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 #20: Please, Wait.

Note: I finished editing and recording this around 5pm yesterday — right before Governor Whitmer announced new restrictions for Michigan that will start on Wednesday. It just makes sense, friends. The numbers can’t be denied. Please stay safe and stay well.

I’ve completed my ten days’ isolation after my positive Covid-19 test, and my husband is almost done with his fourteen day quarantine which resulted from my diagnosis. (He is still testing negative.) After patiently abiding our sentences, we are tasting freedom, as it were. I’ve taken my first venture out of the house to the grocery store, and he has relocated his quarantine from the hotel where he was staying while I was contagious to the confines of our home that have now been deemed safe.

You’d be amazed how little one needs to survive 10 days of Covid confinement — even a mild case pretty much obliterates the appetite and renders one exhausted. One can survive on a little chicken soup, hot tea, cold medicine, sleep, and prayer — prayer that the case will be mild, that it won’t spread to anyone else, and that recovery will come quickly and fully.

And when recovery comes, one wants only to disinfect the whole house and give thanks that it’s over.

That’s where I am today, or that’s where I almost am. Although I’m cleared to go out in public, I am not symptom-free. I’ve never had a fever, but I still have a lingering headache and some mild congestion. I am still sleeping 9-10 hours each night, and am trying to take it easy. I will continue to wear a mask everywhere I go, and I won’t come within six feet of others, because although my case was indeed very mild and although the Health Department has said I’m not contagious, I am going to act with an abundance of caution because I wouldn’t want anyone else to get this.

I mean, it wouldn’t be the worst thing ever if someone got a case as mild as mine, but what we’ve learned from Covid is that it is unpredictable — some skate through fairly easily, like I did, but some spend months in the ICU. Some never come home.

And, we all know that cases are on the rise. It seems almost every day we set a new record. For the past several days, the US has had more than 150,000 new cases each day. Hospitals across the country are filling up again, and our frontline workers are overwhelmed.

While last week you might not have had anyone in your immediate circle who has tested positive, before the end of November, you likely will. Some predict that we will have more than 200,000 new cases a day by December 1.

But wait, that’s not great timing! Thanksgiving is two weeks away! We always do Thanksgiving with family. We always have a house full of people. I mean, everyone’s being careful. None of the members of our family have been exposed. Certainly we can share one meal.

But here’s the thing, guys. I was being very careful. We still don’t know how I was exposed. Every time I leave the house it is with a mask. Even then, I stay six feet away. I go to work and to the grocery store. Period. I eat healthfully, I take my vitamins, and I wash my hands like it’s my job. I did not know that I had been exposed, and you don’t know either.

Right this minute, you could be Covid-19 positive. Health experts have been telling us this since last spring — they’ve said, “assume you are carrying the virus and act accordingly”. In other words, wear a mask to keep the virus to yourself, wash your hands so that you don’t spread the virus to surfaces that you touch, and stay away from people, particularly people who are older or in some way health compromised.

I know, I know — we are tired of this! We’ve been isolating in some way, shape, or form since March — March! This has been going on too long! Certainly we deserve a break! What are we going to do, socially distance from one another forever?

No. It won’t be forever. This is temporary.

If 2020 had an instructional goal, it would be this: Humans will learn how to wait.

We haven’t had to practice waiting for a very long time. I remember when I was a little girl, television shows were on when they were on. If memory serves me correctly, Welcome Back, Kotter came on Thursday nights at 8pm. I loved that show — a beloved, if slightly annoyed, teacher in a classroom full of barely invested students finding the teachable moment and making us all laugh. I waited for that show. I came home from school, completed my homework, and made sure my butt was plunked in front of the screen at 8pm. I didn’t want to miss it.

Today, if I want to watch a show, I stream it whenever I want. I can pause it to go to the bathroom, answer a phone call, or go get a snack. I don’t have to wait for a show; the shows wait for me!

We used to know how to wait. When my husband and I were dating, email did not yet exist, nor did cell phones. Calling each other from a landline was expensive, so we did most of our corresponding by letter – you know pens on paper. He would write me a letter, put it in the mail, and then wait. A few days later, I would get the letter, write him back, put it in the mail, and then wait. We did this for most of the first year that we dated. We didn’t have the luxury of firing off texts in the moment, but we had the luxury of reading and re-reading each other’s words over and over again. We took time to think through our responses and to ask thoughtful questions because we knew it would be several days or more before the other would receive our messages and we wanted to make sure that our meaning was clear.

