Saturday, March 28, 2020

Last Days of the Old Normal

 I’ll admit it. I was wrong in my last post, comparing our recent plague-times to the good old H1N1 scare of 2009. My goodness, what a simpler time it was TWENTY DAYS ago. So much has happened since then.

We were in this weird limbo that weekend when I wrote that post. I’d just learned that a student’s sibling had been hospitalized with a confirmed case. I wasn’t supposed to know, but there it was. I knew. My 1st period class was already seated. The bell had rung. And then a colleague came to the door to pick up the student’s belongings.

Discreetly, in the hallway, grieving beneath a businesslike efficiency, she told me. Now she wouldn’t have to bear that shock and sadness like a secret. We had each other’s back, and the family’s back, too. But I wasn’t supposed to know. So I acted as if I didn’t know.

Deep cleaning was set to happen over the weekend. All I could do was wipe down the desks with Clorox wipes and check my messages, waiting for the doctor’s office to call me back. They told me to call Public Health. Public Health told me to wash my hands and wait to see if symptoms showed up.

That weekend felt like it does when there’s a huge snowmageddon predicted that will supposedly shut down the city, but you don’t see a single cloud in the sky. Ostensibly, everything was still fine. We shopped for extra groceries just in case. But I planned my lessons and worked on my IEPs because there was no way, no way the schools would close. How would they possibly?

Monday, it was all the students could talk about. Those who were still coming to school, that is.   Every day for the past two weeks, my classes had been growing smaller and smaller. Fewer and fewer teachers were coming to work. There was news that two schools in our huge urban school district had closed – one of them citing a similar level of exposure that our own school had experienced. Still, we kept on going. I was proud to keep on going. The students who kept showing up needed routine and caring adults now more than ever. I figured I would keep showing up until they told me not to. I would NOT give in to Townspeople-of -South-Park-level panic. I. Would. Not.   

Tuesday started out normally enough. I woke up at the usual extra-early time to drive The Boy to track practice in the dark. I sat up lazily, picked up my phone, scrolled through social media, and clicked on a story about the situation in Italy.


And somehow, everything shifted.

I didn’t consciously change my mind about the seriousness of COVID-19. My mind just changed; its floor giving way to a bottomless well of grieving clarity. I felt sick. Not the sickness of a cold or flu…just a tidal wave of pure despair. I couldn’t move. I could barely breathe. As soon as I’d arranged for a sick day and a sub, I fell into a deep sleep filled with anxious dreams, not waking up until mid-afternoon.

And then…I got up. I worked on IEPs. I wrote lesson plans. I read emails about how horrendously my 4th period class had behaved for the sub and started working on a new seating chart. I emailed my colleagues reassuring them that I was all better and would be back at work the next day.

Wednesday, there were fewer students than ever, full of questions and concerns about coronavirus. We watched Governor Inslee speak during our Social Studies class. I answered their questions as best I could. I invited them again and again to wash their hands at the classroom sink. I gave my 4th period class the sternest of lectures about how they’d behaved for my sub the day before.

And then…the announcement came that schools were closing. None of us could believe it. The students weren’t even happy, as I’d expected – just stunned. It didn’t feel real. It couldn’t possibly be true.

But there it was.

And here we are.

A new normal.

It’s a normal I honestly can’t get my head around to define. I’ve called and texted emailed and emailed and texted and called, making sure everyone’s safe and sound. I’ve posted distance learning activities and smiled from the bottom of my heart when I see my students’ sweet little sentences. 

I’ve watched the cherry tree in our front yard go from cold bare branches to Laura-Ashley rose-colored buds to gloriously full cotton-candy bloom.

 I’ve fed the steller’s jays, who wait for me every morning like my own special flock of chickens. 


I’ve cancelled trips and hit “refresh” over and over on Amazon, jockeying for a grocery-delivery time slot. I’ve flailed in frustration trying to teach myself how to set up an IEP meeting on Microsoft Teams. I’ve done yoga on the kitchen floor in between e-mail pings from work. I’ve sat for hours with cats on my feet and shoulders. I’ve let my hair grow wild and mermaid-tangled and free.

I’ve absolutely savored all this extra time with my own kids, both of them teenagers now, so gorgeously themselves. They talk non-stop about D&D and video games. They binge-watch their shows and keep up with their schoolwork with minimum nagging. The Boy practices guitar, Grrrl writes and draws. They come and go from their rooms, making their own lunches but gathering as a family at dinner times.

I’ve cried only once – when I read about the high school principal in Brooklyn who died from this. Good people are going to die. The helpers. The ones who put themselves in harm’s way. I cried and then I picked up my phone and saw an opinion piece from the Seattle Times criticizing us teachers for letting our students down. I cried a whole lot more and stayed up all night delving into an audiobook to put it out of my mind. I woke up with a killer migraine, took some meds, answered some emails, had my first virtual team meeting.

