A peek inside my COVID-19 life.

Every ten days or so, I bring home a reusable tote bag stuffed with microfiber cloths. These cloths have been sprayed with a disinfectant and then used to wipe down the mice and keyboards in the lab I share with Mr. Stueve.

We could just spray directly on the keyboards and mice—and we used to—but it leaves a sticky film that irritates the students, so we started cleaning this way, after every class that uses the computers, and haven’t heard many complaints since.

Though maybe they are keeping the complaints to themselves.

Our custodial staff is amazing, and they make sure that we never run out of the cleaners that we need (one for the tech and fabric chairs, a different one for the desks). We have a steady supply of gloves so that our hands don’t have to touch the cleaner. They fog our room every night. They are each performing Herculean sanitizing tasks, and I worry about the toll on their health.

But the smell of the cleaner—it does something to me.

When I put those cloths in my car, I can’t escape the smell, and that’s when I start to glimpse the toll teaching face-to-face in a pandemic has taken on me. I’ve heard that the sense of smell is tied most to memory, and the memories associated with this cleaner aren’t entirely pleasant.

I wash them—twice, to try and rid the stench—and then I use homemade vinegar and lavender oil dryer sheets to try and make a dent. When I fold them, I take a random cloth and see if anything has worked. The scent is more faint, but it’s still there.

On the bright side, it’s a good test for my own efforts to avoid getting COVID-19 (haven’t lost my sense of smell yet).

I’ve seen a lot in my social media feeds in recent weeks about mental health of students who’ve been remote learning now for nearly a year. Groups are clamoring for students to return to the classroom, citing mental health as a key reason.

The stories I’m currently missing, though: what about the mental health of students who returned to face-to-face instruction last August? What about the mental health of their teachers?

Mental health is a public health issue, pandemic notwithstanding. Sending kids and teachers back to school isn’t going to solve it. I’m sad that so many people seem to think it will.

Because I’m here to tell you—when I walk down the hallway to the lab after Mr. Stueve has cleaned it, and the scent of that cleaner permeates two layers of a cloth mask and a five-layer mask filter, my stomach churns. When I open the washing machine full of microfiber cloths and am overpowered with the cleaner odor, my heart starts to race. Those are physiological reactions that I usually associate with my fight or flight response.

I can’t wait to never smell this again, and I worry what will be triggered if I ever do.

If I’m thinking it…

I told a class this week that if they were thinking of a question or comment, chances are that at least two other people were thinking something similar, so they should speak up. In that same spirit, in case you have sneaky moments that untether you from any stronghold you’ve been able to anchor yourself to, here you go.

I figure if I was thinking it, at least one other person out there is too.


Comparison is the thief of joy, so goes the saying, and yet…

We are in a pandemic where I feel I need to give so much grace to my students and yet…

I want someone to pull me aside and tell me it’s all okay, that everything will be okay, and yet…

(Not that I would even listen to or believe them because the evidence feels overwhelming that nothing is okay.)

Sometimes you have to remind yourself to find the wins and remember that they are, in fact, wins.

Sometimes you have to wear metaphorical horse blinders, you just cannot look around at what others are doing, how you perceive others are succeeding while you feel you are failing, and instead ask yourself, “is today just incrementally better than yesterday?”

Sometimes you have to write the advice you’d give if someone came to you distraught, despondent, discouraged, and remind them–and yourself:

You’re doing the best you can.

Perception is rarely reality

The people who matter are on your side.

It’s all okay, everything will be okay.

Hi, October.

“How many of you thought we’d still be in school on October 1?” I asked my first class during the break we take in our 100 minute time together; twice as long as usual to minimize passing periods in hopes of managing the spread of coronavirus.

No one raised a hand, and several students slowly shook their heads.

Apparently, not many of us expected we would still be in school. So I asked a second question.

“How many of you started school thinking it would last about two weeks and then you’d be home again?”

Again, no hands went up but several heads nodded.

“Me too. I didn’t think we would make it this far. And I think that’s why we might be feeling a little off. Anyone else feeling bad vibes when they’re here?”

Nodding heads.

And then I told them—I think we all need a paradigm shift.

I know I started the year without my usual plans or excitement. The new protocols are mostly manageable, but are exhausting at times. I told myself I could handle things “until we go remote,” thinking it would happen within the first month.

Yet today, I made folders in my Google Drive for Week 8 of lesson plans.

We’re here, pals. And for what looks like the duration.

September felt incredibly bleak for me. The inconsistent weather, the “will-we-or-won’t-we” undercurrent regarding staying in school, not seeing friends or family because who knows what I’m carrying around on my skin, wondering if every cough or general malaise meant a 14-day quarantine—just bleak.

But there is something about seeing the calendar flip to a new month that always makes me feel some motivation to change. To shift the paradigm set by the previous month.

So that’s what I plan to do.

I think I’ve shared the Action for Happiness people before, but I’m sharing it again. If you’re pulling yourself out of similar doldrums, check out their app or their calendar, which has small things to do every day that might make your October a bit brighter.

