Most people have what can be deemed “normal” fears: spiders, fire, deep water, thrill rides. Much of the fears we let take over our psyches have origins in our childhood, or events that created an indelible mark on our memory. These fears can hinder our development, cause us to never take risks, or choose the path less travelled, out of worry of what might lurk in the shadows.
There are some whose jobs force them to find ways to cope with fear—of the unknown, of physical danger, even death. These are the explorers, scientists, rescue crews, soldiers, doctors, nurses and many more—noble and heroic individuals whose actions change the world and save the lives of their fellow people. Those who, because of these sacrifices, receive medals of honor and other well-deserved accolades.
Nowhere in Webster’s dictionary definition of teacher does it state that we are expected to face those fears I mentioned above. Nobody tells a teacher when they take their first pedagogy course or sign their first job contract that their chosen profession or “calling” qualifies as dangerous or life-threatening. They may joke about students running with scissors, or tell you that the worst you’ll probably endure is a combo of step throat and pink eye (speaking from experience). The next level is physical threats, something that we have increasingly dealt with when we were trained to cope with lockdowns, but 2020 has different plans for us educators, and is dishing out an unhealthy portion of fear to those who face the unknown.
It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that the average teacher experiences at least two or three back-to-school anxiety dreams as the heat of summer bakes away their remaining July days, where the alarm clock has become a temporary relic and the attire centers around to-bed-wear, instead of slacks, button downs, and sensible footwear.
These spontaneous sleep-deprivers are often fraught with moments that seem reminiscent of the Miss Hannigan regime in “Annie,” full of rule breaking little urchins singing the 2020 version of “It’s A Hard-Knock Life” as they destroy the textbooks, break the pencils, and wreak general mayhem that cannot be whisked away with a Clorox wipe. Perhaps, if one is lucky, these fantasies can include the eclectic “Breakfast Club” band of misfits or even the IQ-challenged crew in “Clueless.” Maybe the teacher imagines being late, the boss staring them down as they skulk in the doors. They jammed the copy machine with the last known piece of paper on campus or walked into the pep rally in their skivvies. Whatever the scenarios, they seem like a blessing compared to the recent addition to my BTS-dream repertoire.
Coronavirus’ resurgence over these past few weeks in America, and for us, in Texas, has tampered with my highlight reel. Gone are the moments of normal, expected panic dreams that turn into heartwarming episodes. They have been replaced by genuine fear to return to a classroom that feels like fifty shades of A Brave New World, with a dash of Lord of the Flies peppered in, just for kicks. If that’s one too many references for your twenty-years-since-high-school-Lit-class knowledge base, let me speak more clearly.
I am afraid to return to school this year, and resume the post of teacher.
My dreams have shifted to movie-quality horror films that are my intuition telling me that I’ll be entering a battlefield against an opponent who plans to play dirty.
No amount of uplifting articles (if there are any), or meaningful Bible quotes can undo this pervading cloud of dread. No pictures of zen nature spaces or instrumental music can calm my nerves, and it is because there is so much at stake.
No amount of online shopping for cute masks with whimsical patterns are bolstering my spirits, as I contemplate how many layers I need to protect myself, or seeing images of plexiglass partition walls that others are erecting (I see you, Texas legislature) feel like a comforting solution to floating particles.
I could do it before, when I was told to teach from home, away from the possibility of infection, when I did not have to worry about the direct impact of this virus on my students, their families, and most directly, my own little family. I could design plans that were heartwarming, engaging, and standards-aligned. Of course it was less of a human connection, but there were still laughs and poignant conversations.
Times have changed, and with them, so have I, in ways that are chipping away my normally optimistic interior.
I stay up late, reading health articles and trying (somewhat in vain) to locate reputable news sources to see where Texas is on the scale of one to apocalypse in this pandemic. I actually found a meme the other day that said: I just want to know what chapter of Revelations we are in today, so I can dress accordingly.
