Coronavirus Diary #21: Tales told in School

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Last Monday morning, I logged into my Zoom room around 8:25am — my senior English class starts at 8:30. I was checking my online grade book for attendance, cuing up my Google slideshow, and verifying that all my other visual aids were loaded and ready to go when my ‘doorbell’ rang and I noticed that Kelvin* was waiting to come in. I clicked the ‘admit’ button and watched my screen to see his window open.

“Good morning, Kelvin, how are you?” I said.

“I’m good,” he answered.

“Nice to see you.”

“Nice to see you, too.”

“Did you have a good weekend?” I asked, hoping that he would engage in conversation with me, trying to build relationship in this virtual space.

“Yeah, it was good. Do you have Ciara* in your class, too?”

“Yes — next hour.”

“She won’t be here today,” he said.

“Oh?” I answered, looking into the screen.

“Yeah, we had our baby this weekend, so she won’t be able to come to class.”

“You did? Congratulations!” I had known that Ciara was expecting, but I had not been aware that Kelvin was, too.

He held up his phone to his Chromebook camera so that I could barely make out a photo of a baby.

“Aw! So sweet! Are Ciara and the baby doing well?”

“Yeah, they’re doing good.”

“That’s great.” I said, and then the doorbell rang, I allowed the next student in, and we were on with the class — one young man, sitting in his bedroom, looking at a photo on his phone and me teaching the group how to present their research by creating a Google slide. Despite the fact that one student’s life changed forever over the weekend, we still have to move forward with the rest of the class.

If we were in a physical space, I’d have probably hunted down Kelvin later in the day — invited him to come have lunch in my room, given him one of the many gifts I have stockpiled for such an occasion, or just patted him on the back and encouraged him to take care of that baby. But we aren’t in a physical space — all I have are the moments that students choose to log in to my Zoom room. That’s it.

Me in my Zoom Room.

Ciara emailed me on Wednesday afternoon.

“I am sorry I have not been in class this week. I had my baby over the weekend, but I want to know what I missed so that I can get caught up.”

“Congratulations, Ciara! I hope you and the baby are doing well. If you are up to coming to class tomorrow morning, I can help you get caught up. Or, you could come to my office hours on Friday afternoon — whichever works better for you. Take care of yourself.”

“Thank you, I will do that.”

And the next morning, at 10:00am, she joined my class.

I’ve been watching Ciara all fall, ever since I called her mom during the first week of class to introduce myself, to let her know what our class would be focusing on, and to make note of the fact that Ciara wasn’t always turning her camera on when she joined the Zoom room. Her mom told me that Ciara was expecting and that she was working long hours at McDonald’s after school, so she often just woke up in the morning, turned on her laptop, and joined the Zoom room from bed. She didn’t want to take the time to get cleaned up, do her hair, and present herself for inspection.

I was stunned, of course. It was September, and although we weren’t yet in the third wave of the pandemic like we are now, the risk was still very real. And yet this young woman was going to work at a McDonald’s every day, seven months pregnant, so that she could earn some money to manage her very real impending responsibilities.

I’ve continued to watch Ciara, as she’s shown up to class, completed her assignments, and joined our virtual college visits every Wednesday. Not only does she join these visits, but she routinely asks college representatives if they offer family housing on their campuses because she is planning to bring her baby with her when she comes to college. This girl has a plan, and she impresses me.

And she’s not the only student who impresses me. My students live in Detroit, are surviving a pandemic, and are facing unprecedented stress and uncertainty, yet they keep showing up.

Some show up intermittently. I talked to a parent of one of my students last week. She’s concerned about her son. He has “changed ever since the pandemic started.” He wants to stay in his room. He doesn’t want to talk. He’s failing his classes.

He’s not alone. Many students — and, let’s be honest, adults — are struggling with depression. Many feel isolated — they are struggling financially, they have struggled with their health, they have lost loved ones, and nothing feels right. Why would they care about school at a time like this?

I asked the parent if she would mind if the school social worker reached out to her, and she answered, “I’m looking for any help I can get.” At my suggestion and her insistence, her son joined my office hours the next day. He and I worked through some assignments, restored his grade to passing, and got to know each other a little. Before he logged off, he said, “Thank you. I appreciate it.”

“It’s my pleasure,” I replied. He has no idea how pleased I am to bear witness to his journey and the journeys of all of my students.

Early this week, one of my students, Kyla*, asked if she could come to my office hours. She didn’t need help, she just wanted to be “in” my Zoom room while she did her work. She asked only a couple quick questions as she sat in my Zoom room for 90 minutes, working on her assignment and chatting with another student she convinced to join her.

On Thursday, Kyla logged into class and said, “Mrs. Rathje, I just want to let you know that we are having a family emergency, so if I need to leave, I will let you know in the chat.”

“Ok, thank you for letting me know. Are you ok?”

“Yes. I’m ok.”

“Alright, just keep me posted.”

“Ok, thank you.”

Near the end of the hour, she private chatted me that she had to go to the hospital to see her mother who sounded like she was in critical condition. I told her thank you for letting me know and that she could reach out if she needed to.

Then on Friday, the last day of school before a week-long break, she joined my office hours again, just to get some work done, like she did before. I chatted with her a bit, to see how she was doing, you know, making small talk.

And that is when I found out that since early in the week, this seventeen year old has been home alone with her two dogs. Her mom has been in intensive care, and she hasn’t been allowed to visit because she’s only 17 and we’re in the middle of a pandemic. She said she’s been taking care of the house and the dogs and that she put up the Christmas tree because Christmas means a lot to her mom and she wanted to do something nice for her.

These are my students — the kind of students who become parents on Saturday and then show up for school on Monday, the kind of kids who go out in the middle of a pandemic to make fast food because they need to earn money, the kind of kids who show up for help when it’s the last thing they want to do, the kind of kids who, while staying home alone because their only parent is in the hospital, find a way to have an adult in the room while they do their homework.

They are the future — these kids. They are building muscle and resiliency that will serve them for years to come, and they need us. They need us to show up five minutes early in a Zoom room, to hold after school office hours, to call their parents when things don’t seem right, and to respond to their emails and give them options for how to manage their responsibilities.

And that’s what I get to do every day — show up and do what I can to encourage these amazing students.

It is truly my pleasure to do so.

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due when it is in your power to do it.

Proverbs 3:27

*All student names have been changed, of course.

Coronavirus Diary 17: Of Zoom Rooms, and Cameras, and the SAT

For six weeks, I’ve been driving 35 miles from my house to the school where I teach.

Each of the 28 instructional days we’ve had has been broken into 3 blocks of 87 minutes. I sit alone in my classroom, peering into a computer screen. I take attendance, provide instruction, assign some classwork, insist on a screen break, then return for questions and one-on-one assistance.

Then I do it again.

I have 126 students. Not all come every day. Some have jobs. Some are sick. Some are helping the family. At least one has lost her mother since school started. At least one is expecting to become a mother before Christmas. Several have insufficient wifi or are experiencing other technical difficulties. Some join the Zoom room while they are still under the covers of their bed, then fall back asleep before I’ve even finished attendance. I’m supposed to insist that they put their cameras on, and I try. “I know this is hard,” I say, “doing school from home, but it’s what we’ve got, and it will be much easier for you to opt in and get what you need if you turn on your camera, sit up, put your face on the screen, unmute to ask questions, and do your best.”