Today’s action is write down your most important goals for the month. So here goes.

  1. Stop waiting for a shut down that might never happen (a.k.a. set up your damn desk finally).
  2. Revisit the “rewirements” from the Science of Well-Being class. Implement at least 3 a day.
  3. Do the daily mindfulness challenges from the Educator’s Health Alliance.

And because I didn’t want to lose my initial momentum, I went ahead and set up my damn desk today.

The desk in one of my classrooms. I hesitated to set it up for two months. Figured it was time.

Grieving.

I woke up this morning to lots of dread. The days of me being able to control my exposure to Covid-19 are waning, and that reality is starting to hit me. After a summer of trying really hard to err on the side of positivity, of hoping leaders will do what’s best, I broke. I sat in my bed and sobbed.

Lately on Sundays, I have a bit of a different worship routine—I listen to one of Kate Bowler’s podcasts, followed by an episode of the Evolving Faith podcast, before tuning into church on Facebook Live. I’m behind on Bowler’s podcasts, and realized this morning I had missed one from last May, not long after Rachel Held Evans died. The topic was grief and her guest, Reverend Dr. Susan Dunlap, reminded listeners of disenfranchised grief.

I wrote about such grief a couple of years ago, as it relates to grieving the children I would never raise, but this morning it took on a different meaning. There is no societal recognition of the grief I feel facing down an unknown school year. There is no societal recognition of the grief I feel knowing my class sizes will be smaller, knowing that there is a possibility my colleagues and students might get sick—and not fully understanding the long-term consequences of such an illness. And no societal recognition of the grief I feel for how much my job is changing this school year.

Two hours after I listened to Bowler’s podcast, I tuned in to church, and the sermon was about grief.

(God is something else, amirite?)

Today’s sermon was delivered by Rev. Debra McKnight, and her words about grief reminded me that grief is a necessary human reaction that shouldn’t be reserved for losing a loved one. Paraphrasing here: she reminded me that we can grieve loss, tension, and life just being difficult. And grief is something we must honor and give its place if we want to move forward into healing.

I start back to school this week, first with schedule pickup, then my first full day of work time on Friday. Next Monday is the first day with all staff. We are moving forward with a plan that has unknown outcomes. The unknown is hard, this moment is hard, and if grieving helps me—or my students, friends, parents, colleagues—move forward, then please don’t deny that grief. Don’t default to toxic positivity and inundate us with platitudes. Don’t tell us to “get over it.” Sit with those educators and students in your life that right now might be feeling grief. Acknowledge their fear of the unknown. Support them how they need to be supported—which looks different for everyone. (For me, it’s usually memes and potatoes in any form.)

But I agree with the reverend: to move toward healing, we must first give place for the grief.

Hold the right people accountable, please.

A Sunday morning rant.

Or maybe a sermon, depending on your beliefs.

Every year, I spend about $70 on Kleenex and hand sanitizer for my two classrooms. I do this because I don’t want students to miss instructional time by going to the restroom to blow their noses and wash their hands when sick, but also because I think it’s just kind to offer those basic conveniences. But due to budget cuts, Kleenex and hand sanitizer hasn’t been provided to teachers in my district for years*. I’m not necessarily complaining about that—it’s just part of the reality of my chosen profession.

Since many schools are looking to return at full capacity in two weeks, I keep seeing images of rearranged classrooms with safety measures created by the teacher to allow for as normal a return as possible.

If you’re praising “American ingenuity” because a teacher used shower curtains and pvc pipes and empty milk jugs or whatever to create a “safer” learning environment for their students, I want you to stop for just a minute and think.

Who paid for the plexiglass separators between you and your cashier at the grocery store?

Who paid for the signage imploring its customers to socially distance?

Who paid for the extra masks to hand out in case a patron forgot theirs?

Did the cashiers set up a GoFundMe to pay for all these things? Did the store managers take a trip to Lowe’s and bulk order plexiglass and then spend a weekend cutting them to size in his garage?

Or did corporate spring for it?

If you’re screaming for schools to reopen, are you also screaming at your congressional representatives, state legislators, governors to provide emergency funds to your district to ensure the safety of teachers, students, custodians, secretaries, paras, and administrators?

Or are you looking at these reconfigured classrooms, feeling a sense of satisfaction and maybe even pride that a teacher “figured something out” and then you send it to all your teacher friends suggesting it as something they should spend their own money on creating?

If it’s the latter, stop. If you have suggestions for how to spend money to keep students safe, make sure you’re telling the right people: the people who control how much money school districts receive. Ask the people you elected to govern and have stewardship over your tax dollars to pay for safety measures. Stop expecting teachers to just “figure it out.”

Amen.

*Edit: Since posting this Sunday morning, I’ve been told that there is a stash of Kleenex available to teachers in my building. I was told one year it no longer would be provided, and never checked back to see if things had changed. Apparently it has, though I was not told explicitly and don’t recall receiving any official notification that such supplies were available to staff.