The next day, I made enchiladas.

Mr. Black and I just ebb and flow, loving each other, still, with an older, stoic love. We are family to each other. We do what has to be done. We help each other, laugh with each other, squabble when it’s time to order online groceries – a process I love every bit as much as he detests. We move around each other like two old compatible cats in this strange new day-to-dayness of our lives.

What’s coming next, I can’t begin to imagine. The Battle of Hogwarts? Who can say. But, just as Hagrid said, a few books before that Battle of Hogwarts, “What’s coming will come, and we’ll just have to meet it when it does.”

Godspeed, my gentle readers. Stay safe. Wash your hands. 

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Plague & Privilege

I don’t mean to make light of it. Or maybe I do. It all feels so familiar, is all. Remember swine flu in 2009? Remember how people drove to other counties and stood in line for hours with their kids for the vaccine?

Grrrl was one month away from her 3rd birthday – just young enough to get her in under the wire when a limited supply of the vaccine became available at our pediatrician’s office. I felt a little silly showing up an hour early, but there was already a line around the block. In November. In Seattle. During a phase when Grrrl had some pretty serious opinions about never wearing a coat. Other parents were smart and had one waiting in line while the other waited in the car with the babies and toddlers. And they all had coffee. Why oh why had I not thought of bringing coffee?

Meanwhile, Mr. Black had already survived a confirmed case of that very swine flu two weeks earlier. He’d quarantined himself in our bedroom and actually managed to not pass it along to the rest of us. Still, my Grrrl and I hunkered down in the rain and waited for the vaccine line to move, reading her favorite books and singing her favorite songs, coat-less and coffee-less. We didn’t get swine flu. We didn’t even catch colds.

Now my Grrrl is 13, and she diplomatically asks if she can stay home from her Saturday activities. “Are you worried about coronavirus?” I ask.

“No, I’ve just had a bad week,” she says stoically, and after some encouragement tells me that some adult at school publicly called her out and scolded her for holding hands with one of her friends in the hallway. She’s not outraged, or even angry. Just quietly, deeply mortified.   

To make her feel better, I shared some of my own stories from the week. It started with dumb jokes, of course. Somebody coughs. Three other 8th graders yell and point “Aahhh! Coronavirus!” and it’s all fun and games until the anxious kid with seasonal allergies won’t come to school anymore.

The next time something like that happens, it’s not a joke at all. A different anxious student is screaming for real and demanding that student at her table stop sniffing (to be fair, it is pretty gross). But the also-anxious sniffing student she’s screaming at is crying. “It’s just phlegm. I don’t have coronavirus.” He happens to be Asian, and he’s fed up in a way he doesn’t completely grasp after several days of this. I intervene and manage to make it a little bit better. But the boy still cries on and off for much of the day, and the girl hasn’t been back to school since.

At my yoga class, the teacher asks us if we’re all working from home as much as possible. I’m surprised to be the only one in the class who doesn’t answer with an enthusiastic “YES.” When I say that I work in a middle school, so much about them freezes. Not just their bodies, but their facial expressions. It’s like..they have the presence of mind to not chase me from the room with pitchforks and torches, but they haven’t perfected a replacement behavior for that impulse. I joke about it on social media, but that look of frozen terror in those faces is going to haunt me. There’s something very….not funny about it.

At school, the jokes continue. We’re asked to present a lesson from our school nurse during homeroom to curb the hysteria and channel all that anxious energy toward hand-washing. You're welcome:

In the hallway, students are joking “Let’s lick the doorknobs so they cancel school!” There are reports of students fake-sneezing at people in Starbucks because HILARIOUS.

By Friday, well…shit gets slightly more real.

I am almost supernaturally calm, because this was inevitable. While the parents of our school’s Facebook page start engaging in exactly the rhetoric one would expect of parents on a school’s Facebook page, I wash my hands and discreetly message my doctor’s office for next steps.

Over the phone, a Public Health nurse advises me to just keep swimming, but monitor for symptoms for the next fourteen days. So that’s what I’ve been doing. Fever? Nope. Coughing? Nope. Shortness of breath? Nope with a side order of nope sauce. Lately I’ve been starting each morning by taking a big, luxurious breath of rich, creamy, full-fat oxygen. I count my blessings. And I acknowledge the privileged space I take up in this world.

I’m honest with Grrrl about all this, and I talk her through the likeliest scenarios. I assure her that even in the worst-case one, the four of us will be safe and sound with our health insurance, our paid sick days, our ability to purchase food and supplies ahead of time, our access to technology at home, and our being in low-risk groups to begin with.  

My fears are for the people who don’t have access to all of that. And my fears are for a society that is elbowing them out of the way to snatch up the last bottle of hand sanitizer.

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