But they chat me privately, “I’m not at home,” or “Other people are here with me,” or “I’m sick today,” and even, “I’m at the hospital right now, but I’m hoping to home by tomorrow,” and their cameras stay off.

“When you turn your cameras on,” I explain, “I’ll get familiar with your face. When you come to school, I’ll call you by name. I will know who you are.”

A couple cameras come on. A few put their face in the screen, give me a flash — a few seconds to see that they are there — and then they turn off their cameras again.

But last week, we had a day with no cameras.

Wednesday, October 14, was the mandatory SAT test for students in the state of Michigan. And, since the SAT must be completed in-person and because it’s a requirement for a Michigan-endorsed diploma, our students made their way to school by 7:45 am where they received a rather unimpressive state-funded breakfast and then filed into socially distanced classrooms, clad in masks.

Eleven of them entered my room. Eleven whole living breathing humans. They spoke. They smiled. They complained about the food, the temperature of the room, the length of the test, and the fact that they have to learn from home.

I couldn’t stop looking at them, beaming.

At 8:30, I started reading the scripted instructions, and they started bubbling in the circles to indicate their name, address, date of birth, and such. I walked up and down rows, checking to see that their answers were in the correct spot, answering their questions, sharing their space.

They were in my classroom!

At 9:30 they began the first section of the test. I wrote the time on the board and let them know they had 65 minutes to read the passages and answer the questions. Then I announced when they had 30 minutes left. Five minutes left.

They were allowed a 10-minute break which they used to walk down the hall to see their friends, to stand in a clump, to “be at school”.

And then we were back in my room. They sat in their desks from 8:30 until 2:00 taking test after test after test.

They were stressed, of course. They’d been away from this building since March, these seniors, and they know that their performance on this test — the one that they should have taken last Spring — will help determine where they go next year, if they go anywhere at all. Although I have dragged them through Khan Academy’s SAT prep, insisting they do practice sets, discussing test strategies, and reminding them of rules, they feel ill-prepared. The reading passages are difficult, especially when you are reading with your head on a pillow trying to drown out the noises of the other family members in your house. The Writing and Language passages are tricky — why should they care about the most effective placement of sentence 5? Who even knows where the comma should go?

They didn’t get to finish Algebra II last spring, and they can’t really remember how to use the functions on the graphing calculator, so during the 55 allocated minutes for calculator math, many closed their books, put their heads down, and fell asleep.

I’m talking deep-breathing REM sleep. My room, with all its fluorescent lighting, sounded like the cabin of an international flight.

I woke them, of course, when they had 5 minutes remaining in the math portion of the test. Then, I collected their test booklets and told them to get up and stretch because we would start the essay, according to SAT directions, “in two minutes” after they’d already been testing for four straight hours.

And, they sat up, asked for sharpened pencils, and did what they could. They wrote and wrote, read their writing, and wrote some more.

And then their heads went down again.

And they slept until I told them they had 5 minutes remaining.

When I had gathered their materials, they began to chat with one another and my room started sounding like a classroom. I stood in the front of the room, overlooking minor expletives, simply glad to hear the voices.

They had to stay in the desks until all the test booklets and answer booklets, every last College Board printed material, was taken from my room, and then they were dismissed to the cafeteria to get their state-funded bologna sandwiches.

Suddenly my room was silent, so after a quick dash to the bathroom, I followed them. They couldn’t leave so soon! I had to see their faces, to hear their voices, to discover that this one was taller than I imagined, that one shorter.

“Hi! It’s so good to see you!”

I made my way through the clumps of students, asking again and again, “What is your name? Have I seen you in my Zoom room?” I had no judgment for anyone, just sheer joy at finally, six weeks after the first day of school, getting to meet my students. I then went to grab the lunch provided for me — corn ships, guacamole, seasoned chicken, lettuce, and tomatoes. I filled a plate and walked to my room.

The teacher from across the hall stood at my door, plate in hand. Would I mind if he joined me for lunch? Neither of us were ready to go back to our solitary confinement. “Please, come in, let’s chat.” And as we chatted, students trickled in. Two or three would walk past my room, peeking in, looking for permission to enter. I practically begged them to come in, to hover over my desk as I ate, to tell me who they were, how they were doing, how they felt about the test.

One young man came in and stood near my desk, “Hi, Mrs. Rathje!” I looked him over head to toe, trying to fill in the facial details that had been covered by the mask.

“Hello! Now help me out, what is your name?”

“You know who I am.”

“I do? Have I seen your face on the screen?”

“Yes, you have.”

“Hmmm….I am thinking that you are LaRon Davis*…but let me think…”

“I always have a background on.”

“You do? Then, that’s my answer — you are LaRon Davis*.”

“Yes, I am.”

“Hooray! Thank you for coming to my classroom! Would you like to pick one of the prizes that I’ve been collecting for today?” I showed him a table covered in lanyards, bottles of hand sanitizer, pens, face masks, wrist bands, and the like. He moved forward and made his selection.


“I can have this?”

“Yes! That’s your reward for taking the time to come see me.”

And my reward, I thought to myself, is having you in my classroom.

These are not small things. Before Covid-19, when I taught in the classroom, students often stopped by to get help with an assignment, to borrow a pen, to ask for a snack, to find a safe space. I was always glad they felt like they could, but I also often hoped they wouldn’t stay long — I had papers to grade, lessons to plan — I needed time to work.

But now? I can’t imagine a time when I will be ready for students to leave.

Our leadership announced last week that we will be continuing 100% virtually through the rest of the semester — through mid-January. And I do believe it’s best. But I sure will be happy when my classroom is full and loud again.

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.

Ephesians 1:16

*not the student’s real name, of course

Trying to be Kind

Always try to be kind to each other.

I Thessalonians 5:15

It’s really not hard — being kind.

It’s not.

For some of you, this is not a revelation. You’ve been being kind to others since your kindergarten teacher expected you to share and take turns: “First Johny gets to use the swing, then when he’s done, Susie can have a turn.”

Some of you said, “Oh, I get it!” and you went on to patiently stand in line at the drinking fountain, to raise your hand and speak only when the teacher called on you, to say “Please, may I borrow the stapler,” and “thank you for holding the door,” from that time forward.

You invited people to play kickball at recess, you put your arm around a friend who skinned her knee, you loaned a pencil to the boy who sat next to you, and brought an extra cookie in your lunch bag for a friend.

But some of us — some of us — lost our way.

Sure, we could wait for the swing, but when we got our turn, we stayed swinging a little too long. We didn’t care about those in line behind us and perhaps even found pleasure in making them wait. We blurted out our answers in class, talked over others, and pushed our way to the front of all the lines.

We had the answers, after all. We were strong, and we were right. We knew where we were going and what we were doing; why shouldn’t we lead? Why wouldn’t we speak? Why couldn’t we take charge?

It’s not that we were trying to be mean; we were just not trying to be kind.

We were doing what we knew how to do: answer the questions, get what we needed, take control of the situation.

But we weren’t always kind.

