Coronavirus Diary #24: Setting Intentions for 2021

As I was getting ready to write this post, I looked at back last year’s New Year’s blog post (link to post here) — what was I hoping for as I said goodbye to 2019 and looked forward into 2020?

I was fresh off the holidays. All of our people had gathered, and though we had had our tense moments, we had also had moments of mundane togetherness, laughter, and even joy. We were nearing the end of a long, long season of grief, and wanting to move forward differently, I took the year 2020 (20/20) as an invitation to think about vision and sight. I was praying to see things differently. I had missed so much in the soldiering years. Moving forward, I wanted to see — to really see.

I wrote:

In 2020, I’m praying for new sight. I’m praying that I’ll see what’s important, that I’ll notice what’s essential, and that I’ll comprehend what has meaning. I’m praying that I won’t focus so hard on potential danger but that I’ll keep my eyes wide open to possibility.

“Ask and ye shall receive.”

If 2020 offered us anything, it was an opportunity to notice the essential and to comprehend the meaningful. Yes, it’s been a year full of imminent danger, but if we dare, we can also see all kinds of possibility.

Remember how we were plodding through January and February, business as usual, unaware of the depth of the disruption that was about to occur? Remember how we grumbled about getting up early to scrape the ice off the car, about the extra slow commute, and about the coworker who just couldn’t seem to respect our personal space?

Remember how we would run to the grocery store over lunch hour and munch on a snack we’d just purchased on our way out the door? Remember how we offered an open bag of chips to a colleague who enthusiastically grabbed a handful and shared with the person standing next to her? Remember how normal this was?

And look at us now — even when we are wearing our masks, we find ourselves reflexively moving back to allow for six feet of space, we bump elbows if we dare to touch at all, and we glance at each other with suspicion, wondering if either is unknowingly carrying the virus, if this will be the interaction that makes us sick.

Why? Because we’ve seen like we’ve never seen before.

We’ve seen the destructive path of the coronavirus — the death toll in the United States above 330,000, hospitals across the country at capacity, refrigerated trucks serving as morgues.

We’ve seen, in the midst of this health crisis, the comorbidities of archaic infrastructure, financial instability, and centuries-old systemic racism. We’ve seen how quickly our supply chain can be disrupted, leaving us all wondering why we are out of toilet paper, flour, and personal protective equipment. We’ve seen the financial devastation as millions across the country apply for unemployment, wait in line all day to get food, and face imminent eviction. In contrast, we’ve seen the financial excess of our nation’s billionaires who’ve actually “increased their total net worth $637 billion during the COVID-19 pandemic so far” (Business Insider). We’ve seen people of color not only disproportionately impacted by this disease (Harvard Medical School) but less likely to get quality care and much more likely to be living in poverty, targeted by law enforcement, and incarcerated for the same crimes than white people.

If our eyes were opened in 2020, if our vision cleared, then what we saw was a country that has a lot more to worry about than the deadly virus that has traversed the globe. We’ve asked ourselves about the integrity of the news media and the reliability of science. We’ve wondered how much we value our health care workers, our teachers, our postal workers, and our other essential personnel. We’ve become more aware of how the structures of our country have shaped our ideologies, and we’re beginning to see our racism, our bias, and the ways that we ourselves perpetuate these systems and these beliefs.

And now that we have seen, what will we do? That, for me, is the question of 2021.

What do we intend to do about the things that we have seen?

This morning, as we have done most Sunday mornings since March, my husband and I logged into a Zoom room on one laptop while we streamed our church’s worship service on another. Members of our small group community meet in the Zoom room every Sunday to “go” to church. We sit in our own living rooms watching the service, singing, and praying “together.” Then, after the service, we unmute ourselves and chat over “coffee” as we would if we were physically meeting together.

Today’s conversation ranged from how was your Christmas to how are we managing the weather to when do we think we will get the vaccine. Finally, we landed on how we were feeling about life post-Covid. What will work look like? and church? and social gatherings? Will we go back to what we were doing before? or will we change based on the lessons we’ve learned over the last many months?