When our children were small, if their grandparents wanted to see what they looked like, we had a few options. We could get in the car and drive a few hours for a visit or we could take some photos, have the film developed, then send pictures in the mail. The grandparents checked the mail each day hoping for photos and treasured each visit since they didn’t know how long they would have to wait before they saw the children again. A few days ago, even though we are in the middle of a pandemic, even though my husband and I were quarantining away from one another, we were still able to have a face-to-face visit with our granddaughters at the drop of a hat — we heard their voices, saw their faces, and laughed with them. We seldom have to wait long between such visits.

But we might have to wait a while to have a visit in the flesh. It’s just the right thing to do.

I am as upset as anyone else. Just a couple of months ago, I still held out hope that perhaps we could jet to Boston to see our daughters — wouldn’t it be great to take the whole family there? When reality struck, I actually shed real tears. Of course I want to have everyone together. However, the absence of family gatherings is temporary.

Covid-19 has taken almost a quarter of a million American lives, and I don’t want the next one to be my son or daughter or mother or brother. I want the opportunity to get together with all of the people that I love next summer or next Thanksgiving or next Christmas, and I am willing to wait.

This year? I mean, we have any number of ways to be “together” while being apart. We can have a Zoom meeting every single day of the week if we’d like. We can call; we can FaceTime; we can text. It’s not the same as being in the same room, wrapping our arms around the ones we love and miss, but it has to suffice — temporarily.

All kinds of scientists have been working around the clock since January trying to create an immunization and they are very, very close. All we need to do is be patient, and wait.

We can do it. We can stay put, roast a turkey or grill some burgers at home, put on some music, and call each other up. We can tell each other that we’re thankful to be alive, that we’re thankful that we have people that we love so much, and that we’re thankful that help is on the way. We can plan our reunions and tell stories of holidays past. We can pass the time “together” until one day when we can be together.

That’s all we gotta do — just wait.

We can do it. We are strong; we are resilient; we have the technology.

Will you join me in staying the course, staying at home, and waiting a little bit longer to get together so that more of us will be here when it’s safe to do so?

Wait for the Lord; Be strong and let your heart take courage; Yes, wait for the Lord.

Psalm 27:14

Coronavirus Diary #19: First-person Account

My phone pinged.

“Please return to the front desk for your test results.”

I’d been waiting 40 minutes since they told me it would be 20 minutes.

I’d been at the testing center for almost two hours. First I had to wait in line to get forms to fill out, then I had to wait in my car to be called for my test, then I had to wait in my car for my results.

We had planned to meet our son and his best friend who was visiting from out of state — just for an outdoor socially-distanced few moments. We had previously planned to do dinner together, but the Covid-19 case numbers were climbing. Across the country we’d been seeing new daily records every day, so we had changed our plans to an outdoor meet up where we would hand them dinner-to-go.

That was before I emailed my director of HR to tell her, “It’s probably just allergies, but my throat is a little scratchy, and I’ve got some post-nasal drip.”

She gave me the standard, “Please work from home until your symptoms go away, and you should probably get a Covid test, just to be on the safe side.”

What with our plans for a get-together, I almost didn’t go for a test. Seriously, it was probably just allergies. The weather was swinging from 20 degrees to 70 degrees inside of 24 hours. My sinuses typically react to these types of fluctuations. However, my husband, who has been overseeing the Covid response on the campus where we live, said ever so delicately, “It’s your decision, but I would recommend sooner rather than later.”

So, I drove to the testing site and began the process.

Did I mention this was on Tuesday? Election day? The election day that has expanded to an election week?

So here I am, on election day, sitting in my vehicle in a parking lot, one of a dozen or more waiting to be tested or get results. The people keep streaming in and out to find out whether or not they have Covid, whether or not they’ll be able to go to work tonight or tomorrow, whether or not they’ll have to cancel all of their plans for the next two weeks or more, whether or not they’ll have to notify everyone they’ve come into contact with over the last several days, whether or not they’ll be at risk to get deathly ill.