I, for one, confess to sometimes being downright mean. I’ve laughed at the expense of others and taken more than my fair share — of popcorn, of opportunity, of oxygen. I’ve been sarcastic, vindictive, and careless. I’ve shot off my mouth, sent daggers with my eyes, and literally shoved and swatted to get my own way.

When I could’ve — should’ve — been kind.

And when, after years of pushing through, overpowering, and taking more than my fair share, I was knocked down, benched, and sidelined, I sat there stunned, hurting, and unable to continue.

And what did I find? People who were kind. They showed up, called, sent flowers and food, listened, and cried with me.

And do you know what happened? I softened. I slowed. I began to discover myself being kind — finding space and time for others, sliding over, sharing my popcorn, shutting up, and listening.

It’s really not hard.

I find it quite interesting that the last two professional positions I’ve held have been with organizations that prioritize (even demand) kindness.

When I was hired by Lindamood-Bell, I was stunned by the celebratory and kind culture that I found myself working in. (I wrote about it here.) After having spent several months on the bench, luxuriating in the kindness of newly found friends, I found myself working in an environment where I was expected to practice kindness, positivity, and praise.

I’d lost my way through years of soldiering on, fighting my way through, doing what I knew how to do to make myself heard, get what I needed, and take control of the situation, and I was being given an opportunity to find my way back.

And I did find my way back. While working at Lindamood-Bell, my world crumbled apart. My family was in tatters, and I was lying amid the wreckage, wounded and weeping. I would drag myself out of bed, shower and dress, and autopilot my way into work, to find my colleagues cheering and supporting, offering gifts of tea and chocolate, extending a tissue for my tears, and rallying behind me as I healed. They modeled kindness for me and provided the space — and the expectation — for me to share that kindness to my students and coworkers. They helped me find my way back.

And now — now! — I find myself with Equity Education whose entire mission is to extend kindness to those who have been overlooked and marginalized. They do that by using a model called the No-nonsense Nurturer (NNN), which “empowers teachers to establish a positive classroom culture in which all students are set up to succeed.” Before I even entered the classroom, I received hours and hours of training in this framework which was then modeled throughout two solid weeks of collaborative professional development.

The NNN framework sets clear expectations and provides supports for students (and their teachers) to meet those expectations. It provides reinforcement for those who meet the expectations and firm but kind redirection for those who don’t. NNN is not focused on a few students getting what they need and rising to the top; no — its aim is to get 100% of students in every class meeting expectations that will lead to their academic — and later professional — success. It’s not for the few who would talk over the others and push and claw their way to the top. No, it’s for all. And any strategy that is focused on the achievement, the success, the well-being of all, is going to require kindness, patience, and encouragement.

Those who struggle won’t “step up their game” if they are brow-beaten and humiliated, but they will get off the bench and get back in the game when they are shown kindness — when others come beside them, encourage them, provide them tea and chocolate, tissue for their tears, and the practical and emotional support they need to take another swing.

When I was knocked down, no one shook their finger at me and told me that if I’d just tried harder I wouldn’t have ended up in that difficult situation. No one told me it was my own fault or judged me for landing on the couch, doubled over and in distress.

No, they extended kindness.

On Friday, I was in a Zoom Room with two freshmen. One shows up on time every single day with her work done and her questions ready. The other is late every time, has a young cousin raucously playing in the same room, has adults yelling in the background, and often needs me to repeat directions, support his work, and allow him extra time. I could take a hard line approach — I could say, “You’re late! Why isn’t your assignment done? Can’t you find a quieter room to work in? Come on, you need to catch up!” But wouldn’t it be just as easy to say, “I’m so glad you are here. Show me what you have. What do you need? How can I support you?”

Which way do you picture will yield the best results?

See? It’s not hard.

This lesson doesn’t need to stay in the classroom, does it? All around us are people waiting in line, crying on couches, and struggling to find the space to learn and to grow. It’s pretty easy to step aside, to let someone in, to offer a hand, to lend an ear, to encourage, to cheer… to be kind.

Doing Better than This

It happened again this week — that thing that feels like I’ve just walked out of the theater with a friend, we start to discuss what happened in the movie, and it’s like we were watching two different films.

Has this happened to you?

On Tuesday night, I stayed up to watch the presidential debate. As I watched, I came to conclusions about the two candidates and what I perceived to be happening.

The next day, as I scrolled through social media, it appeared that some of my Facebook friends had watched an entirely different debate. The conclusions they came to didn’t match the ones I came to.

How can we be all participants in the same story and interpret it in such different ways?

We talk about this in literature. When we read a text, we always have to consider 1) the actual text — the words on the paper, 2) what the author intended, and 3) the experiences that the reader brings to the text.

In this case, the actual text — the first 2020 Biden/Trump debate — was pretty hard to track. If you watched it live, you might have had a hard time hearing questions and answers because of all the interruptions. You might have honed in on a few words of one participant and either applauded or vilified that candidate. During the actual broadcast, because the participants talked over one another, it would’ve been difficult to weigh each comment and determine if it was an answer to the question, an intentional or unintentional disruption, or a failure to answer the question fully and completely.

Making sense of what happened in the debate isn’t much easier when you read an official transcript, because words in print don’t carry tone, they don’t convey timing, they don’t show facial expressions or eye contact. It would again be easy to isolate one quote from this transcript and hold it up as evidence of a win or a loss, of civility or disrespect.

Weighing and judging each speaker’s intent is also difficult. We can’t peer inside the hearts and minds of Donald Trump or Joe Biden to see whether they actually were trying to discredit their opponent, to avoid answering questions, or to genuinely answer questions. We have clues — word choice, tone, and body language — and we come to our own conclusions about those clues based on the lens we are looking through.

That lens is shaped by our own experience. Someone who votes Republican may see Donald Trump’s performance as strong — Trump didn’t let Biden fully answer many questions at all; he called out Biden’s track record; and he questioned his integrity. A person who votes Democrat might see Biden’s performance as strong — he spoke to the camera, answered the questions, and provided details, although few, about his plans. An expert debater would likely find fault with Trump — he didn’t follow the agreed upon rules, he didn’t wait his turn, he didn’t fully respond to questions, he interrupted his opponent and the moderator. However, the same expert might not have high praise for Biden either — Biden sometimes stumbled over words, had to search for a name, and responded to Trump’s jabs in frustration. Anyone who’s ever been bullied, was likely triggered by Trump’s assault on Biden’s son Hunter, his reference to Elizabeth Warren as Pocahontas, and his continuous interrupting (over 70 times throughout the debate). However, folks who were hoping that someone might take the high road, would have also been disappointed with Biden telling Trump to “shut up” and referring to him as a clown. Certainly many were horrified by Trump’s refusal to denounce white supremacy, but I think some (and not just white supremacists) might have found him strong in that moment — giving his answer boldly and without apology.

Because our country (even more so our world) is made up of people from so many different backgrounds, with myriad life experiences, it makes sense that people would walk away from the debate with varying opinions about what just happened, just like people have varying opinions about American politics in general and specific policies regarding health care, education, law enforcement, or the pandemic. This is America — where we value the freedom to have an opinion and to speak our minds, where we work hard to secure our right to disagree.

