Quarantivities & Stories #11: A teacher perspective

I went to school today, to drop off some things for the Tribune, as well as use the printer. I was the only person on campus, aside from Officer Williams. All the lights were off. I tried not to touch anything. I had exactly 30 minutes. My room looks like what Ms. Tsuji so prophetically explained yesterday: a time capsule. “Read ‘Beloved’” is still scrawled on the board, which I had to abandon eight chapters in after they changed the AP test. The bean bag chairs are thrown haphazardly on top of one other. The March production cycle due dates are still up, since we left school prior to finishing. My classroom is short of a disaster zone. But I don’t want to touch or clean any of it, and not just because I’m a paranoid germ freak. There are so many deeper emotional reasons, too. 

This comes as probably no surprise to you, but teaching is a challenging profession normally. But damn. Teaching during this time is another level of hard.  

Here’s what I love about teaching: the daily interactions, those funny, serendipitous, unexpected moments, where a student says something offhand that leaves you crying laughing. It’s the door opening, hearing a quiet voice say cautiously: “Um…do you have a minute?”, that bonds you with students. It’s that every day is unexpected, with just enough routine to keep you motivated. It’s your work best friend bringing you a coffee on a hard morning. Mostly it’s the people. 

As an “introverted extrovert” (how I think of myself), teaching right now is … strange, uncomfortable … lacking. Most office hours I sit alone, waiting for someone, anyone, to join, or carry on what feels like awkward conversations because no one really knows how to interact virtually. I’m tired of asking, “How are you?” not because I don’t want to know, but because I do know: we are all struggling. Due dates are nonexistent, so I find myself constantly checking, hoping to find submittals because it means that a kid is doing okay enough to turn in an assignment. I’ve had to turn off those shaming “screen time reports” on my technology (guess I’m thankful I sprung for the blue light filter on my glasses a few months ago). Students’ check-ins are either vague — “I’m good,” or scary — I don’t even want to extrapolate here. Some kids I haven’t heard from in weeks, and I can’t decide if I’m more worried about their physical or emotional health. Trying to comfort over a screen or an email is a hasty, lousy substitute, but I’m doing my damndest. Google Meet is crap, Zoom is only a little better. I can’t reach across a screen and give a kid a high five or a reassuring look, and words don’t feel like enough. I can tell the students are scared. I’m scared. We’re all scared. 

We’re disappointed too. I didn’t get a graduation from my master’s program. I presented my final project and then hit “end call”, and then I ate a sandwich. It was anticlimactic and crushing, spending years of work on something that doesn’t even feel real or closed. I didn’t get the last two months of laughing over funny moments in AP Lit and I didn’t get to pump them up in person for their test. I played “Eye of the Tiger” on our virtual call; I hope it was enough. I didn’t get to surprise my tutors with a banquet I’d been planning since October to honor their service. I didn’t get the last two months of late-night Friday page designing, quietly supporting next year’s leaders, blasting Ben Platt in the sixth period, treasuring each and every moment with this year’s 17 seniors, four of whom I’ve known since Aug. 16, 2016, 11 of whom I’ve known since Aug. 14, 2017. We won’t have our end of the year banquet at the Editor in Chief’s house. I’m doing my best to make it as epic as possible, but it’s a Zoom call. I don’t get to cry on the very last day of school, during the very last period, as these seniors reflect on their incredible years in this program, everyone a snotty mess. I also miss my friends. I miss meandering around Target. I’d do just about anything to eat a pizza or have dim sum with my dad, not even giving a second thought as to the health of whoever prepared the food. On March 13, I was cranky and exhausted, proctoring the CAASPP test, trying to get through the day, pissed we were still at school. All I wanted was to be at home, safe from germs. I rarely regret things, but I regret that entire day, not being more present, not enjoying the freedom, not enjoying being around some of the people I love the most. I wish I could have given everyone I know a hug. 

But as a teacher, as one of my friends said, we can’t fall apart in front of our students, because they need us to be strong, brave, upbeat. So we just shove the fear, anxiety, numbness in another room when we hop on a (aforementioned glitchy and ill-designed) GoogleMeet call, projecting a “EVERYTHING IS GREAT” appearance and tone of voice. And we smile. 

