During first period on Thursday, March 12, 2020, one of the sophomores in my English II class looked up from his phone and said, “They just closed.”
He was referring to one of our peer schools, an institution with whom our school shares a lot of cues – such as when to close down during a global pandemic.
Over the previous couple of weeks, all of my classes had begun with an anxious conversation with my students about Covid-19. They were the ones anxiously asking questions, and I was the one doing my best to answer them in a reassuring way, debunking myths and providing the best information I had about the virus and what we knew and what we still didn’t. Oddly, I was not, myself, feeling their same sense of worry. Yes, I knew things were serious, and yes, I was fairly well informed of the news (the accurate variety), but also? I have a brother who lives in Hong Kong, and so I’d already been dealing with Covid for a while now and could see its trajectory. His near-daily updates had me feeling like I had one foot three months in the future.
Over the previous couple of days, the WHO had declared Covid a global pandemic, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo had been shut down, and shit was starting to get real.
It was Thursday, March 12. The next day my sophomores were going to be taking a test over Othello, and then we were all going to go on Spring Break. That day in my classes they were having independent work time to study for their tests. So when my student said, “They just closed,” I wasn’t annoyed that he’d been checking his text messages.
I said, “Well, I suspect it’s just a matter of time, then, before we do too.”
By lunch that day, our school had announced that we were shutting down at the end of classes, that the next day (Friday) would be a prep day for teachers and a come-get-things-from-your-locker day for students, and that we would go into distance learning after Spring Break until the end of March.
I figured out a way to put my test securely online. I emailed my students a list of things they needed to take home that would get them through the rest of the semester in distance learning (just in case), and I instructed my own children (who attend this same school) to clean every last thing out of their lockers because I was pretty sure we weren’t coming back to campus before the end of May.
I told my students, “I’m really not worried about this. I think going into distance learning is a good idea and am actually looking forward to working from home for a couple of weeks!”
That was not a lie, or my putting a brave face on things. I one hundred percent meant it, and I stand by it still.
I won’t say the transition to distance learning was seamless or perfect, and certainly some classes had a harder time than others, but it really wasn’t that bad for me. Over Spring Break – like all of my colleagues – I spent a lot of time getting ready for the transition. I cleaned out my writing study, transforming it from a storage room that contained my desk, my laundry drying rack, and other remnants of the internalized narrative that I was last on my own priority list…into a charming space that could respectably be my new classroom, no virtual backgrounds required.
Our school is remarkably well-resourced, and so we had all the tech we would need to make distance learning work. My classes were synchronous on Zoom. And although it took the school a while to make the decision to stay in distance through the end of the school year in May, that’s what we did. And while I’m sympathetic to the seniors whose end-of-year expectations and plans were thwarted in various ways, remaining in distance was absolutely the right choice.
But for me as a teacher, and for some of my colleagues, the past year has been…tough. Our school returned to in-person learning mid-September after starting the school year in full distance. We returned to campus in a hybrid mode, although families could decide whether to keep their kids at home full-time. (We personally did for a bit longer, which is what our germ-shy kids really wanted anyway.) Then a month later we had an almost-full return to campus for four days a week – yet because of physical distancing and the small percentage of students choosing to remain in distance, every class was still a hybrid situation, with some of my students in my classroom and the rest of them on Zoom. Come January, we returned to in-person learning five days a week with an even smaller percentage of students remaining in distance.
If that sounds like a lot of pivots, it was. And each one meant a different schedule.
But there have been a lot of opportunities in all of this. For me as a teacher, and for some of my colleagues, the past year has been a chance to recognize that there is more than one path to successful pedagogy. Some of us have learned new ways of teaching. Almost all of us have learned new technology. And many of us have found new ways to reach our students and care for them through the pixelated distance of ongoing dystopian uncertainty. We’re managing. We’re doing it, because we are teachers, and for better or worse, “handle it” is what we do.
I won’t say all of it has been easy. I can’t really say any of it has been easy, except for the much shorter commute of walking down the hall rather than driving to work. All the rest of it has been hard in a variety of ways. And for teachers who also have children at home who are having to attend school from home – well, that’s really hard, too. Some have thrived in this environment; most have not. Some of the most painful moments over the last year involved seeing people post things on their social media in mid-October such as “It’s finally the REAL first day of school and I’m so glad my kids can finally leave the house!”
These comments were celebratory and well-intentioned – and also incredibly hurtful in the narrowness of their perspective. The first day of school had been in August. And most of us had been working like Sisyphus to make it a meaningful experience for everyone.
And yes, a lot of people were understandably very happy to be getting back onto campus. And a lot of people had no choice but to come back to campus, despite having vulnerable family members and a doctor’s recommendation not to do so.
A few days before we returned to in-person learning in September, I was trying to prepare my classes for our upcoming hybrid scenario by putting as positive a spin on things as I could, talking up the numerous safety protocols they could expect at school and the benefits of being on-campus part of the week. One of my students asked me, at the end of class, whether I had a choice in returning to campus.
I thought about the many parts of my life that were unfolding and crumbling, remaking themselves into surreal and uncharted origami around me. There had been so many different varieties of loss. I was living in crisis/survival mode, and it wasn’t even all about school – which was, oddly enough, the most predictably stable unstable-feeling thing on my daily to-do list. Sure, I thought, I have a choice. Everything is a choice. I could choose to live in a yurt in Alaska.
