack of food, C. elegans sometimes fail to lay their eggs, and the eggs hatch internally. When this happens, the larvae start eating their way out of their parents’ bodies, producing, as the article puts it, “what’s colloquially known as the bag-of-worms phenotype.”

Being eaten alive by one’s offspring may be technically worse than our collective pandemic problems, but for many of the parents I’ve talked to — and teachers, and health care workers — the metaphor is apt. Parents are getting eaten alive at home. Teachers and nurses are being sacrificed by the society they’re trying to serve. As Covid-19 cases climb in my rural, conservative, mask-shunning county, let me tell ya: It’s a real bag of worms.

Let’s briefly explore how a can of worms is different from a bag. A can has a lid. You can hypothetically chose to keep the lid on, or put it back. A bag of worms is unstoppable, voracious. There is no putting the worms back in the worm bag, because they’ve eaten it. 

All summer, Pete and I sheltered at home, safe from the hordes of Bay Area tourists and our many Covid-casual neighbors. We avoided the block party thrown by the local hydroponics shop, which included a bounce house (!!) for the kids, and wore masks to pick up our take-out, even if few other people did. But any real control over our exposure ends in August, when the high school where Pete teaches is slated to reopen. Although Pete’s been told there will be masks and face shields, he hasn’t heard of any plans to reduce his class sizes of 30-40 students, or strategies for cramming that many teenage bodies into a room while maintaining proper social distance.

Pete is eager to reconnect with the many kids who disappeared when school went online last spring because they had no internet access. He loves his students, even the ones who regularly scream “Fuck you!” in his face, who will almost certainly refuse to wear masks, and whose parents won’t make them. The somewhat reassuring statistics about lower transmission of Covid-19 in young children don’t seem to apply to teenagers, at least in the studies conducted thus far. And I don’t think we need a study to infer that the virus can by transmitted by deliberately lobbed gobs of spit. 

Like many high school teachers, Pete spends the majority of his energy at school trying to keep his students from touching each other, whether they’re lighting each other’s hair on fire, stabbing each other, or attempting to have sex in the bathroom. Even in pre-pandemic semesters he spent hours rearranging the desks in his classroom, trying to maximize the distance between them. It never kept them from touching, and often seemed to me like a pointless exercise, though sweetly optimistic.  

Thus far, our county has been lucky, with relatively few cases of Covid-19. If the upward trend continues, we will soon join a watchlist of counties that the state has ordered closed. For the sake of Pete’s students, their families, and the greater good, I hope the school stays open. For his sake and all teachers, I want a plan for reopening schools that does not feel like cannibalism.