Caleb Chometa’s new hardships and surprising upsides to the new normal

Caleb Chometa studies with friends in his concurrent English classroom at Robert E. Lee High School.

On the first day of spring, Caleb Chometa walked to my door and knocked. We sat together on my narrow front porch, several feet away, enjoying the seasonal weather. When the clanging of my wind chimes interfered with our audio recording, he stood up quietly and removed them from their hooks (I wasn’t tall enough to reach). I read Caleb as thoughtful, unassuming and kind. On such a lovely afternoon, it was easy to forget, for a few seconds, that our lives are in some upheaval due to novel COVID-19.

During our conversation, I learned that Caleb, a senior at Robert E. Lee High School, was notified that his job at Hot Topic in The Village at Cumberland Park is gone indefinitely. He has lived with a roommate, instead of his parents or family, for several months. He talked about his open-ended break from work, graduating, contributing to his household and both the challenges and surprisingly pleasant effects of new-found free time. Here is Caleb’s story in his words, edited for clarity and length.

“I’m a high school student, but I’ve been living away from my parents for four or five months. I work at Hot Topic, but that’s not happening right now. I want to go to college to be an English major so I can teach English at the elementary school level. I also like to write. I enjoy general geeky things. I play Yu-Gi-Oh! kind of competitively. It’s a trading card game, fast-paced. It’s really engaging and it’s got a lot of problem-solving skills. It’s also wildly expensive, so I’m not buying cards right now. 

Caleb in a recent selfie. Like many students, he is creating a new normal with his job in limbo and classes on-line.

In school, I take two concurrent classes, English and Government. I typically work [at Hot Topic] weekends, averaging 10-16 hours. Coronavirus hurt Hot Topic nationwide, so all of the associates got their hours cut. Two days ago, we got the news that the store was closing their doors, along with news of paid compensation. So currently, I’m getting paid for one, five-hour shift at minimum wage, per week. I’ve been working at Hot Topic since my sophomore year. This October, it will be three years.

There was this one event. I was walking to work last Thursday, and I saw a family in a car who all had masks on. I was like, ‘oh, it’s affecting us now.’ Retail gets hit particularly hard. It’s a crowded area, especially if you have a small store, definitely not within six feet. Also Hot Topic is not a necessity store. With everyone buying food and toilet paper, things like fashion and novelty-wear gets pushed to the side. The week of Spring Break, for the three hours I worked, I saw maybe 10 people, which is very low for our store. To do less than $500 in sales a day, it’s like, unheard of.

There were still cars in the shopping center, but most of them were for FD’s Grill House and other restaurants. No one was going into anything that wasn’t a food store. The one [restaurant] I noticed that was completely empty was the Thai place [Chiang Mai Thai Kitchen]) next to where I work. The curries, right? That’s obviously the racialized aspect of this issue. That’s where a lot of the panic comes from, the idea that it’s a foreign virus. From what I’ve seen, anything Asian-related is particularly empty, it being representative of that scare. Hopefully, once this economic stress lifts, we can do something to help those businesses. I know I’ll probably be eating Thai once I have the money. I’ve been craving it.

I’m very fortunate to have a friend who invited me to live with her and her mother. I help out wherever I can. My typical paycheck is around $80 every two weeks and my phone bill is $60 once a month, so that leaves little room for extra spending. I am responsible for yard work. I’ve told my friend and her mom that Hot Topic shut down. I’ve tried to avoid talking about it. I have anxiety, and if I let it dig into my head, I won’t stop thinking about it.

Social distancing rules have been kind of difficult. I haven’t been able to see my girlfriend in a couple of weeks. Her parents are older, and they have very strict distancing.

[At school], I imagine we’ll go to online courses. I’m already taking an online, concurrent course with Government, so I am able to do my work without a teacher there. I haven’t heard from my teachers, other than my Government proctor, probably because they are waiting until Tyler ISD sends something concrete down the pipeline. I am told they are not prone to do [that] until the last minute.

My friend group is a bunch of artistic types. We’re just kind of floaty and what happens, happens. I have a personal philosophy to not think about things I can’t change. I am getting ahead on [assigned] reading. In concurrent English, we’re reading “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway. So far, it’s a really good read. I’ve got the time, I guess. We don’t have to annotate it, either, so I just get to read the book. Since I don’t particularly enjoy being a student in school and have qualms with the current education system, I’m seeing this as an extended break. 

Caleb climbs a tree on New Year’s Day, 2020, at a friend’s house.

I’m an avid walker and typically I get to do that as my daily routine. I walk to work, I walk home from school. Without those two things, I’ve been trying to find times to just walk. It’s really great for clearing your head. I’ve been playing a lot of Yu-Gi-Oh! online. It can take up a lot of time and also feels productive. I’ve even earned a little bit of money for participating in prize pools. I’ve been sleeping in a whole bunch. I try not to sleep past 9 a.m. most days. Not waking up at 6 a.m. to go to school is pretty cool. 

Junk foods are a serious vice for me. Now that we had to stop buying a bunch of junk food, I haven’t had access to it. It’s been easier to keep up with health stuff. I went for a run, which I never do because I hate running. I was like, ‘might as well.’

I’m not a very extroverted person. As long as it doesn’t interfere with my base routine, I’m pretty okay. It’s like, ‘you call it social distancing, I call it my life.’ But for me in particular, being isolated is not a good thing. I’ve done a really great job over the past year keeping my mental health in balance and developing healthy habits. If there’s one thing I don’t want to do, it’s putting myself at risk, at risk of just not ever doing anything. Virus or depressive episode? Both are equally dangerous.

Tyler has a higher feeling of community. It’s East Texas hospitality. Church is very important here, a lot of people go to church for their mental health because that’s their thing. It’s about being around people who believe the same as you. I don’t see a lot of people in Tyler being ultra-selfish. In the lower-middle class communities I grew up with, we were helping each other out all the time. Once, when I didn’t have a bed, a church donated a mattress and bed frame. [Tyler has] a strong sense of helping out your neighbor, and that will help get us through it. But if we push into a year, I’m not sure how strong that sense of community is going to be.

For graduation, I don’t know the timeline, but I imagine it will happen. There are more pressing things at hand than graduating on time. I try to be very flexible. I wasn’t expecting to move out of my parents’ house this early, but my mom moved to Georgia. I didn’t want to go, so I said, ‘I guess I have to find a way to stay here.’ I have a semester left in high school. I’m already enrolled in TJC. I plan on teaching in Tyler ISD. I have my roots here. And I didn’t plan for a pandemic, but it’s here.”

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Jane Neal is the executive director of The Tyler Loop and storytelling director of Out of the Loop: True Stories about Tyler and East Texas. In addition to the Loop, she works at the Literacy Council of Tyler and attends Sam Houston State University remotely, where she studies sociology. Jane is a certified interfaith spiritual guide. She is a member of Leadership Tyler Class 33 and a former teacher of French at Robert E. Lee High School, where she ran a storytelling program called Senior Stories. Jane and her husband Don have four children.