Last week, I was standing in the hall at the high school, Thursday Exhausted, the type of tired teachers understand, feeling like a failure.
It had been a ledger day–everything felt tallied. I’d had some successes with virtual classes–Google Meet, evidently aware that worldwide morale was slipping, had released new backgrounds. Our Chromebook screens were joyous rainbows: one student was in a bed of roses; another surrounded by thundering horses; several were oceanside. It was a touch of absurdity, a smidgen of joy. A few students were eating candy–contactlessly delivered on a sanitized desk–and we all laughed, hard, when a football player turned red and started sweating because his atomic fireball was particularly atomic. It felt like a corner of normal.
But, always, during this pandemic, there is the reminder that nothing is normal–that normal is, for now away, having moved into the future, the smoke of a promise and a hope.
It is not something we now hold.
Sometimes, I miss it so. I miss college-ruled paper and sloppy penmanship and even bubble-heart dotted letters written in pink neon pen. I miss stacks of alphabetized papers carefully clipped together by a student helper whose hand-washing habits were of no concern to me. I miss dividing my weekends by sets of papers graded: three before the football game, two after church.
I miss the football game and the church.
My world is now isolated, so shrunken–it is my daughter, my pets, two friends . . . and my students. My COVID-avoidance world right now, truly, does not even include my coworkers. (If we infect one another, the dominos will certainly fall.)
My world is so small.
The halls had cleared, for there is no lingering now, and I was happy to spy a friend, a sweet coworker, the kind of woman I sometimes wish to be. It was homecoming week, and her costume was perfect–crisp, bright and joyful. Her hair and makeup, even at the day’s end, were both magazine-ready. (Me? I was wearing a black tee shirt that read, “Emotionally unavailable until 2021.”)
After catching up on a mutual student, I said I felt like I had done more wrong than right that day–it seems mistakes are easy, success is so hard.
She looked at me with kindness. And she reminded me, “That’s everyone right now.”
I think the hardest thing–the absolute hardest thing-about this pandemic is the mental living that we must all do right now
It’s a kind of hard that nothing in my life has ever been.
In this sterile, hugless world, where our backs are not patted, our hair is not tousled, where our hands are unshaken, unheld, we are–all of us–aware of our minds like never before. Because our brains are bored (so the scientists say) and absent of our usual distractions (restaurants, outings), our thoughts are unrelenting, their staccato pounding constant. Our brains dissect every action and analyze every word spoken. And, oh, how they criticize us.
And your brain will gaslight you. Your brain will say it is just you.
Our brains are bullies, liars, and cynics. They are programmed to remember the bad more quickly than the good. And they never stop: The latest studies indicate that we think at least 6,000 a day.
3,000 thoughts at work.
With 97 teenagers.
During a pandemic.
You would think that every teacher could be kind to herself. That no teacher would need to be reminded: it’s not just you.
A wise friend–who is not in education–said yesterday, “Step back and see the forest.”
Step back and see the forest.
It is the most confounding of conundrums. We are in a pandemic that we cannot quit thinking about, but we simultaneously never consider the fact that we are in a pandemic.
Somehow, the pandemic everyone else is enduring is–mentally–an entity separate from us. It is 9/11 massive, and our worlds are church-bulletin small.
Because of this dichotomy, we want our own own worlds to be unaffected by it, striving to maintain pre-pandemic standards for ourselves, to have our papers graded, our beds made, our hair done, and our meals homemade.
We demand so much from ourselves, despite the pandemic.
Everyone in the world is emotionally low right now. But still, our inner critics demand that we, ourselves, be unlike them. That we get more done, that we remain unchanged in our performance. At work. At home. As friends. As spouses. As parents.
It’s as if we think there will be a medal ceremony at the end of this, and we are determined to reach the highest podium, medalists all.
There will be prizes our brains insist, refusing to think of dead and hospitalized friends, dismissing mask mandates, ignoring CDC holiday-planning advice, rejecting all things Covid. Prizes.
Last night, for only the second or third time since March, I crawled into bed with my twenty-year-old daughter. I had to touch a person. The dogs piled atop us, reveling in the novelty. We lay in the dark, Jennifer Hudson’s voice filling the room, a certain comfort, a firm declaration.
There are no prizes. But there is this.
That, we recognize.
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