I’m convinced my test will be negative, that I’ll rush home, box up the food we want to give to my son and his friend, that we’ll enjoy our visit, that we’ll watch the election returns for a while, and that I’ll go to bed not knowing who will be our next president. I’ve got the whole evening planned, and then I get that text.

I walk into the testing center, give my name to the front desk, and step to the side. In moments, a young girl in scrubs calls my name. I follow her behind a door and into a room.

“Someone will be right with you.”

I start to panic a little. Why am I in a room? Why is ‘someone’ coming to talk to me? If I was negative, wouldn’t they just smile, say, “you’re negative” and I’d be on my way?

The door opens, and in walks a doctor.

I’m stunned. A doctor? Does everyone get a doctor? All these dozens of people all get to see a doctor?

“Have you been around anyone who has tested positive for Covid-19?” he asks.

“No, I am barely ever around any one.”

“Well, your rapid test came back positive.”

“Yeah, but how reliable are those rapid tests?”

“Ninety-seven percent.”

“Shit.”

“So, we are going to do a PCR test. That result will come back in two to three days. You must isolate for 10 days. The health department will call you.”

And someone else came in, put a second swab up my nose and into my brain, and I began to realize what was happening.

We wouldn’t see our son and his friend. In fact, when I got home, my husband met me at the door with a mask on. He was already making arrangements for others to manage his work responsibilities. I showered, got a little to eat, and went right into the spare bedroom where I vowed to stay until we knew if my husband, too, was positive.

When I called my director of HR, she seemed disappointed. I was the first positive case since the start of school in September. We had made it almost the whole first quarter — just three days shy. She had to get a letter out and tell our whole staff that we’d be working from home for two weeks. And, by the way, how was I feeling?

I’ll admit, I felt terrible. I felt guilty for getting sick. I felt responsible for the fact that my colleagues would all have to work from home. I felt overlooked, and I felt ashamed. How could I have let this happen?

But, guys, I didn’t let this happen. It just happened. It’s not my fault, it’s just my circumstance. Since March, my husband and I have followed the guidelines. We’ve worn the masks; we’ve socially distanced. We’ve avoided gatherings, and when on just a couple of occasions we’ve gone to social functions, we’ve stayed to ourselves and waved from afar. Since March, we have continued to wash all the food that comes into our house, we wash our masks after just one wear, and we use hand sanitizer until our hands are raw.

Covid-19 is just that insidious, just that contagious, just that powerful.

Today, as I write, the US has had 9.7 million confirmed cases and 236,000 confirmed deaths. I’m not special. I’m just one of many who have contracted this virus and one of the fortunate who seem to have a very mild case.

Today, on day six of my symptoms, I have a slightly sore throat, minimal sinus congestdion, a little nausea, and a sense that I’m “coming down with something.” It’s very mild, and I’m thankful. Yet even this mild case has an impact. Thankfully, I have a job that I can do from home for two weeks, and I won’t lose any wages. Thankfully, my husband tested negative (twice now) and he is able to quarantine away from me in the hotel where some of our students are also quarantining. Thankfully, I have the company of my faithful Chester, our senior golden retriever. Thankfully, I had just gotten groceries, and I have everything I need here in the house and plenty of people who are willing to run get things for me if I need them.

Everyone doesn’t have this experience. Many who get a positive test lose two weeks’ worth of wages — which would be hard for people like us who have a little in savings and very little debt but which can be devastating for large portions of the population who live pay check to pay check. Many don’t have a place to go when a loved one gets sick but are forced to coexist in an environment where they, too, might be infected. Many don’t have such mild symptoms, but suffer at home or in the hospital for weeks and even months. Many don’t have a stockpile of groceries or friends and family who can help them out while they shelter in place.

I’m inconvenienced, as are the people in my life, but I am not devastated.

Many upon many have been devastated by this disease. As the numbers grow, someone close to you — maybe even surprisingly you — may be impacted.

For the sake of those who aren’t as fortunate as me, please, wear your mask, wash your hands, stay at home, and postpone your plans.

Take one for the team.

At least until you are able and willing to get a vaccine. Ok?

Thanks.

do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.

Philippians 2:4

Coronavirus Diary 18: Returning (Again) to Best Practices

Remember way back in March when we all moved our offices home and agreed that we wouldn’t see each other for a while? Could we have imagined that seven months later we’d still be social distancing — avoiding physical contact with each other, cancelling special events, and considering how to do holidays virtually this year?