I sat listening for a few moments, and then I thought out loud, “unless we are intentional, we won’t change. We’ve got to be making thoughtful decisions right now about how we are going to be on the other side of this.” I think we were mostly talking about whether people will continue to work from home, whether we’ll be comfortable physically re-entering our social circles, and how we’ll interact with medicine and business, but I think we need to also think — right now — about how we can intentionally start to shift our culture.

What is it that we’ve seen that we’d like to change? Are we comfortable continuing on the course that we are on?

If, having seen our weaknesses, our broken systems, our inequities, we do not intentionally make moves to right our ship, we will continue to head the same direction we have been heading. If we continue to turn a blind eye to the lack of freedoms in the land of the free and the fear-based decisions made in the home of the brave, we will remain a country that benefits the few at the cost of the many.

It took us a long time to get here, and we won’t immediately change course. We are all going to have to lean hard into the turn, pull on all the ropes we can grasp, and keep our eyes firmly fixed on the world we hope to create. And we’re going to have to hold that position for quite some time.

If we really want a society in which all men, women, and children are treated equally, afforded the same respect and consideration, and endowed with certain unalienable rights, it’s going to look different around here. And it’s going to feel uncomfortable. We’re going to have to make decisions we never thought we’d have to make — about our homes, about our jobs, about our politics, and about our money. And if any of those things seems too dear to us, that’s probably where we need to start.

I invite you to think back with me over the last several months, what did you see that didn’t sit right? What possibilities can you imagine? Are you willing to set an intention that will enable change? Are you willing to discuss your intentions with a friend?

Can you imagine what we might do if we, the people, would be willing to intentionally move forward together? What a more perfect union we might form? What justice we might establish? What common defense we might provide? What domestic tranquility we might ensure? What general welfare we might promote? What blessings of liberty we might ensure? Not only for us, but for those who come after us?

Are we willing to be transformed?

What are your intentions?

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12: 2

Missing the Magical, Longing for the Actual

Click the arrow to listen.

When I was a very little girl, Christmas was full and magical. It began with learning our parts for the Christmas Eve program at church. For weeks we would rehearse our lines, “and there were shepherds in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night,” and our songs, “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.”

Mrs. Hollenbeck would herd us into the sanctuary, organize us on the steps of the chancel, and direct us to speak more loudly, “so they could hear us in the back.”

Then, on Christmas Eve, donned in our Christmas best, hair combed and inspected by our mother, my brothers, sister, and I would pile into the car and head to the church.

The place would be crawling with people decked out in their finest — all the men in suits, the ladies with lipstick and stockings and heels. We children would be corralled in the basement, lined up, and given last minute instructions before processing up the stairs, into the sanctuary, and down the aisle to the front of the church. Our families beamed at us as we sang and told the Christmas story of stars and shepherds and sheep and a swaddled baby.

After every line had been said and “Silent Night” had been sung (with the last verse a cappella, of course) we would recess down the aisle to the back of the church where the ushers waited with brown lunch bags filled with roasted peanuts, a fresh Florida orange, and several pieces of candy.

Bundled up in our coats and hats and hugging our precious loot, we were transported home, where we were snuggled into our beds, said our prayers. and went to sleep in anticipation of more magic on Christmas morning.

When we woke, we would rush to the tree to find piles of presents, then before we knew it, we were dressed and loaded back into the car for the drive to my grandparents.

After an hour of watching the familiar landscape and ticking off all the familiar milestones, I would bolt from the back seat and run to the door where my grandpa was waiting with a huge smile and open arms. Right past him, in the kitchen, was my grandmother in a dress and heels, a Christmas apron tied around her waist. She was smiling, too, and ready for her hug, even if she had been up since before dawn making a Christmas feast and setting tables with linen, candles, china, and silver.