In the literature classroom, when I teach literary analysis, in addition to discussing the three texts as above, we ask the question, what is the author doing here? How or why is he or she doing it? Because my students see each piece through their own lens, we don’t have to all come to the same conclusion, but we do have to support our opinion with evidence from the text. I tell my students, “You don’t have to agree with me, but you have to make me believe in the validity of your opinion — you have to make your case.” Maybe Harper Lee is exposing the racism of the South, maybe she’s promoting a system that would put an innocent black man in jail — you can make either point if you back it up with evidence.

What I’ve seen too often lately is a failure to make a case. I see too many people saying what they believe in general terms — “My candidate is the best, yours is the worst!” “My candidate clearly won the debate; yours lost!” — without building a substantial argument based on evidence. I hear sound bytes — “He’ll make America great again!” or “He’ll build back better!” but I don’t see the depth and detail of support that I would require in a high school essay.

More often, I see a devolving into name-calling — “Those left-wing liberals!” or “Those Trumpsters!” — where even long-time friends get down in the mud to fight dirty.

And what does that get us? Dirty clothes, scratched faces, bruised egos, and broken relationships.

I wonder what would happen if we took a different approach. Could we do better than those who spent 90 minutes sparring on stage the other night? Could we step away from our social medial accounts, call each other on the phone, and try a different way?

Could we greet one another? Hi, friend that I usually only interact with on social media? What does your life look like these days? What is important to you? How is your family?

Could we raise questions? How do you feel about health care? Why do you feel that way? What data supports that opinion? How do you imagine we could improve the safety of our communities? Have you seen any research on that? What might we have to sacrifice for that cause?

Could we listen? That’s interesting. I never considered that stance before. Your statistics are convicting. That seems reasonable.

Could we push back respectfully? I can see what you mean about the failures of the Affordable Care Act, how would your suggestions play out in the long-run? I understand your reasons for wanting to ensure Second Amendment rights, how could we keep them while also decreasing incidences of gun violence?

Could we be open to change? How could you and I work together on this? Who else might find these ideas interesting? How can we make our ideas known to governmental leaders?How can we get involved?

Am I too idealistic? Perhaps.

But here’s what I know — it’s very easy to sit on my couch at home slinging one-liners on social media. I can put you in a box pretty quickly, label you according to what I interpret your posts to mean, and dismiss you as being out of your mind. Such behavior keeps me in my lane and keeps you in yours. We continue going our own way, convinced that we are right and the other is wrong. And it’s an angry, lonely existence.

We can do better. We are all capable of examining a text — a debate, a news show, an article, a press conference. We are all able to consider the author’s intent, and to interrogate the lenses through which we view the world. We are all able to research complex issues — educational disparity, income tax law, military funding — and to find evidence that will help us develop an informed opinion. We are all able to pick up a phone and engage in a two-way conversation with other humans. We are able to consider other points of view, to compare them with our own, and to think critically about which views hold the most merit.

Folks, we’ve got to begin doing this hard work. Too much is at stake for us to continue to voice our opinions only on social media. If we really care about the issues we are spouting off about, we need to take action.

Many are right now calling us to vote, and that is of critical importance. And, before we vote — before we check those boxes — let’s spend a little time asking questions, searching for answers, having conversations, and thinking critically.

Let’s not blindly follow a party because we always have or because others say we should. Let’s not be careless with the freedoms and the privileges we’ve been given; let’s do our part to secure them for those who will come behind us.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.

James 1:5

What World Are We Living In?

Each morning at 7am, I lug my lunch and laptop-crammed tote bag to my car, leave our home on a beautiful college campus in affluent Ann Arbor, and begin my journey to a different world thirty-five miles due east. I travel through a few small bedroom communities thick with half-million dollar homes and thriving school districts and take my exit into a community populated by run-down rental properties and struggling schools.

Each day on my commute I view the reality of disparity in our country.

In the community where I live, people regularly drop over $100 for dinner without batting an eye. Filling a grocery cart aisle by aisle, paying little attention to price tags and discounts, is just another Saturday morning.

In the community where I work, families count on the fact that they can pick up free food two times a week at the school — without it, they won’t make ends meet.

In the community where I live and others like it across the country, kids get their first Smart Phone around age 10, grow up playing games and watching movies on an iPad, and have access to one or more computers in the home. They are digital natives, able to easily navigate the internet, digital platforms, the Google suite, and spaces that I am sure I know nothing about. Some are social media pros — they have their own YouTube channels, have a thousand followers on Instagram, and are regularly exploring and even creating new media. They have a strong Internet connection, and if that should happen to fail, no problem — they have a personal HotSpot on their phone,

In the community where I work, most teenagers have some kind of cell phone. (Although one did admit to me this week that his flip phone would not be able to download the app I had displayed on the shared Zoom screen.) However, of the over 100 students I have met in the last two weeks, very few have had little more than limited access to computers. How do I know? Because they have difficulty copying and pasting a URL, they struggle to navigate their way to the six different Zoom rooms in which they find their teachers and their classmates. Google Classroom, Google Drive, Chat Box, and navigation bar are new vocabulary words. Their Internet service is spotty, and they get kicked off sometimes in the middle of class. HotSpot? What’s a HotSpot?

The kids in the community where I live have their own bedroom where they have set up a virtual learning space with the support of their parents. They have a desk, a MacBook and Airpods, an iPhone, a comfortable chair, and possibly even a printer. They can close the door to shut out distractions and then open the door to walk out to a fully-stocked kitchen complete with convenient snacks.

The kids in the community where I work often share a bedroom with a sibling, often one (or more) who they are charged with helping to connect to their virtual learning. As far as I can tell, the bed is the only piece of furniture in the room, and I often see two people sitting or lying in that bed, still in pajamas, sometimes looking at the screen, sometimes not.

When I say, “The expectation is that your camera will be on and I will be able to see your face,” I am asking a lot. Many have not had their hair cut in quite some time, and it’s a personal — even a cultural — matter of pride to look fresh if you’re gonna be seen. But in the times of Covid, when people may not have had work or a paycheck in six months, haircuts aren’t really a priority.

When I say, “I recommend that you find a space where you can sit up, minimize distractions, and fully engage in your learning,” I see students look back at me as if to say, “What world are you living in, lady?”

Indeed, what world am I living in?

What world am I living in where the richest most well-resourced country allows this kind of disparity? Where affluent — mostly white — folks in suits sit in a chamber and determine to send just ONE relief check in six months knowing that for most families that money was spent long before it was received? Where, with an election less than 50 days away — 50 days that families who are struggling beyond what we have ever experienced will have to find food for their families, gas for their vehicles (if they have them), and money to keep the power on — the suits refuse to come to an agreement over how to help our citizens who don’t have don’t have two homes, three cars, a time share in Florida, and a 401K.

What world am I living in where this story — the story of inequity that impacts not only education but health and lifespan and civil liberties — isn’t the number one headline, the number one problem, we are trying to solve every. damn. day.