I couldn’t have. Sure, I moved my work home, started making cloth masks like my life depended on it, and transitioned to a new way of life that included (still includes) a detailed strategy for de-germing all purchases, standing awkwardly six feet away from friends and family, and spending way too much time in Zoom rooms.

You would think that because I stare at a screen almost all day from Monday through Friday, that I would eschew my phone — it’s just another screen — but I have not. In fact, my phone use is up — drastically.

Before Covid, I had been making an effort to reduce my screen time — plugging my phone in at my bedside after dinner, refusing to check email, texts, or social media in the evening. I’d deleted game apps like Words With Friends and 2048 (don’t judge me) because if they are on my phone, I will play them. I knew that the amount of time I spent on my phone was counterproductive and likely anxiety-producing and sleep-reducing. I had discussed my cell-phone use with at least two health-care providers who both agreed that it would be best if I reduced my screen time for my physical and emotional health.

And I was working on it — not really succeeding — but working on it.

Then came Covid-19, and I found myself frantically texting family and friends, checking the Johns Hopkins website almost on the hour (not kidding), and scrolling through Twitter (which heightened my emotions) followed by Instagram (which did the same only in a more esthetically pleasing way).

When I realized that both of my daughters were playing Words With Friends with my mom sometime last spring, I downloaded the app (again) and started a few games myself. And then my screen time spiraled out of control.

I am embarrassed to tell you that even though I’m down 5% from last week, my current daily screen time average is 4 hours and 16 minutes. Gulp.

I was journaling yesterday morning when I realized — in script on the page — that one of my most beloved habits, this journaling, has taken a back seat to my morning scrolling, Words With Friends playing, and email checking. Just last summer, I was still filling three pages each morning, writing down random thoughts and deeper musings, but lately, I barely fill half a page before I realize I am out of time and I need to get ready for work.

I get up two hours before I have to walk out the door, but I find myself with not enough time to read my daily devotion, complete 20 minutes of yoga, and write three pages before hopping through the shower and heading out the door. Why? Because I’ve spent that time taking all my turns at Words With Friends, scrolling through Instagram, checking emails, and wasting my time.

I met with my therapist on Wednesday. We hadn’t talked in a few weeks, so she asked me how my transition to my new job is going, and I told her that I’d noticed that I am sometimes getting cranky by the end of the day, that I am no longer bouncing around with the excitement of the newness. I told her that I am just observing the change and wondering what I can do about it.

And after I said it, I started realizing what has changed in the past eight weeks — more sitting, more technology use, less writing, less yoga, less walking. Practices that are detrimental to my health and well-being (being sedentary and constant tech-clicking) have been increasing while those that have significantly improved my health (writing and movement) have been decreasing. It’s no wonder that my hips and low back are aching and that I’m feeling a little grumbly. I’ve continued with my regular physical therapy, chiropractic care, and massages right on schedule, but I have been sloppy with my daily moment-by-moment choices. And it’s starting to show.

So, yesterday morning I deleted my Words With Friends app. (Sorry to those I left hanging in the middle of a game.) I’ve gotta break the cycle. I’ve got to get a couple of those hours back — not to accomplish more, not to do more grading or planning, not to clean the house more or cook more — I need that time to create space for myself. I need to fill three pages with messy script each morning. I need time to leisurely read my Bible passages for the day. I need time for a full 20 minutes (or 30!) of yoga before I sit at my desk joining students and colleagues in Zoom rooms all day. Instead of spending my 30-minute lunch break playing WWF and scrolling through social media, I need to spend that time strolling the halls of the school, waving to the other teachers who I barely see each day. Maybe they’ll come out of their rooms and join me. Maybe we’ll share some words — a conversation, a joke, a story about the class we just taught, or a problem we’re working through. Maybe I’ll make a friend.

I’ll miss getting annihilated by my high school buddies — man, they are smart! — and interacting with dear friends I can’t see face to face right now, but I lack the self-control to check in once a day for 20 minutes and play all my turns. That game beckons me from morning to night — even when I have the notifications turned off. It’s as though it wields an invisible force that draws my mind, my eyes, my hands to the phone, and before I know it, I’ve spent four hours of my day looking at a 2 x 5 inch screen.

Sigh.

