This story is part of the 63106 Project and was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center. Additional support was provided by the St. Louis Press Club.
Courtnesha Rogers’ first hint of pandemic was the day she showed up at the Flance Early Learning Center to pick up her daughter, Angele. “Hey, you can’t go any farther,” she heard someone yell. A table with bottles of Germ-X was set up outside, and she had to sanitize her hands before she could enter the building. What? Then she was told she could not bring Angele a My Little Pony cake with four big candles for her birthday.
And then she heard that her father’s best friend had died.
He was 36.
“He got the virus, and he already had a low immune system,” she tells me via Zoom. “He did have a lot of sickness. But my dad was around his friend, so now we’re not really going around my dad. That’s why I’m so scared now — I’m at the peak of being scared. I’m scared of contracting the virus, I’m scared of my kids contracting the virus, and my loved ones — anybody, really.”
She is quarantining in her apartment, near St. Stanislaus Polish Catholic Church, with her three little ones and a friend who just lost her job. Rogers has a cosmetics line but shut down her website “because it’s not essential. We couldn’t sell things from home.” This month she starts a health care administration degree — online, thank God.
Meanwhile, she is trying to keep her kids busy. For Easter, they painted bunny faces. On nice days, she says, “I take them out and let them do chalk on the ground, and bubbles, and we have kites.” On rainy days, they draw or play on their tablets. But they’re scared, too. “It’s really hard to explain to two- and four-year-olds that this is something that is killing people,” Rogers sighs, “and we can’t see our family, and everyone is on ‘shakedown.’ They want to be around people. They don’t understand why they can’t see their friends.”
The school Zoom meetings help — and they’ve been an eye opener. “My kids listen to their teacher better than to me!” she exclaims, laughing. “And you see how smart they are. Angelo has a global developmental delay, but he has gotten so much better. They are pushing him up to regular classes. He just was really behind in speech. Now he knows his colors and shapes and everything.”
After working with the kids herself, Rogers has a profound new appreciation for all teachers: “It’s like, 'Whoa, we need a lunchtime, like, now!'” Still, teachers get to go home. For a 24-year-old single mom, there’s no break. “I think they get a little tired of me, too!” she remarks. “Sometimes when I don’t let them get their way, they’re like, ‘I want to go to school!’”
When Rogers was younger than they are — two years old — her mother was killed by a drunk driver. “I never really got to meet my mother,” she says, “but people tell me she loved fashion, the way I do. And I have pictures — I look just like her.”
It was Rogers’ father, Courtland, whom she was named for, but she grew up without feeling close to him. “He would drive trucks on the road and leave me at home with his wife, or he’d drop me off at my grandma’s house. She was the one who got us ready for school.”
Rogers made good grades at first, but nobody seemed to care. She hung with the wrong crowd, focused on fun. She was a party girl, she decided. Junior year, she dropped out altogether. She was seventeen. She could get a job and find herself a nice apartment.
“And I did that,” she says. Soon after, though, she and her first real boyfriend moved in together. She was sure she loved him. Now she knows how vulnerable she was, how eager to be loved. “He would take my phone and lock me in the house; once he locked me in a closet. I started studying for my GED when I was pregnant, and he would get so mad, he’d shut off the electricity.” He was jealous, she realized. “He didn’t want me to know more than him or do more than him.”