Instead, in the midst of a global pandemic, where almost 200,000 Americans have died, many from communities like the one I work in every day, some people are still debating whether this pandemic is serious — or even real! Our president, who could be signing executive action to help the most vulnerable among us, spends his time and energy gathering large groups of supporters, flouting local laws prohibiting such gatherings, refusing to mandate that attendees wear masks, and spreading misinformation about the danger of Covid-19 and the timeline for a vaccine. And — and!– he stands on national television belittling those who would challenge his approach — calling them names and mocking them.

Is this real life?

What world am I living in where the nation’s leaders, instead of rushing to find solutions that will help those most in need, sit in climate-controlled rooms, six feet apart, freshly coiffed and smartly dressed, debating the political impact of an aid package? where in the moments following the death of one of our most loved Supreme Court Justices, a politically-charged debate about when and how to select her replacement reestablishes the political divide between us?

What kind of world am I living in?

I’m living in a world where I can do something, and so are you.

So what are we going to do? Are we going to stay in our comfortable communities sipping $5 coffees, debating the efficacy of masks, and throwing shade at the ‘other side’ from the safety of our Facebook and Instagram pages? Are we going to reduce our agency to a meme-fest bent on self-gratification and self-aggrandizement? Or are we going to take a long critical look at the world we are living in and decide if this is the best that we can do?

Is the best that we have a position where we consider our own lives to the exclusion of the lives of others?

I believe we are better than this.

The kids in the community where I live and those in the community where I work are counting on us. They need us to be better than this.

And we can be; we can change course at any time.

We can re-shape this world that we live in.

We can open our hearts, our minds, our hands. We can stop clinging so fiercely to our own ideals, our own ‘sides’, our own resources. We can love our neighbor — even the one we don’t agree with — as ourselves and determine to do all that we can for the least of these. Then we might be pleased with the world we find ourselves living in.

I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.’

Matthew 25:36

Disruption and Transformation

My oldest granddaughter is starting kindergarten this week, and as we were celebrating this milestone over the weekend, I started thinking about the year I started kindergarten. I couldn’t wait to go to school, to meet new friends, to sit at a desk, and to raise my hand to speak (ok, let’s be honest, I never fully mastered that part).

Just as my mother and father had done when they were five, I got up early in the morning, ate my breakfast, brushed my teeth, and walked down the street to my neighborhood elementary school, where I greeted my teacher, Mrs. Cole (bless her heart), and met those who would become some of my lifelong friends.

From that point on, most of the years of my life, I have looked forward to the start of school. I’ve bought new pencils and pens, picked out the coolest lunchbox I could find, and selected my first day of school outfit days in advance. I went to school from 8am to 3pm Monday through Friday until I went off to college, where I continued on much the same calendar. I took breaks at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Spring Break, and then enjoyed a long summer before I started the cycle all over again.

You could probably say the same, because we’ve been doing school this way since time immemorial.

Much has come to depend on this system. Parents count on the fact that their kids are going to school: it provides a place for kids to go while parents are at work, one or even two meals a day, and even transportation to and from school.

Schools provide social, cultural, and practical education. It’s in school that kids learn to share and take their turn, to appreciate music and the arts, and to follow processes like writing proposals and submitting applications. Our society depends on schools to prepare children to become members of society. It has for centuries by now.

And, for the most part, it’s been doing it the same way for all those years. Children have been starting kindergarten at age five since the 1870s (see a history of kindergarten here). Since long before that time, children across the country have gone to school Monday through Friday, from 8 to 3, or in many cases much longer with breakfast or before care tacked on early and sports, extracurriculars, or after care added at the end of the day.

Teachers arrive early and stay late, often working 10 or more hours a day, day after day, month after month, nine months out of the year. Year after year after year.

Until a pandemic arrives and disrupts that system.

Disruptions can freak us out — We panic, we stress, we yell at our friends and neighbors, we point fingers, and we demand that things go back to normal.

However, sometimes disruption can show us a better way.

If you’ve been following my blog since its inception, you will know that it was born out of disruption. After years and years of celebrating the start of the school year, a disruption pulled me out of that rhythm. Chronic illness, and the acute nature of its beginnings, forced me into quarantine — not a literal quarantine, but it might as well have been, because I was no longer able to be in the classroom, to rub elbows with my community, or to share space and oxygen with the students and colleagues that I had loved so deeply.

And it freaked me out. I cried. I grieved. I yelled at my family and friends. I spent long days and weeks on my bed wishing that things would go back to normal, but the disruption showed me a better way.

When I was forced out of the cycle that had felt like home for over 40 years, I had to take a long look at the time that was available to me, the resources I had at my disposal, the abilities I still had, and the goals I was trying to achieve. How, I wondered, could I still be involved in education with my new limitations?

And isn’t that where we are now? We’ve been forced out of a cycle that has provided structure for our society for well over two hundred years. We are freaking out. We’ve been freaking out. Parents who’ve been stuck at home trying to work while parenting their children and attending to their educational needs, are rightfully overwhelmed. They have not been prepared for this. They’ve been prepared, as all of us have, to send our kids to school. Now some, of course, have chosen to prepare themselves to school their children at home — and these folks right now, are certainly at an advantage. The rest of the country — and much of the world — has been thrown off balance by this curve ball.

And we’re reeling — when will we go back to normal?

Some are pressing the issue of going back to normal right this very minute, “The kids need to be in school!” And I get it. If we go back to school, we think, everything will feel right again. Wouldn’t it be great to be packing lunches, waving to our kids as they get on their busses, going to football games on Friday night, and bending over the kitchen table every night trying to complete school projects (ok, maybe not that one)?

But what if, what if, this disruption could show us a better way. What if we took a long look at the time and the spaces that are available to us, the resources we have at our disposal, the abilities we still have, and the goals we are trying to achieve? How can we still be involved in education with our current limitations?

Some are figuring this out right now, folks. Never before have students of all income levels had access to personal electronic devices, but community members are stepping up, donating, and making sure that all of our kids have a laptop or tablet they can work from. Never before has there been such a global push for equity in terms of Internet technology, but right now, many teachers are receiving training on Google Classroom, Zoom, and other methods of digitizing their content and delivering materials to students who will not be physically with them. Likewise, students from all kinds of backgrounds, will begin to navigate digital spaces like they never have before.

Could this be a leveling of one end of the playing field?

What if educators, who find themselves sitting around the scrap heap of their disrupted plans and schedules, were right now thinking and preparing to do things a different way? What if, in fact, they’ve been begging for this opportunity for years? What if they have been longing for more professional development, more support from their communities, and more resources, and this disruption was the catalyst for change?

You might think I sound like Pollyanna, unless you remember that just six years ago, I walked out of a classroom, convinced that I’d never go back, that I spent that summer and much of the fall in bed with pain and inflammation or in the bathroom throwing up, and that the last six years have been a slow healing and restructuring of my life, and that in that healing and restructuring I’ve discovered new strengths, new possibilities, new ways of thinking, and a new sense of hope.

I’m living proof that disruption can been an opportunity for restoration, rebirth, and ingenuity.

If you are so stressed by this disruption right now and can’t see a way that the coming days will work, I get that. If you are lying on your bed in pain, or shaking your fist in rage, I feel that. If you are hungry for hope, for change, for rebirth, I’m just saying, believe that it can happen.

I’m believing for you right now. Many of you have believed for me over the last six years, even when I didn’t believe for myself.