This pandemic has staying power, doesn’t it? It’s taken 225,000 American lives, it’s disrupted our work, our schooling, our social lives, our worship, our celebrations, and our travel. Word on the street is that Covid-19 is just about to kick into high gear for another round of carnage.

I’m not going to panic. I’m going to put the phone down when I can, choose movement over stagnation, and engage with people face to face (in the flesh or on the screen) whenever possible.

It’s not personal — if I’m gonna make it through this year with my health intact, I’ve gotta return to my best practices.

[Friends,] I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul.

3 John 1:2

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

Coronavirus Diary 16: Back to School Edition

Can you hear that? Can you hear the subtle hum? It’s the thrum of collective anxiety coursing through the nervous systems of every teacher, parent, and student who has already or who is about to start the school year either in person, online, or in some kind of hybrid format. The theme of the song? Uncertainty.

Never before have we approached a school year in such a “wait and see” posture. Schools and districts that have chosen to open in person have plans in place “just in case” a student or many students, a teacher or many teachers, a school or many schools get infected with Covid-19 mandating a move to partially or fully remote instruction. Schools that have chosen to open virtually have committed to several weeks or months of online instruction with plans in place to move to partial or full in-person models as soon as possible.

Teachers, students, and parents are facing the uncertainty about where they will do instruction this year.

Some schools have provided their teachers with training on using Zoom rooms, Google classroom, and myriad online instructional tools. Some have done this well and thoroughly, some have taken a more haphazard approach, and others have told their teachers to “figure it out”. Some teachers are very proficient with Internet technology, some manage just fine, and some have avoided using technology for as long as possible and have no idea what a URL is. While most students in middle- and upper-class communities have been raised with a device in their hands, many in lower-income communities are learning to access technology for academic purposes for the very first time. Whether they are technological novices or pros, they’ll be “doing school” much differently than ever before.

Teachers, students, and parents are facing uncertainty about how they will do instruction this year.

Some schools started the year early, to get in as much instruction as possible before another potential stay-at-home order. Some schools have students coming to school on alternate days to space out the number of bodies in classrooms. Some schools are having shorter instructional days to allow for added cleaning in buildings or to allow for time away from computer screens if students are learning from home.

Teachers, students, and parents are facing uncertainly about when they will do instruction this year.

Teachers are wondering about how we will build relationships, how we will have enough time together to get to know one another, when we will find time to share stories and tell all the corny teacher jokes that are critical to every classroom. We’re wondering where to pick up in the curriculum, knowing that our students’ learning was disrupted way back in March and that individual students managed that disruption and the virtual learning that followed much differently from one another. We’re wondering how to allow students the time and space to process trauma — the trauma of leaving school in the middle of the year, the trauma of losing a friend or loved one, the trauma of being continuously at home with a family that may or may not have fared well in the face of a global pandemic, the resulting economic crisis, and the concurring racial unrest.

We’re wondering how we’ll manage to reach students who we may only see in the gallery view of our Zoom rooms, how well we’ll adapt to distributing and collecting assignments via Google classroom, and how efficient we’ll be at transitioning from task to task, student to student, class to class, from in-person to online learning, or vice-versa.

Parents are wondering how safe their kids will be at school, how long they will stay there, and how they will manage to juggle all their responsibilities — again! — if their students are moved home. They are wondering if they’ll be able to keep their jobs — or find a job, if they’ll be allowed to work at home, if they’ll be able to find child care, and if they’ll have enough money to pay for it. They’re trying to explain the unexplainable and answer the unanswerable for their children who are also feeling the stress of the uncertain.

These children wonder who their teacher will be, when they will talk to their friends, if they’ll be able to have recess, and how they will eat their lunch. They are worried that they’ll have to keep learning at home, that they won’t understand the assignments, and that they’ll have have to sit in front of the computer for all of their lessons. They are asking when they’ll get to go to practice, will they have to wear their masks, and why they can only go to school on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Where? When? How? Why?

All of the answers are, “Well, let’s wait and see.”

It’s so uncomfortable to live amid so much uncertainty when we’ve been following the same rhythms and patterns for so long. We just want to go back to ‘normal’ — to do things “the way we’ve always done them” — and to be beyond all this Covid-19 nonsense.

But we’re not there yet. We’re here, in the midst of a global pandemic, where we do things differently than we’ve ever done them before.