Well, that snarky thinking wasn’t helpful, even if he probably would have found it funny. And I wasn’t going to lie to him. I smiled and explained that I chose to continue teaching. He’s a smart kid; he understood what I meant.
“That’s immoral,” he said.
I shrugged and smiled again. “It is what it is, and I look forward to seeing you in person next week.”
Like many of my colleagues, I pushed down my abject fears about what was coming and just handled it.
There’s a popular expression around these parts: “There are no libertarians in a pandemic.”
I don’t know whether that’s true. The US government’s response to the pandemic in 2020 was decidedly less competent and even more griftastic than I was expecting – which is saying quite a bit. The year of living pandemically has had its horrible troughs of wretched despair, even aside from Covid, which itself has been alternately numbing and terrifying. There have been times in the last year when I didn’t think things could get much more doomsy, and then I was rather unpleasantly surprised.
Much of 2021 so far has been one long decompression, unclenching from the existential dread I’d been balled up into for a while, punctuated by occasional bursts of severe disappointment at The Way Things Are Still Sometimes Going. But at least those ratios are back in their proper places. We have much work yet to do, but I’m thrilled now to be coming into the natural daylight at the end of that sociopathic tunnel.
So I don’t know about those proverbial libertarians. What I can tell you is that in a pandemic, a bunch of people turn into Lady Macbeth, washing our hands like we’ve convinced our husbands to murder the rightful king and can’t get the blood off.
But not all of this past year of living pandemically has been bad, not at all.
I’ve had a lot to be grateful for, not least of which is an excellent, time-tested marriage and a household that mostly gets along, especially because we have enough space to be locked down in a house together.
Besides the logistics of my job, other things have changed too. Even though I’m no longer teaching from home, I’ve managed to keep my writing study an earnest Room Of One’s Own. It’s no longer a catch-all reminder that I’m still putting myself last. Now it’s a room I can genuinely, happily work in and one of my favorite places in the house.
I no longer spend four to five hours every weekend grocery shopping and running errands. We no longer go go go go go all weekend without getting any rest. We’ve made liberal use of delivery services and are definitely doing our part to support the gig economy. We’ve instituted formal house cleaning times into our schedule so it’s not one never-ending task that doesn’t really fully get done. (The jury is out on how much my family likes this part.) We’ve subscribed to most of the streaming services out there, and I’m enjoying being a homebody for a change. We’ve seen a lot of excellent, entertaining content – and there’s so much excellent content out there for us to enjoy! (No nostalgia here for those whacked-out days of “reality” TV.) Family movie nights and game nights are back.
I’ve stopped most shopping, other than for necessities. I’ve really begun paring down my lifestyle and trying to be more sustainable. I’m supporting local and independent makers and booksellers as much as I can. For one example, I now indulge in really delightful bars of artisan soap rather than store-bought body washes that will leave me with a big empty container that has to go into a recycle bin or a landfill when I’m done with it. (Bars of soap just dissolve, after all.) Last year I read forty-one books, for fun. I’m writing a new novel, again.
Without putting too fine a point on it, I’ve learned a bit more about my priorities in life and how to enact them in meaningful ways.
I’ve also begun doing livestreams, which was a part of my writing career that I definitely didn’t have experience with yet. I even launched a book in October, online. It was…different. But good, too. And definitely a fun time.
While the rest of my household is filled with introverts, I’ve always been an extrovert. Like, 90% extrovert on the Meyers-Briggs scale. My house isn’t my home until I’ve thrown a party in it. Well, the last party I threw was for my birthday. Last year. Less than a week before our school and our city and our country locked down. I just had another birthday, and no party for it – for the first time in my life. The Covid-year milestone coincided with my annual milestone in a surreal way. And it’s too depressing for me not to celebrate turning the numbers over on my solar orbit. So what am I going to do? Host a Zoom party, of course. I hope it’s not too awkward. It will just be good to see my friends for a bit, the ones who can be there.
Like everything else over the past year, it will be different. And that’s okay!
My year of living pandemically has had its good moments and bad moments, its challenges and happinesses. Perhaps in this regard it has not been too unusual a year? I like thinking of it that way, a little bit. I think a reordering of my habits and lifestyle has been a good thing, overall, even if I’m heartbroken over the catalyst for it.
This weekend I’ll get my second dose of the vaccine. By Easter, I will be fully immunized against this fell disease. And I’m not alone – a lot of people are out there, protecting themselves and others by subscribing to a belief in science. This virus is going to be managed, and we will adapt.
I have a lot to be grateful for, when I ferret out the good parts of this past year of living pandemically. And now that I’m turning the numbers over one more time personally, it’s a natural time to sit and take stock. To find the small celebrations, whatever they are, and appreciate them. To enjoy the good weather. To brew a fine cup of tea. To eat a square of dark chocolate every day. To read, to write, to love.
Here’s to refining one’s priorities. Here’s to everyone who makes our lives balance on the good side of the scale. Here’s to innovative teaching. Here’s to reading, to writing, and to love.
Here’s to the natural daylight. May all of us, always, be able to find it again.