Transformation often comes in the midst of hopelessness — watch for it. I know I am.

How can I do anything else when I’m looking at this 5 year old beauty curiously examining wildflowers on a Sunday afternoon, knowing that she’s heading to kindergarten on Tuesday.

The whole world is ahead of her, and I have to be full of hope.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

Romans 15:13

Ready, Changing Course, pt. 3

During the twelve weeks that I was working remotely, my husband and I developed some rhythms to break up the monotony. We walked a mile or so every day at lunch time to get away from our desks, we walked again at the end of the day to get our mail and talk about the events of our day, and we tuned in each night to watch the national and local news.

We’ve watched the numbers of Covid-19 cases continue to rise. We’ve watched reports of businesses closing, of economic stress, of overcrowded hospitals. For weeks, we caught the daily White House Task Force briefings, and then, when the eyes of the nation turned to the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Brionna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, our eyes turned, too. When we heard the nationwide sound of wailing and protest for the sake of Black lives, we leaned in to listen.

The sound was not new to us. We’d been aware of systemic racial injustice for quite some time — not because we heard it on the national news, but because the trajectory of our lives has given us relationships across racial and socioeconomic lines and we have seen the impact of school inequity, racial profiling in policing, red-lining in real estate, inequities in access to health care and quality food, and racist practices in institutional hiring. We haven’t done much about it, if I am going to be honest, other than bear witness and believe that these systems exist, but we have seen the impact on people that we know and care about.

So when thousands across the country took to the streets carrying signs emblazoned with Black Lives Matter, I Can’t Breathe, and Arrest Brionna’s Killers, we were not horrified. We were not surprised. We were looking for ways to support, ways to ally, ways to join their voices. How could we do otherwise? How can we sit quietly watching repeated senseless acts of violence upon people of color, knowing that these blatant killings and attacks are a symptom of a much more insidious disease. Racism in our country runs deep — it has surreptitiously found its ways into our thought lives as all ideologies do, so that even when we believe ourselves to be free of racism, we make judgements about others because of their language, their skin color, their clothing choices, and their hairstyles. We use people of color as it benefits us (for sports, for entertainment, and to prove ourselves to be non-racist), but we rarely come to their defense or speak up on their behalf.

So right now, when Covid-19 is disproportionately impacting communities of color, specifically because of the impact of inadequate access to healthcare, the wealth and educational gaps that keep people of color in service industries and on the front line, and the pre-existing conditions that disproportionately pervade these communities due to centuries old inequities, when even now people of color have to contend with incidents of injustice like the George Floyd killing, we must be moved to action.

So when my husband and I were standing in the kitchen one night in the middle of the stay at home order and he said, “Are you happy doing what you are doing right now?” I reflexively responded that what I really wanted was to be in a school where I could be part of the dialogue during this time that has potential for unprecedented transformation in the lives of communities of color. I felt ready. After a long journey back to health, I felt we were facing the moment I had been preparing for.

He said, “You’re right. Let’s do it. Toss your name in the hat. Let’s see what happens.”

I said, “Really? Even if it means I have to drive to Detroit?”

“Don’t be bound by geography. Apply broadly, and we’ll cross the next bridge when we get to it.”

Oh. My. Word. You’d have thought he had given me the keys to any car I wanted to drive off the lot! If he thought I was ready, then I knew I actually was ready!

I started combing Indeed and district websites like never before. I applied to positions in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, the Detroit metro area, and beyond. And though I’d been doing this to some degree for years, this time was different. Within a couple days of submitting applications early in the morning, on my lunch hour, and after work, I started getting phone calls and emails.

I was different. I felt different — healthy, strong, and impassioned like never before. While I had believed for quite some time that my career was over, I was beginning to believe that I might just have another round in me. Not only that, the landscape was different. Due to Covid-19, many teachers have been choosing to leave the profession, take a sabbatical, or move into a different sector — away from classrooms, particularly classrooms in hot zones like Detroit. While before I may have been passed over because my Master’s degree and years of experience put me a little higher on the salary schedule, suddenly I was a prime candidate. While many teachers were ill-equipped to manage the unavoidable transition from in-person to online learning, I have been using online platforms to work with students for the last several years!

As the interviews started, I could hear the skepticism in the voices of those questioning me. What is your experience with urban schools? Why are you interested in this position? How would you build classroom culture among students who are 99% Black? 99% of whom receive free or reduced lunch?

I could hear the subtext, “I can see, even over this video interview, that you are a middle aged white woman. Are you sure you are up to this? Do you know what you are getting into?” But guess what, kids, I’ve heard these questions before, and I was ready for them.

What I wasn’t ready for was learning that many of the schools I was applying to had been operating with long-term substitute teachers in core subject areas, because they could not find highly qualified teachers and they had to fill slots. I wasn’t ready to learn that many of the students in these schools did not have devices or internet in their homes when the stay-at-home order began. I wasn’t prepared to realize that because 5,000 people had died in Detroit and a disproportionate number of them were Black, chances are high that the students in these schools have experienced loss above and beyond the loss of their routine, the daily contact with teachers and friends, and life as we once knew it. They’ve likely lost people they love.

However, I was excited to learn that several of the agencies I was interviewing with were working to meet the needs of these students. They were delivering devices and personal hot spots — teachers and administrators getting in their own vehicles and driving to student residences across the Detroit metro. Not only that, all of the schools I interviewed with were still providing food to families — five days a week. One school was providing food not only to their own students’ families, but to anyone in the community who pulled into the parking lot to receive it. They were also working hard to secure more devices for the coming school year and making plans (state-mandated) for how to return to school fully in-person, fully online, and a hybrid option that would allow families to choose.

I met dedicated educators who care about kids — inner city kids, kids of color, kids who matter.

And one of these schools made me an offer.

And then another one did.

And I still had my position at Lindamood-Bell.

I had a decision to make, and it wasn’t going to be easy.

But I was ready. More on that next time.

He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.

Psalm 33:5

Coronavirus Diary 15: Wearing a Mask

I’ve been back in the office for two weeks now. I’d been working from my office in our little house by the river for almost three months when our company determined that we should be back in our physical space, so I packed up all my materials — laptop, auxiliary screen, student files, and other materials, and lugged them to my car, drove them across town, hauled them up two flights of stairs, and started to acclimate.

The first couple of days were especially stressful. I don’t know if it was the daily screening paperwork that I had to fill out every morning, the taking of my temperature, the putting away of all those materials (which I still haven’t finished), the spontaneously self-generating list of regular tasks that didn’t pause for a second as I learned all the new protocols, or the fact that I now have to wear a mask.

Of course I’ve been wearing a mask for months. It started in the early days when the only time I left our home was to go to the grocery store. I made a few masks following a simple pattern and using some leftover fabric I had here at home. Our church was making them for a local hospital, and since I have a sewing machine and we suddenly had lots of time on our hands, I began to mass produce them along with a small group of women.

On my weekly treks out, I not only donned a mask, but I wore latex gloves. I carefully procured my groceries, following arrows on the floor and being careful to keep six feet away from others. Back in my car, I would remove the mask and gloves, sanitize my hands, and then drive home where my husband would receive and wash all the items I purchased while I stripped and headed straight to the shower. In fact, we’ve kept this routine all these months. We’ve developed quite a system.