We wash our hands more, we wear masks, we stay home, we do family Zoom meetings, we send packages in the mail to loved ones we wish we could see in person. We stand further apart, we ask more questions, we decline more invitations. We become accustomed to the phrase, “we’ll have to wait and see.”

So dear friends, dear teachers, dear parents, dear students, I’m sorry that this is where we find ourselves, but alas, here we are. So, since we’re all in this together, can we find inside ourselves, under the hum of uncertainty, a way to extend a virtual hand of support — a cheering on, a forgiving smile, a gracious response? Can we find a way to see one another’s uncertainty with understanding and compassion? Can we hear one another’s worries, share our frustrations, and commit to being kind to one another in the midst of uncertainty?

Can we, as teachers, be patient with one another as we learn all the things, even if the fog of our Covid brains requires us to hear the instructions multiple times? Can we be gentle with our students who may not know how to submit an assignment online, answer an email, or right click on a hyperlink?

Can we, as parents, be supportive of our teachers and administrators who are trying very hard to meet the educational, social, and safety needs of our children and their teachers? Can we be respectful with our questions, offer our assistance, and send a note of encouragement? Can we remember that our kids are managing uncertainty, too, and that they may not always regulate their anxiety, their fears, their frustration, their anger? Can we give them an extra measure of grace as they navigate the “wait and see”?

Can we, as students, show up and do our best to attend to our teachers and let them know when we are getting lost or don’t know what to do next? Can we be patient when the technology doesn’t work right, when our teachers seem flustered, and when our parents are at their wits’ end? Can we try to communicate when we ourselves are at our wits’ end?

It’s gonna take all of us doing our best, assuming the best, and overlooking the less-than-best. We’re doing a lot here — trying to focus on the tasks in front of us while trying to drown out that insufferable hum of uncertainty. If we have any hope of success, it’s gonna be because we all leaned in to the uncertainty, saw it for what it is, and accepted the fact that we’ll have to do what we can and wait and see.

We can do this — together — we can do this.

Be kind to one another, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.

Ephesians 4:32

You want to go back to the classroom? Now?

I keep hearing this question (even if it’s sometimes left unsaid): Why would I leave a perfectly decent job to go back to the classroom? why now — in the middle of a pandemic?

It’s a great question, and the most honest answer I have is that, if it weren’t for the pandemic, I don’t know if I would be going back to the classroom.

After two and a half years at Lindamood-Bell, I was finally learning all the ropes, and I had finally been granted the opportunity to work with the Lindamood-Bell for Schools program in its partnership with the Fort Smith, Arkansas schools. I’d been learning to use Zoom to join a teacher and her class to provide instructional coaching and in-the-moment changes to instructional plans, and I was loving this collaboration. It was reasonable to expect that if I stayed with the company I would be able to do more of this kind of work, and I was excited about that. Also, I had a solid caseload of students (and their families) who I’d been working with for a couple of years — designing and implementing instruction and even collaborating with the schools these students attended. I was finding a way to use my years of experience and to continue to grow.

The pay was fine, the work was challenging, and my body, which had rebelled in my former life as teacher, administrator, mother, wife, and denier of emotions, seemed to be able to manage the pace and the stress.

I really had no serious intention of pursuing anything different.

And then, in mid-March, it became apparent that we were going to take all of our equipment and materials home and we were going to work remotely until further notice. This was actually fine, too. In fact, Lindamood-Bell, I felt, did a great job of getting us all home, digitizing all of our resources, and providing (ahead of any mandates) additional sick time and vacation time. I probably could’ve continued to work with students remotely — from my home office — indefinitely.

Like everyone, I shifted my lifestyle — wore more comfortable clothing (which I lovingly refer to as my Covid uniform), went for more walks, cooked more meals to eat at home, and watched more television including the daily news reports.

I (like most quarantined humans) watched George Floyd die, and it looked too much like watching Michael Brown dying. I saw Ahmaud Arbery get gunned down, and he looked like people I know. I saw Rayshard Brooks shift from a man who’d fallen asleep in his car, to a man aware that his life was in jeopardy, to a dead man through the lens of someone’s cell phone, and I was horrified by the world we are living in — where in the space of a few weeks we repeatedly bore witness to the senseless killing of black men — black men who didn’t have to die.

