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THE EARNHEARDTS | How I remember the Greek alphabet

The Earnheardts
The Earnheardts

To be honest, I’m surprised we’re still writing this column.

When Mahoning Matters founding editor Mark Sweetwood asked Mary Beth and I to pen our reflections on parenting during the pandemic, I never thought COVID would last this long. So I certainly didn’t think we’d still be writing this column in 2022.

Yet, like COVID, we persist.

I’m also surprised by my ability to recall important facts and useful tools to guide my limited understanding of COVID. These facts and tools help me navigate critical conversations with our kids about what COVID is, how the CDC and others are trying to manage it and how we define related terms like vaccines and variants.

Remembering things these days is tough (hence my surprise). This is because I’ve been lost in a COVID brain fog these last few weeks. COVID brain might be a longer-term side effect of contracting the dreaded virus, but there are some things I’m proud to say, “Hey, I remember that.”

As evidence, I offer exhibit alpha: I actually remember the Greek alphabet.

I know each symbol of the Greek alphabet. I know how to spell each letter. I even know how to sing it. Much like singing the ABC’s to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” there’s a clever tune I learned in college. Well, in a fraternity to be precise.

Back in college, I pledged Sigma Chi fraternity. Educational requirements for becoming new brothers included learning the Greek alphabet. Our illustrious magister was brother Ron Berry. Taken from the term used to describe scholars who taught in medieval universities, the “magister” was the brother responsible for getting pledges ready for initiation.

Like other fraternities, there was lots of partying. I won’t lie. That was one reason why I joined. But there was something more in the way my future brothers comported themselves. There was a very serious, reverent side to our bonds of fraternity. Note, too, that these were ideals established by a group of young men in the 1850s that we still celebrated in the 1990s. Thus, included in our preparation was a program that helped instill the ideals that served as our foundation.

At the forefront of those ideals was The Jordan Standard, a set of principles for guiding decisions about who could be initiated. One line in the Standard that I always loved was “A student of fair ability…”

“Heck,” I remember thinking. “That’s me!” I was never a straight-A student. I hated some subjects in school. But when I put my brain to it, I had a “fair ability” to pass my classes and learn the subjects I needed to get me through life. This got me through my undergraduate years until I really flourished as “a student of slightly better than fair ability” in grad school.

We learned a lot about our fraternity and Greek life in those classes with magister Berry. But I never thought the little jingle he taught us would help decades later with COVID-related conversations. For example, when the delta variant hit, I said to Mary Beth, “I wonder what happened to the alpha, beta and gamma variants.”

According to Louis Jacobson of PolitiFact, “the first four ‘variants of concern’ — alpha, beta, gamma and delta — have been circulating in the United States for most of [2021]. But the most dominant variant has been delta, due to its ability to spread from person to person more quickly than other variants.”

Makes sense.

But last week when I was chatting with our teenage daughters about the omicron variant, I said, “Wait. I know there are a lot of Greek letters between delta and omicron.”

And then I broke out into song, “Alpha, beta, gamma, delta…” The horror in their eyes was amazing.

“Please don’t do that again,” they pleaded.

There are 10 letters between delta and omicron. I found it strange that the World Health Organization would just jump to omicron. Turns out, there are several “variants of concern” (alpha, beta, gamma, delta, omicron) and at least two “variants of interest” — lambda and mu — according to the WHO website. Lambda and mu were two of our missing letters.

The WHO didn’t technically skip straight to omicron. It’s just that the other variants didn’t rise to the level of “concern.” That was true for most of the letters. According to a WHO report on best practices for naming infectious diseases, “nu” and “xi” were skipped out of concern that those names might either confuse (nu, when pronounced, sounds a lot like “new”) or offend (Xi is a very common surname in other parts of the world).

“Oh my,” Mary Beth said in exhaustion. “What happens when we get to omega?”

Silence covered the room. Everyone’s eyes popped in response. Because of my little ditty, they knew the last letter was omega. Or maybe they already knew. Regardless, the thought was ominous.

I brushed it off. “Meh. I think they’ll probably just move to doubling the names,” I said. “Like ‘alpha alpha’, maybe?”

Whatever the WHO protocol, I hope we don’t end up at the Sigma Chi variant someday. That will just be weird.

More than anything, I hope COVID will go away soon, or at least before we get to omega. While we anticipate the end, we’ll be here, writing and reflecting on the challenges of raising children during a pandemic, singing songs about Greek letters and other things along the way.

Adam Earnheardt is professor of communication at YSU, executive director of the Youngstown Press Club and interim executive director of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Follow him on Twitter at @adamearn.

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