We’ve adopted these behaviors to stay safe — to keep ourselves from getting sick.

In those early days, I probably wore the mask for a grand total of 3-5 hours per week, but now that I’m back in the office, I am supposed to wear it for 8 hours a day!

I get it. Mask wearing is very important. The data shows us that our chances of spreading or contracting Covid-19 are greatly reduced by social distancing and wearing a mask.

So, I’m wearing one, but let me just say that it is challenging!

Probably the biggest reason I find face mask wearing challenging at work is that it covers my face and most of my facial expressions. I am an educator, and right now I see most of my students online. Working with students virtually has its own challenges, not least of which is the ability to communicate clearly. Since all the students can see of me is from the torso up, I am continually checking to be sure that I am centered on the screen, that my student can hear me clearly, and that I am allowing appropriate time to hear his or her response. I rely heavily on facial expression and hand gestures such as “thumbs up” and “high five” to communicate encouragement. Now that I am in the center and required to wear a mask, I lose my smile and the student’s ability to use the visual support of watching my mouth to understand what I am saying. (You’d be surprised how much we rely on this.)

My employer has done a pretty decent job of separating staff members from one another. I am sharing a room with one coworker, but we have a divider between our work spaces and we give each other a wide berth when we are coming and going. Additionally, we each wear a mask for most of the day. However, we have both determined that we will remove our masks when working with our most severe/youngest students for whom the mask seems a distraction or hindrance to instruction.

I am fine with this because my coworker and I have a strong relationship and we are both communicating about the ways in which we are continuing to limit our exposure to others outside of work — avoiding social gatherings, and wearing our masks when in public spaces such as grocery stores, doctor appointments and the like. We trust one another to act responsibly and out of concern for one another, so we feel comfortable several times a day removing our masks to work with these students.

I also dash outside once in the morning, once in the afternoon, and over my lunch hour to take off the mask and breathe some fresh air because I am just tired of wearing it! It fogs up my glasses, makes me feel hot, and smashes my hairstyle.

Wearing a face mask is annoying, but I am going to keep wearing one.

Why? Because in my county 37 new cases were reported yesterday. Michigan’s seven-day average is 508. The United States’ rate of infection and cumulative death count still far outpaces any country, even adjusted for population, and though people are still arguing about whether Covid-19 can be transmitted by people who are asymptomatic (or pre-symptomatic), each day we learn of more people who were infected because they gathered in large groups and chose not to wear masks.

Over 135,000 people have died in United States in the last few months, and we have been given a few simple instructions for diminishing further spread and death: 1) We should wash our hands, 2) we should stay away from people, and 3) we should wear a mask.

It’s really not a big ask.

Is it annoying? Yes.

Would I prefer not to? Yes.

But am I willing to take one for the team and do my best to stop the further spread of the coronavirus while thousands of medical staff are doing their best to keep people alive while wearing not only a mask, but often a shield, and all manner of PPE? while thousands of researchers, clad in hazmat suits, are working around the clock to find a vaccine, a treatment, a cure? Yes.

I’m willing to be a little annoyed — a little uncomfortable — for the sake of keeping myself and others safe. And what if wearing a mask turns out to be ineffective? I won’t mind, because at the very least, my choice to wear a mask signals to those around me that I am willing to care for them, to keep any possible infection to myself, and to join a united effort against this pandemic.

I think that’s worth something.

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

Romans 12:18

Coronavirus Diary #13: Vantage Point

When I was teaching high school composition, I used to have my students watch the movie Vantage Point (available on Amazon or YouTube), which tells the story of an assassination attempt on the US President as seen from the various vantage points of different characters. The goal of watching this film, which I assigned over Christmas break before the start of the semester, was to get my students thinking about point of view and the reliability of narration. I wanted them to see that depending on where you are standing, the story might look very different.

And isn’t that true right now?

I spoke to my mother this week. She lives in small town Michigan, very far removed from the cities where Covid-19 has run most rampantly. Her county has had 82 total cases and 13 deaths. She is unfamiliar with the impact of systemic racism; her county is 92% white and she has no reason to believe that systemic racism has impacted the few people of color that she knows. Because it’s tucked back from the highway running through town, she rarely considers the Level IV correctional facility which houses over 1000 inmates, most of whom are likely people of color. From her vantage point, not much in life has changed. She feels free to go out of her house to shop in the midst of a global pandemic, even if she does have leukemia and is 78 years old. She’s wearing a mask, after all, well, except for that one time when she went to a graduation open house when she didn’t wear a mask — because, well, nobody was.

My daughter called yesterday. She lives on The Common in Boston, a city where Covid has infected over 13,000 people and claimed the lives of over 900. She woke up yesterday to the sound of police putting up barricades on the sidewalk outside her window. As the day progressed, Black Lives Matter protestors assembled behind the barricades on one side of the street; Blue Lives Matter protestors with the support of white supremacists gathered on the other. In the middle of these two groups police officers in riot gear patrolled back and forth. She called because she was riled up. She had left her building through the back entrance to protect herself from a potential clash of protestors, wearing a mask to protect herself from Covid. From her vantage point, life is full of danger and opportunity. She sees her position of privilege and feels compelled to speak up, speak out, and engage in a dialogue to impact change. She grew up mostly in spaces occupied by people of diverse backgrounds. Her partner is a person of color. She belongs to a church that is made up of people from many nations, many backgrounds, many socioeconomic levels. She works for a government agency that is committed to equity for all citizens of Massachusetts. She is hyper-aware of the realities around her.

Over the past week, I have been preparing to return to the office where I was working before I started to quarantine at the end of March. My company has done extensive work to prepare our environment to meet the requirements of re-entry — creating social distance, requiring and providing masks, ensuring that extra cleaning will be done, and limiting the number of students who will be in the center at any given time. The parents of some of our students really want them to be able to come into the center — they believe instruction will be more effective there. From their vantage point, opening our center is a great idea. However, many of the staff, who have been working remotely for the last three months, sheltering in place, limiting their exposure to others, and watching the trends of communities who have opened ahead of us, do not want to go back to the center. They believe it is unsafe, and they want the opportunity to continue to work remotely, since we’ve been doing so effectively for three months now with great success. From their vantage point, the risk of going back into physical contact is not warranted. They are wiling to lose their jobs rather than take that risk.

Meanwhile, our country is experiencing the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression of the 1920s. Many new college grads are spending their days alternating between applying for jobs and worrying about how they are going to pay their bills. They are taking jobs that have nothing to do with their degrees just to get a paycheck coming in. They are willing to take risks to work in environments that seem unsafe because they need money — that one little stimulus check way back in April has been gone for weeks, if they received it in the first place. From their vantage point, any work is better than no work.

Families are sitting in their cars in long lines to pick up free food because their money is gone. They worry they’ll lose their homes or that they will get Covid and need medical care that they can no longer afford because they lost their health care along with their jobs.

And each day we hear another story of a family and a community who have senselessly lost someone they love due to racial violence. We’ve heard about George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, but there have been many others. It’s not bad enough that these families are trying to manage the physical and financial ramifications of a pandemic, they are also grieving the loss of lives cut short for no good reason.

