2020 was difficult; everyone says so. A year ago, we were just beginning to hear about a strange virus in China. Only those of us who are avid news junkies had any awareness of it at all. A virus on the other side of the world in a country that is foreign in every sense of the word, held little meaning for most Americans. We had our own problems. Little did we know, our problems were about to snowball in a way we never imagined. We watched as California and Australia burned. American politics were quickly unraveling. Police brutality and race relations brought on protests and violence. We were beginning to see a resurgence of white supremacy movements. We talked of climate change and global warming. We debated immigration issues. We impeached our president (for the first time). As bad as we may have thought things were at the time, in hindsight things were pretty good in comparison. What we had to look forward to was a global pandemic that we as a nation were not prepared for, nor did we handle well at all.
First, it was the quarantined cruise ships. Then there was the nursing home in Washington State that had an outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. It so happens that my daughter lives in Seattle where it all seemed to begin within the United States. She was telling me about the spread there and the need to lockdown. It did not seem real. She kept telling me how serious it was, that it would surely spread across the country and to pay attention.
I had a trip planned to visit my daughter over Spring Break in March. When I canceled my flight at the last minute, friends here in Texas thought I was being overly dramatic. No, I told them, it’s bad and it’s coming our way. Some things you hate to be right about; this was one of those. I was a librarian in a public school, and we did not return after Spring Break.
Instead, we learned how to work and teach from home. Students attended class remotely. This was new for all of us and we figured it out as we went along. We made mistakes. We managed. We learned new and sometimes better ways to do things. We began attending meetings via Zoom and conducting class that way too. We pushed out laptop computers and hot spots to students. The school cafeteria provided curbside meals so students would not go hungry. Students in our district did not return to a brick and mortar school until the fall although teachers came back in May for a few weeks. Many of us believed we should not return to school at all until we could do so safely and confidently.
School districts across Texas, the Texas Education Agency and the governor had different ideas. Get students back in the school buildings at all cost, no matter what. It did not matter that cases were climbing ever higher or that people were dying from the virus. Teachers and students needed to go back. Unrealistic promises were made to do so safely. There was nothing safe about it.
SCHOOL SAFETY DURING COVID
We returned in August. Zoom meetings came to an end. In person staff meetings resumed without following the six -foot separation rule. Mask wearing, although officially compulsory, was in reality, voluntary. A classroom filled with teachers, already weary and the summer not quite over yet, worried together as they tried to figure out the new reality. Just like the nation, the room comprised those who listened to the Science and those who truly believed the virus to be a hoax and those who fell somewhere in between. Some of us in masks sat as far away as possible from the unmasked, yet we still shared the same recirculating air in an old building with an outdated circulation system. We worried. We fumed at the lack of concern our co-workers displayed. We tried to speak up diplomatically. We tried to be firm.
Students quickly learned when they returned, which classes they had to mask up and respect social distancing in and which ones were mask-free. The lack of consistency made any effort toward safety a joke. I became a grumpy librarian, constantly reminding students and teachers both to wear their masks properly, to distance, to use hand sanitizer. The library was no longer a fun, safe space. The anxiety was exhausting.
I lasted one semester in that environment. After much introspection and many conversations with my husband, I decided to take my retirement in December. The day the decision was made, I began to relax.
Understand, I love being a librarian and a teacher. I love sharing my love for reading with students and talking books with them. By the time I made the choice to give it up, so many extra duties were loaded on me that had very little to do with assisting teachers or student interaction and with the dangerous circumstance of a global pandemic on top of it all, the job had lost its purpose. It was time for me to go.
But here’s the thing: when it all started last March, I viewed the pandemic and what was happening particularly in education, to be an opportunity. An opportunity. We were in crisis mode and this was our chance to make an already broken system better. We figured out that while some students struggled with distance learning, others thrived. We were forced to quickly improve much needed technology and other learning tools. Why not create a hybrid system that works where some teachers teach remotely and others in the classroom? Why not take advantage of 21st century technology and teaching methods to enhance learning for all students? Why not improve the quality of life for students, teachers and parents?
Instead, we were told that teachers would have to struggle with simultaneously teaching remote learners with students in the classroom. Nothing was taken off of teachers’ (or students’) plates. There would still be standardized testing that serves little purpose other than lining the pockets of large testing corporations and allowing politicians to pretend they are doing something. Nothing changed. Square pegs are still being forced into round holes.
If my profession would not take advantage of this opportunity for positive change, then I would do so for myself. If the entire world is so dead set on maintaining a mediocre status quo when provided with this gift of a slowed down life, that doesn’t mean I have to follow suit.
I have made changes for myself and it has been oh so good. In the last year I have learned how to live in the moment. I have learned to be at peace. I have learned to truly appreciate the simple things and to spend time with those who really matter.
My lifestyle has transformed into something better. It is becoming more holistic, pure and genuine. Before, I started and ended my day with a nearly one-hour drive. At work, I juggled between librarian, teacher, administrator, bureaucrat and custodian. At home, I crashed in front of the television most days. I struggled to exercise, to write, to spend time with friends and family. I went out to dinner and ran errands. I attended social events with varying degrees of interest. I met obligations to others. I lived the hectic life we all know so well.
When we went into lockdown in March, I stayed home with my husband and dogs. I worked from home. My husband baked sourdough bread (who didn’t?) and I sewed masks (who didn’t?). We stopped dining out or going to beer and wine tastings. We didn’t see friends or family. We slowed down and it was nice! Life became richer. Days were more meaningful. I began to learn how to appreciate the moment. This was a much healthier lifestyle than anything I had ever known, and I wanted to keep it.
MAKING IT WORK
So, I ended my career in education and I have been home almost two months now. While I am looking for some sort of job, my hope is to find something part-time and working remotely from home. In the meantime, I have been afforded the luxury of putting writing first for the first time in my life. I feel whole. I get to be me 100% of the time. I have lost that anxious feeling and I can breathe. My world is smaller. I walk the dogs each morning and then go for a run. I write until lunch. After lunch I work on job hunting chores for a few hours. I do a little housework here and there. I rarely drive anywhere. On the weekends we may socially distance in the backyard with our dearest friends or with my sisters-in-law. Every few weeks or so I make the hour drive to see my parents or take them to a doctors’ appointments. I am in control of my time and my energy for the first time in my life.
I have been able to use this strange time of COVID to improve the way I live. I know how fortunate I am to be able to do this. I am grateful. It’s hard to say if this is permanent, but I like to think so. My heart breaks for those who have suffered hardships during this time, don’t get me wrong. I understand my privilege. At the same time, I see myself as an example of the advantages of a simpler life. COVID isn’t over but I hope for some good to come from it.