The food was the stuff of legends — roasted lamb, beef, ham, and/or turkey, homemade rolls, mashed potatoes with gravy, dressing, salads, and sides, all served family style and passed round the table from person to person. Just when you thought you couldn’t eat one more bite, grandma brought out pie and coffee, even though we’d been nibbling all day on sumptuous Christmas cookies that had been placed among the decorations throughout the house.

Full beyond full, we would roll into the living room and gather around the rotating tree that sat in a musical tree stand brought from Germany who knows when. More than 20 of us — the extended family and any additional guests that Grandpa had invited to join us for the day — received gifts selected individually and with care.

After all the packages were opened and all the paper tossed away, we children ran off to play in the basement, the men moved to the den to watch the football game, and the women assembled in the kitchen to pack up leftovers and tend to a mountain of dishes. Grandma would stand at the sink and wash, the rest stood close by, towels in hand, chatting as they wiped and carefully stacked each dish.

Then magically, just as the sun was starting to set and the kids were starting to bicker, the food would reappear again. Leftover potatoes were transformed into potato pancakes and drizzled with gravy. Meats would be warmed and salads set out, and we would eat — impossibly — again.

Then, full of food and joy and love, we would stand in line to each receive a signature grandpa handshake and loads and loads of hugs before we were piled once again into the car for the ride home. I remember pressing my cheek against the car window, gazing out at the stars, and feeling my dad reach his hand around the seat to pat me on the leg.

Of course, that was a million years ago, and certainly, not all of my Christmases since then have been so magical. Some have been disappointing like the time we excitedly drove from Missouri to Michigan for three family Christmases and then drove back, all five of us sick with the stomach flu. Others have been thick with the heartache of family brokenness — loved ones sitting in the same room unable or unwilling to speak to each other, leaving early or angry or both. In fact, even the Christmases at my grandparents’ house that I remember so fondly often ended with my dad carrying me to the car as I cried tears of fatigue and frustration.

This year, as our grown children are far-flung across the country and our parents are close enough to drive to but too dear to risk the chance of a Covid infection, we have made the choice to follow the CDC’s recommendation to not travel, to not visit, to stay at home, and stay safe.

We won’t have a Christmas Eve program at the church. We’ll stream a pre-recorded worship service on our television as we sit together on our couch. Sure, we might sing “Joy to the World,” but we won’t hear the voices of the family sitting behind us or stand in the sanctuary chatting and laughing afterward with our friends and their children who’ve all gathered for the annual celebration.

Our people will open the presents that have been delivered by the United States Postal Service in the safety of their own homes, not sitting near our tree. We’ll likely Zoom and chat for a while, but we won’t have hugs or secret handshakes or extra cups of coffee and pieces of pie. We won’t pile into the living room together to watch a movie, or hockey, or football. We won’t sit around a puzzle or pour over old pictures or play Scrabble or banana-grams or Uno.

Our little house by the river won’t be crowded by people piled on top of each other and taking turns with one little bathroom. We won’t share homemade cinnamon rolls or a roasted turkey (although you know I’m going to make one), and we won’t hear the laughter as our granddaughters run through our house in their flouncy nightgowns.

We won’t see our parents or our siblings or our nieces and nephews — we won’t get a classic photo on my mom’s couch or gather with my in-laws at a Bob Evans. I won’t hug my godmother and godfather; in fact, now that they are living in separate nursing homes, they won’t be able to hug one other either.

I know we’ve made the right choice, but as December 25th gets closer, I am feeling nostalgic and fighting melancholy. I so long to be with the people we love — to hear familiar voices, smell familiar smells — to share space and time with those we love the most, even if it’s not magical, or memorable, or perfect, or impressive.

But we can’t. Not this year.

So, I’m going to schedule some Zoom meetings, put a turkey in the oven, turn on some Christmas music, and start a new puzzle. It won’t be what I’m longing for, but it’ll have to do until it’s safe to travel the miles, to meet fact to face, to embrace one another, to share the couch and a meal and some laughs.

And once we do get to share physical space again, I think I am going to view it differently. I don’t think I’ll care if it’s magical; I think I’ll simply be grateful — so, so grateful — for our gathering to be actual.