Most of us cannot imagine processing that kind of trauma on top of already overwhelming stress of all the change that we’ve undergone because of this pandemic. And we likely won’t have to. That kind of shit doesn’t happen in our communities, in our families. And we have this sense that we are invincibile. untouchable.

Yesterday, my daughter was out running in Boston and had her mask down around her neck until she saw someone approaching. At that point, she put her mask on out of respect for the other person, to reduce the risk of unknowingly contaminating him. He saw her put on her mask — he wasn’t wearing one — and he shouted at her angrily, “Really? Really?” as though he was offended by her gesture. From his vantage point, my daughter was protecting herself from him.

This morning in his rural church, my father-in-law who is 80+, was wearing a mask. A fellow congregant — without a mask — approached him and said, “Who are you protecting yourself from?” It was an indictment — didn’t my father-in-law trust the people he went to church with to be free of disease? From that man’s vantage point, my father-in-law’s mask was ridiculous, unnecessary, an affront.

We have difficulty understanding the the actions and words of those who are experiencing life right now from a different vantage point. We don’t understand why a septuagenarian with cancer would go to a social event without a mask, what would cause a white man to shout at a complete stranger for merely pulling on a mask, or why a person with a job would refuse to go to work while countless others are desperately looking for employment.

We don’t understand the kind of history and indoctrination that would lead someone to take the life of another simply because of the color of their skin or what it must feel like to lose everything that you have. We only see the story from our own vantage point.

Unless, unless, we are willing to look at the events from a different point of view. What might happen if we set down our bags full of belief and assumption and took one step to the left or the right and tried to view the world from a different vantage point? Might we be able to understand a person’s desire to move freely inside the community she has known for decades? Might we feel the fear and outrage of someone who can’t comprehend why centuries-long misconceptions about race can’t be finally put away? Might we see the horror of watching a loved one have the oxygen pressed out of him? Might we appreciate both the need for work and the need to feel safe going to work?

Life is very complex. When over 300 million people live inside one country, they can’t all be standing on the same piece of ground — they won’t all have the same vantage point. If we want to come together and build a more perfect union, we’re going to have to walk around a little bit and see how others view things. We’ll have to share our stories and blend them into a more reliable narrative.

Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace.

I Corinthians 13:11

Coronavirus Diary #12: Taking Risks

We’re still here. We’re sitting in the midst of 2020, continuing to daily discover the elements of this new reality, and starting to take some risks.

I met a friend at a park yesterday, to share a cup of coffee, to chat, to get to know one another a little better, and to discuss challenges and opportunities we have encountered in writing and in education. I walked up to find her sitting at a picnic table, mask in hand. I’d left my mask in the car, absentmindedly. We agreed to situate ourselves at a table “six feet apart” which feels awkward. We find ourselves willing to taking a risk to sit in that awkwardness in order to be together, to build relationship, to share life.

My husband and I were in a similar situation last week when we met with the members of our community group outside. We hadn’t physically been together since early March, and we were excited to see one another, but what would’ve have been hugs turned into awkward negotiations of space as we gathered around a picnic table to chat and catch up. We all agreed to take some measured risk, to share space, to hear one another’s voices in person, to build community.

Yesterday morning, after my meet-up at the park, I was driving to my first Hellerwork appointment since March 24, when I passed a large group of people gathering to walk to mark the celebration of Juneteenth and to acknowledge that though we’ve come a long way from the days of slavery, we have a long way yet to go before people of color experience equity in America. I saw many, most wearing masks, walking in groups of two or five or eight, carrying signs, wearing T-shirts with messages of unity and support. They were willing to take a risk — to come outside and gather during a pandemic — for the sake of racial equity.

https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2020/06/hundreds-gather-in-ann-arbor-to-celebrate-juneteenth-march-against-racism.html

On Friday night, my husband and I watched Just Mercy (streaming for free right now), a story that horrified me when I read the book several years ago, but doubly horrified me at this watching as I got a deeper realization of the hatred and harm that has been inflicted on Black bodies over the course of our nation’s history and that is still happening right now. We risked feeling uncomfortable on a Friday night, when we could’ve chosen yet another comedy or feel-good drama — either of which might’ve distracted us from this current reality. We took this risk to acknowledge the truth of our nation’s history and to realize the value of celebrating Juneteenth.

I walked into my practitioner’s office on Saturday wearing a mask; she was wearing one, too. In order to treat me, she has to be up close and personal, touching my body, sharing my space. She manipulates my fascia, kneads my muscles, coerces my IT band, and tries to convince my SI joint that it can indeed function according to design. She’s taking a risk to care for me, and I’m thankful. I’m taking a risk to see her, to allow her to get back to work after three months at home, and she’s thankful.

I head from that appointment to the pharmacy to pick up a medication that keeps my ocular herpes in check, to pick up a birthday and a graduation card, and to purchase more immune support tablets. The pharmacist is behind a sheet of plastic, but she takes the items I have touched, scans them, and hands me my bag. She’s taking a risk to support my health. I’m taking a risk, too. We both wear our masks; our eyes meet. I thank her; she thanks me.

From there I walk next door to the grocery store. I get two of every item on the list, check the stock and price of toilet paper (even though we now — finally — have a two-month supply at home), and stand on the X that keeps me 6 feet away from the next person in line for the cashier. I give the person ahead of me plenty of room to make his purchases and then move forward when it’s my turn. I swipe my card, place my bags back in the cart, and then take the receipt that is handed to me, knowing it has been touched by other human hands. Those hands have taken a risk to serve me, and I have taken a risk to be served.

Every day right now, it seems, comes with a level of risk I had not been aware of before. It’s a risk to buy groceries, get gas, see the doctor, or visit a friend. Activities that were previously mundane and performed without much thought now take a measured intentional approach, which I am willing to take for the things that I need.

Am I willing to take risks for others, too?

Am I willing to speak out against injustice? Am I willing to say — and post — that Black lives matter? Am I willing to walk in a protest? Am I willing to challenge the misconceptions of others? Am I willing to risk friendships with people who disagree with me?

Am I willing to point out the audacity of a president who encouraged thousands of people to gather on his behalf — to sit side by side in an enclosed space — not six feet apart around an outdoor picnic table? Am I willing to be outraged at the language he used to threaten those who might protest such a gathering?

Am I willing to risk examining my own beliefs, my own thoughts, my own choices? Am I willing to see my own prejudice? My own selfishness? My own fears? My own mistakes?

I want to be willing. I want you to be willing. I want us to be willing.

It’s scary, knowing the risk of danger, of infection, of change, of progress.

We step out carefully, wearing our masks, looking in one another’s eyes, keeping a safe distance, listening carefully, examining our hearts, interrogating our motives, and willing to exchange the ways we have known for a way that will ensure the safety, livelihood, and freedom of others.

It might be uncomfortable to do things differently — maybe even a little bit risky — but as one Black life after another is cut down before our very eyes, as they have been being cut down for hundreds of years, the risk of staying silent, of continuing in the path we have been on, is greater still.

I’m ready — are you ready — to start taking some risks.

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.

Isaiah 1:17