I voraciously scan the district and state websites for new mandates, praying that someone above us has enough sense to delay until the numbers decline or more medicines are tested that can alleviate symptoms, many of which are unexpected and cause long-term damage.
I make plans for a school year that could be any of the options behind doors numbers one thru three: in person, half and half, or all online. I make plans for my plans, then find myself writing a “choose your own adventure” type of plan that feels more appropriate to the climate.
I hesitantly read posts from high school friends, whose family members fought the hard fight and lost, or those whose children face it in their daycares. I champion my students who are frontline healthcare workers, applauding their grit. I see more famous, influential writers/musicians/actors come down with symptoms and post about ventilators and the isolation in ICU rooms. I send condolences, prayers, and all the good juju I can muster, but it’s not a remedy.
I feel like I’m pestering my close teacher friends in text message form, with hypotheticals and links to things I’ve read. Sometimes I try to lift spirits with a well-played pun or gif. We debate what it will all shake out to be, and how long it will take the “higher ups” at the state level to realize the implications of such a rushed pace to reopen.
Here’s the stark reality—one friend told me she had always reconciled herself to dying as a teacher, but expected it to be in a school shooting, not a pandemic. How telling is that?
I am unable to properly put into words the sense of frustration I feel that certain levels of this governing body do not see us, students and faculty/staff alike, as valuable enough to protect. We went from being honored for the impact we have on this, and future, generations to what feels like the Green Mile. Some are labeling us as sacrificial lambs or guinea pigs, neither of which we want on our resumes or transcripts.
Even more horrific, that there is even a school district in another state creating an “it ain’t our fault” style waiver relinquishing the right to sue the ISD if there are student or faculty casualties as a result of this insidious disease. I feel my heartbeat quicken as headlines race through my mind, claiming that teachers are updating their wills and taking out life insurance policies.
As each day on the calendar comes and goes, I look at my own children more intently, hug them a bit longer, force myself to find ways to make them laugh. I see my husband get up to work every morning and come home every night, thankful he has maintained his health while working at the airport.
I don’t want to leave them, infect them, or lose them.
I don’t want to lose a colleague or student.
I don’t want to live in constant fear and worry, unable to feel like I’ve got a choice.
This is where we’ve gotten in America, and it is startling.
The only was I see it is that the remedy for the virus of fear is compassion.
It starts at the top most levels and trickles down, and in this dice game of 2020, it feels like there could be more winners if they thought of the best interests of the many, rather than the few.
We need those individuals who wield the mighty powers of stay-at-home orders and school openings to show compassion—for educators and those they hope to educate, for the bus drivers, the cafeteria employees, the librarians—heck, the school nurses, who are going to take on a Herculean task come August.
Yes, we want normalcy to return, and for many, school, rather than home, is the place to seek and find it.
Yes, teachers and staff want to go back to what they do best—impacting the world one student at a time. In person. Conversing and building community within the walls of a classroom, not a Zoom room.
Yes, delaying openings and choosing online learning again is a spoonful of sand to swallow for many, and will be yet another burden on working parents (I know that struggle and have lived it, so I empathize).
However, if we are going to flatten this every-day rising curve and return to a time when the only germs kids had to worry about were “cooties,” then wiser heads need to prevail.
My hope is that these next few weeks will see the “what’s best” plans emerge, and the “band-aid temporary fix” plans take a seat.
To all involved in those steps, I pray for you. To the lawmakers, the policy upholders, the school boards, admin teams, principals, counselors—anyone who has the ability to impact our future, for better or for worse.
To my fellow teachers feeling unsure about what lies ahead, to the parents of my future students struggling with the choice, to the children who need school for a myriad of reasons, I pray for you.
Until then, I can only hope for more uplifting anxiety dreams. Miss Hannigan isn’t looking too shabby, at this point.
The only way we can unmask our fears of this virus is with the cure of compassion. Let’s just hope this magic elixir is found in time.