May the Lord watch between us while we are apart from one another.

Genesis 31:49

Writing Transformation

As I mentioned last week, my students and I have been writing college application essays. Yes, I said my students and I. For years, I’ve had a practice that whenever my students do a writing project, I do it, too. From the front of my class, or my shared Zoom screen, I work through the whole process in front of them. I show them my planning and my drafting. I let them see my struggle and my shitty first drafts*. When it’s time for peer review, I read my essay aloud and allow them to give me feedback, and then I revise based on their suggestions. I do this because I want them to see that writing is a process that can be done in community; I want them to see the transformation.

Early last week, we examined sample college essays and looked at a variety of prompts posted on college web sites and the common app. These prompts are intended to spark writing that will reveal something personal about the student. I coach my students to identify a strength such as dedication, creativity, or a strong work ethic, and to write a “highlight tape” that shows a moment or several moments in which that strength was on display.

This is all very conceptual, so I model. Last week, as my students and I walked through the prewriting process, we navigated to a list of prompts, and I showed them the one from the Common App that I chose as my starting point:

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

I chose this prompt, I told them, because one of my strengths is the ability to bounce back from difficulty. I am resilient. To show my students how I decide on what to write about, I think aloud, like this: “Hmmm…when was there a time in my life that I bounced back from difficulty? What example could I write about that would show someone who doesn’t know me that I am resilient? I know — I could write about the time that I had to stop teaching due to illness and how it took me six years to get back to the classroom. Yeah, I think I can share enough details about that.”

As I walked through this process, I displayed my planning on the screen while my students filled out a Google document for their planning. We walked through the process together.

The next step was to write a rough draft and bring it to class for peer review. I showed them how to get started then sent them on their way. The next class, I read my draft out loud, then asked them these questions: What did you see? What did you learn about me? What should I delete? What should I add? What made sense? What didn’t?

They told me that they could see me when I left teaching and then when I was home in bed. They told me I was determined, and they remembered that my goal was to show that I was resilient. They wanted me to add more about how I felt now that I was teaching again. I thanked them for their input and then sent them to breakout rooms to repeat this process in small groups, reading their essays to one another.

They reluctantly went. Some shared their drafts, some felt their writing was “too personal” to share. Some showed up in my office hours later in the day — would I help them? They didn’t think they were doing it right.

One by one, they told me their personal stories of difficulty, of lessons learned, and of personal growth. One by one, I cheered them, assured them they were on the right track, and encouraged them to lean into the process.

Tomorrow, when we meet again, I plan to read them my revised draft, with their suggestions, to show them what the process looks like, to share a part of myself, which might prompt them to share a part of themselves with me.

Here’s what I’ll read:

On the last day of school. I took the items from my desk, placed them in a box, and carried them to my car. I left all my books on the shelves for the teacher who was taking my place. I wouldn’t be back the next year; I was going home to rest. 

I’d been teaching in that school for almost ten years. For many of those years, I joined the cross country team after school, changing into shorts and running shoes to run 4, 5, or 6 miles. After that, I would hustle home, make dinner for my family, do dishes and laundry, grade papers, and get ready for the next day. Day after day after day. 

Then, I started noticing pain and fatigue. I couldn’t easily walk =when I first stood up from my chair — my joints felt like they were moving through setting concrete. I was so tired at the end of the school day that I often couldn’t remember driving myself home.

I was exhausted all the time, and my joints ached. Just a few years earlier I had finished a half-marathon in under two hours, and suddenly I was finding it difficult to get out of bed and walk to the bathroom. Each step felt like I was walking on broken glass. I went to doctor after doctor and was finally told that I had an autoimmune disease —  I would have it for the rest of my life.

What? I would always feel this tired? I would always be this achey? How would I be able to continue teaching? 

A year later, I finally admitted it was time to step away. My teaching was suffering, and I spent all my time away from the classroom resting. Something had to change.