But in this smile, I remember that there are still things to smile about. I know Daniela will attend every single one of my office hours, as well as her dog. Once, unexpectedly, it was a “bring your dog to the virtual office hours” kind of day. The Wildcat Tribune has won over a dozen awards in the past two weeks, and has achieved the honor of “SNO Distinguished Site,” which is the huge-st of deals. It’s because Dan, who never stops efficiently crushing his to-do lists, garnered the fervor and passion of an entire staff to make it happen. An entire AP Lit group chat congratulated me on the honor of a master’s degree; an entire Journalism staff planned a surprise Zoom call to sing to me on my birthday. Ms. Tsuji’s almost four year old, likes to FaceTime and show off her extensive stuffed penguin collection, all while lecturing me on bringing cupcakes to my friends and family, like she did on my birthday (with her mom and dad). Most days, I get to take a walk outside; I can’t remember the last time I didn’t feel guilty about just…walking and appreciating nature. It’s been gloriously breezy and sunny, and there are tall, old trees to look up at. I’ve been eating my weight in baked goods, which I am eating again, because, well, we all need sugar right now. I learned how to make really well-cooked pasta (hint: you need to use more salt than you’d ever think necessary). I’m tearing through books that aren’t for class that I’ve chosen to read. You can follow the adventures of Wellington the penguin, and all of my favorite celebs are doing such good. My Trader Joe’s has been, and continues to be, well-stocked, full of fresh fruit and vegetables I have time to eat and cook, Scandinavian Swimmers, and the four kinds of milk I ridiculously buy just for me. There are selfless, kind, wonderful people bagging my groceries, delivering Amazon wish list gifts straight to my door, caring for patients in the local hospital I luckily haven’t had to go to, plumbers unclogging my sink when my irresponsible upstairs neighbor misinterprets the idea of a disposal, the kindest of friends/coworkers helping me move in a pandemic and friends who check in with me daily. Slack keeps alive a lifeline between the 60 or so Tribune staffers, who share dog photos, recipes, unfortunate eyebrow maintenance accidents and other “uwu” moments. I’ve probably seen my friends more (although virtually) in the past two months than I have this year, because, well, we all finally can make time

I am blessed, I am lucky, I am grateful, I am marveling at this world. I am stressed, flailing, depressed, worried, numb. I am never just one emotion at one time (#complexity, for my AP Lit students), and that is okay. Some days I send texts like: “Well, nothing bad happened today”, others: “sorry for always being such doom and gloom”; on rare days I send marco polos to my sweet friend Jaclyn laughing hysterically because Sports Editor Ronit did a dare of cracking an egg on his forehead. Mondays are madness; I have to remind myself to get up from the computer and stop working. Saturdays though, I can save for me. Every night I write down three things I’m grateful for: number one is always my health, number two is usually a person; number three is usually random, but often just reflects my privilege. It’s good to reflect. It’s good to be real, and raw, and honest. It’s good to engage with our emotions. I remind myself to continue to feel things, but not live in fear and panic. I have to go outside and smell trees, even for just a few moments. I can only take my temperature so many times. My anxiety rises my temperature and sucks me into a spiral. I am okay. I can be strong. I can’t be afraid to live. 

We teachers do not have everything figured out. In fact, we probably have very little figured out. We are worried and sad and hopeful for you. We want to put on graduations, celebrations, classes for you; we also want to keep you safe. Our hearts break for you, at what you didn’t get to have, at what you’ve missed, at what you deserve but don’t have. I hate all of this. I try to remember that life often has not given me what I wanted. I take comfort in the fact that every time I did not get something I wanted, I often ended up with something better, but admit that I haven’t yet made it through a global pandemic (so I guess stay tuned?). I’m looking forward to still maintaining this theory on the other side of this. I can’t wait until I can open my classroom door again to students, give them a reassuring look, look over at students aggressively debating some topic on the bean bag chairs in the back of my classroom, as I realize how late it’s gotten, asking if they want to order pizza. I can’t wait to stress again about meeting a deadline, trudge through 680 traffic, try to wiggle my way through a crowded restaurant to meet friends, laugh, and then return home to fall asleep, actually tired. I am ready for normal. Or maybe a new normal, where we take on less, appreciate more, and carve out time, treating ourselves and each other better, reinventing the way our worlds work. I am truly not trying to be cliche here. I truly want to live in a different world, post-pandemic. 

I don’t speak for every teacher, but I do know we all miss you very much. Take care of yourselves. We’re trying to take care of ourselves too.