COVID-19 is teaching us the same lesson that Portuguese sailors learned 600 years ago. Necessity had made Portugal the leader in developing the sea-faring technology that led to the Age of Discovery. Perched on Europe’s westernmost shore, Portugal was far from the Silk Road, the famous overland trade route to the East that was making the other European countries rich.
They created what we would today call a think tank and set out to develop a seaworthy ship that could withstand long journeys and be large enough to carry men, supplies and cargo, a vessel that could sail with and against the wind. Their goal was to sail around Africa — in their time, a great, unmapped landmass to the south. Their purpose was to establish their own trade route to countries like India.
As they developed this technology, ships were sent out to explore and establish the route. Always staying within sight of land, captain and crew would chart a portion of the African coast then report back home, where the new knowledge was catalogued. Then, another ship would be sent out to explore the next section of coastline. This intentional and focused amassing of experience and information seems very modern, doesn’t it?
This strategy worked well until the Portuguese came to a spit of land they named Cape Bojador. At this place the winds shifted, the ocean currents seemed confused, and even the sand beneath the waters seemed strange and other-worldly. Ships were unable to pass. Rumors spread among sailors and between ships. They said that the waves were churned by great sea monsters. “Here be dragons!” they cried. Sailors going beyond Bojador would never return, they came to believe, for there lies the “very gates of hell.” Portugal sent 15 separate expeditions to pass Bojador, and each failed in its mission.
If you search for Cape Bojador on Google Earth, you will find a slight bulge in Western Sahara. From that birds-eye view it is an unremarkable geographic feature. For the sailors, Cape Bojador had become more of a psychological obstacle than a physical obstacle. The rumors and myths about Bojador froze them into inaction, and they could not bring themselves to go further. Finally, a captain, either by design or because of a sudden storm, steered his ship out of the sight of land. When he finally turned back to the east and his crew again saw the coast, they found themselves south of the Cape. There were no dragons, no fires of hell, just more land and sea.
In our daily lives we “hug the coast,” staying well within our comfort zones. In some ways, COVID-19 is a storm that has blown us out to sea, beyond the sight of land. We know that eventually, we will turn back, but for now, we are in uncharted waters.
This storm is requiring new things of us. Take my school as an example. A colleague reminded me that, for some teachers, just right-clicking to copy and paste makes them feel like they are entering the Matrix. Creating a hyperlink is literally easier than withdrawing money from an ATM, yet some of us are convinced it is a dark magic and far too difficult to learn. But that was when we were still hugging the coast.
Now, thanks to the realities of School from Home, all our teachers are proficient with our internet platform. In fact, each one of our teachers has learned something about computer coding! A month ago, this would have been unthinkable. Likewise, our parents and students are being pushed beyond their comfort zones and are discovering new lessons about technology and how to teach and how to learn.
As a society, we are also in uncharted waters. This is frightening. Some of us are ready to throw people overboard, as if that will hurry us back to shore. But we will not let the panic-stricken change our nature; we will not let this storm change who we are as a people. We are on a sturdy ship that has been in uncharted waters before. Think back 79 years to 1941. We were still fighting off the Great Depression, our own Cape Bojador. Then, at Pearl Harbor, came the storm. In response, we completely redesigned our industries to do nothing more than produce weapons of war, materials expressly designed to be destroyed. We sent hundreds of thousands of our own to fight and die in distant lands. Back home, among ourselves, we rationed food and supplies. As a nation, we abandoned our comfort zone and completely rejiggered our way of life for the sake of a war.
That war ended, as all wars must, and our ship found its way back to the coast. From those years of destruction, we emerged stronger than ever. This was no fluke of history. It was because America is sturdy. Let us remember this lesson and trust the strength of this mighty ship. Let us speak no more of throwing anyone overboard. Let us be patient. This storm will pass and we will return to the coast in due time. We will surely land in a different place than the one we left before the storm. But as long as we remain true to our nature, our ship will take us to a better place.
Chuck Bennett is an assistant principal at Chestatee Academy and has degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and University of North Georgia.