On my doctor’s suggestion, I would take six months, at least, to rest. It would be the first time since I was in high school that I didn’t have a job or children to take care of. What was I going to do with my days? I couldn’t go on long runs like I used to. I couldn’t write lesson plans or grade papers. I knew I was going to be bored, so I started writing. 

I opened my laptop and started telling my story. I wrote about that last day of school, about how sick I was, and about how I was spending my days — putting together puzzles, reading books, watching too much Netflix, going for walks, and cooking.

I wrote every day, and I spent lots of time going to doctors and learning to care for myself through yoga, walking, and changing my diet. After those first six months, I began experimenting with work, teaching a class or two at a university and tutoring. I found I was gaining strength and learning to manage the pain. 

Then, last spring, almost six years after I packed up my desk and left teaching, I was working at an agency when Covid-19 showed up and revealed our world’s brokenness — racism, inequity, hatred, violence. As protests occurred across the country, I watched from the comfort of my couch and shouted, “Something’s got to change!’ Then, I remembered how much change can happen inside of a high school classroom.

Maybe I was ready. Maybe I should try again.

And a few months later, I am sitting at my computer meeting with high school students every day, students who know a thing or two about bouncing back from difficulty. They are working through a pandemic and building strength for whatever comes next. 

It took me six YEARS to find my way back to the classroom and to this group of students  — I’m pretty sure we were meant to be together.

After I read my rough draft last week and asked my students, What did you see? one of my students typed in the chat, “I see a miracle.”

I see one, too, dear. I see one, too.

A lot of change can happen inside of a classroom — I am seeing it already.

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:2

*Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, one of my all time favorite books on writing.

Coronavirus Day #23 Gathering

Every day when I start my class, I ask my students a question and they respond by answering through an app on their phones called Mentimeter. After they’ve responded, I project the question and the answers on the screen. It sometimes looks like this:

This practice, called the gathering, is an expectation of all teachers in the educational network within which I teach. It’s a practice that sets the climate for collaboration, builds community, and allows every voice to heard, which is especially tricky in this virtual environment we find ourselves in. Our network feels so strongly about this practice, that we begin every staff meeting with a gathering, too.

On Friday, I started my day with the Cougars to College team meeting. This team’s goal is that all seniors would be accepted to a college or trade school. Most of our students will be first generation college students, so it is imperative that we provide a high level of support as they navigate the journey. As this meeting started, the facilitator, my principal, asked the question for our gathering, “What was the greatest barrier you faced in obtaining your college education?”

One member of the team said it was transitioning from small high school classes to the large lecture halls of the university. Another said it was moving from a Detroit high school to a university in Texas and realizing that though she was an honors student in high school, she was poorly equipped for the rigor of college. The youngest member of the team said he lost his grandmother during college, the person who had been his strongest cheerleader throughout his education. Each member of the team weighed in and was heard by all the other members who listened attentively. We all got to know each other a little better, and we all grew in our commitment to the cause of supporting our students on their quest for an education.

From that meeting, I quickly transitioned to a class of students who are spending their senior year in their bedrooms, at their kitchen tables, or on their couches, logging into a zoom room on a chrome book that the school provided the week before the start of school. They are in various stages of disillusionment, diligence, depression, determination, and disengagement, and I’m teaching them how to write a college essay — in December of their senior year.

This is an activity that I have, in the past, taught during the junior year — long before my students start applying to colleges. I tell them, “I know you are not applying until next fall, but trust me, you’ll be glad to have this essay in your back pocket when you get there.” This year’s students had nothing in their back pockets when I met them — no SAT score (the tests were all cancelled during the pandemic), no essay draft, no real idea where they wanted to go to college, and not much drive to get started. Let’s be honest, I met them in month six of a global pandemic. They had been sent home in March, and many had done little schooling since then.

And here I come, little Miss Energetic, “Good morning! How are you today? It’s great to see you?” And I know that many of them are rolling over in bed, glancing at the screen, saying, “Seriously? Who is this lady?”

Nevertheless, I forge on, starting with a gathering, sharing the objectives for the day, moving to a formative assessment, providing the highest quality instruction I know how to provide in this virtual space, and encouraging them to engage, to ask questions, to complete the assignment, and to come to my office hours.

Three months later, they may still be asking themselves “Who is this lady?” but they are coming to class. Most of them, I should say. We continue to have a problem with chronic absenteeism, as most Detroit schools do. Some students are not coming because of internet connectivity issues, and my school has been working tirelessly to troubleshoot and provide hotspots. Some are not coming because they’ve been going to work, helping to support their families who have been hard hit by the pandemic. Some are not coming because they are providing child care for younger siblings. One of my students missed the whole first quarter because she was caring for her niece during my class period.

But most are coming to class. Most. And that’s something.

So, at the end of last week, when I started our second lesson on college essay writing, the question in the Mentimeter app was this: When was a time you were really proud of yourself? My goal was to cultivate material for the essay, but as typically happens, I discovered something unexpected about my students as I read their responses out loud.

One was proud of his first touch down; another was proud of being accepted into a college, and a third remembered the feeling of getting one of the highest test scores in the school. These are the kinds of responses I was expecting.

The next two responses surprised me, but I found them equally valid. One student was proud just to have shown up in class. The other was proud to have turned work in on time. You might be tempted to think these students were joking around — that they weren’t taking my prompt seriously. Certainly showing up and completing assignments are merely expectations — what all students should be doing every day.

And I might’ve thought that once, too.

In fact, I used to give students all kinds of crap for showing up late, for missing a day, or for failing to turn in assignments. “What’s the problem?” I might ask. “You know what time class starts.” Or, “You need to get these assignments turned in. Each day your grade will go down by 10%, so you’d better turn it in soon.” I pressured, and I persisted. I shamed, and, I’m afraid, sometimes humiliated.

I don’t do that any more.

Students show up to my Zoom room 5 minutes early or 55 minutes late. They turn in assignments on time, three weeks late, and not at all. They miss nine whole weeks of school and then email me that since their sister got a new job, they will finally be able to join class next week.

And am I mad? Am I put out? Not one bit.

I can honestly say, that I am thrilled when students join my class — whenever they join. I am not angry at the large number of students who are absent, who have turned in nothing, or who are failing my class.

I am simply ecstatic at the ones who have found the wherewithal in the middle of a pandemic, when God only knows what their family is struggling through — if they’ve lost their income, if they’ve had to stand in a food line that day, if they are expecting to be evicted at the end of the month, if family members have died, if everyone is at their wits end and snapping at one another — that they’ve managed to roll over in bed or sit up at a table, to log in to the Zoom room, put their face on the screen, and attend this class.

And if they’ve shown up, I want to give them a chance to say something — anything! That they once made a touchdown, that they got accepted to college, that they got the highest score on a test, or that they are simply doing their best to come to class and turn in their work.

We have no idea what these kids are going through.

And, sometimes, I think they don’t either.

During my lesson last week, I read aloud a sample college essay written by a young woman who had shadowed a doctor at a hospital. I wanted to give my students an example of what a “good” essay looked like. When I finished reading, I asked my typical questions, “What did you see?” and “What did that essay tell you about its writer?”

My students answered my questions, and then one said, “But what are we going to write about? What if we don’t have an experience like that — shadowing a doctor? I don’t have anything happening in my life that I can write about.”

“Are you kidding me?” I said. “All of you right now are living through a freaking pandemic. No one has done this is over 100 years. Each day is something that you can write about. You are demonstrating resiliency each time you show up to class.”

She looked into the camera, straight into my eyes.

“You can do this,” I said.

Tomorrow, when my students show up to class, I will send them to Mentimeter. I will post the question: What is one thing you’ve always dreamed of doing?

My hope is that in gathering around this question, we will be able to share some dreams and perhaps some hope. We’ve got a long way to go, and we’re going to need to encourage one another until we get there.

therefore encourage one another and build one another up

I Thes. 5: 11