Night after night my husband and I watched news reports and protests; every day I saw friends, former students, and my own children, posting on social media and reminding me that this is not new. Senseless deaths, not to mention broad and systemic mistreatment, of people of color happen every day in the United States, and they’ve been happening since the first slaves were dragged off boats onto the shores of this sweet land of liberty and beaten if they did not do the work that their white masters demanded they do.

In many ways, a white police officer kneeling on the neck of a black man, smiling toward the camera, is just one more slave owner demanding that the black man do what he says or pay the price and be punished within the gaze of all the other slaves so that they will know their place and learn to comply.

In this climate I was sitting in my home office every day, meeting with students, doing interventions that enable them to read, chatting with their parents about how they are coping during a pandemic with all the kids at home, trying to get their own work done, and wondering when things will go back to normal.

And I knew that I didn’t want things to go back to normal — not if normal means that some kids get safe schools with excellent resources that set them up for success while other kids (for not fault of their own) get substandard materials, ill-prepared teachers, and less access to a quality education, while white folks who commit crimes often get the benefit of the doubt and minimum sentences and black folks who commit crimes often end up dead or incarcerated far longer than is necessary or humane.

The disparity between schools that are predominantly white and those that are predominantly black is not a new revelation to me — I’ve been aware of these inequities since long before I taught for one measly semester in the St. Louis, Missouri public schools, but somehow being quarantined during Covid, working every day with students who have been given every resource, and then being barraged by data about the inequities (a substantially higher incidence of Covid and deaths related to Covid among people of color, the number of underfunded and understaffed schools in urban centers like Detroit), along with a resurgence of activism, especially among young people including my own children, my coworkers, and many former students, created an atmosphere in which I saw the opportunity I had to step in.

Meanwhile, many teachers are feeling the need to leave the profession because of Covid — they feel they are unsafe in the classroom, that their communities are asking them to risk too much, that they can’t afford to put their loved ones in danger — and I don’t blame them. These are valid concerns. And if you’ve been in the classroom for years or decades and you are already tired, and you feel unappreciated because you are underpaid, under-resourced, and under-valued by your administration, your students’ parents, and your community, then being asked to go into a crowded space for up to eight hours a day, five days a week in the middle of a pandemic just might be the last straw.

So why — why? — would I willingly put my name in the hat?

Because as dark as everything seems right now, I hold onto hope that this just might be the time for major change. Covid-19 might be providing us an opportunity to see — really see — racism, societal inequities, broken systems, and unjust practices. Because we’ve had to shut so many things down, we might be able to see different ways of doing things — ways to incorporate working from home, digital platforms, and content-sharing so that every American kid can have access to all the content and resources that are available in all the best districts. We can begin to imagine scenarios in which one highly qualified teacher in New York City, for example, provides a webinar on the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, which students across the country and around the world can stream at a time that works best for them, submit a reflection to a digital discussion board, and then work collaboratively with other students from different neighborhoods, states, and even countries, to create a YouTube video to link to the original webinar for sharing with countless other students. Imagine how that experience might connect students to one another and impact their view of the world, themselves, and each other!

How might we re-shape education so that the neighborhood you live in, the color of your skin, and your parents’ income doesn’t determine your access to high quality content and educational experiences? Is Covid-19 providing us the space and the perspective to do this?

I think it might be!

Now, do I think I am going to single-handedly change the American educational system. You know I’m gonna try, but realistically, systems that are as established as our school system (or our prisons, or our government) don’t change quickly. In fact, if they have any hope of changing, they need the investment of participants whose voices are unafraid to offer new ideas, to challenge long-held beliefs, and to believe that things can be better.

And I believe they can.

So that’s why I want to go back to the classroom right now in the middle of a global pandemic.

If not now, then when? If not me, then who?

The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.

Psalm 103:6

Note: If you’d like to support my classroom and the work that I will do this year either in that classroom or from my home office, I am currently collecting composition books (one per student to start), highlighters (a set of three — yellow, pink, blue for each student), index cards for vocabulary work, and other classroom supplies. As soon as I get my school-issued email address, I will be posting a link for those who would like to support from a distance. Thank you so much for following me on my journey in this next chapter.

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 14: Privilege

It’s a beautiful Michigan summer morning, and as I sit behind our home with a view of the woods — thick with bunnies and squirrels and deer and such — I can almost ignore the fact that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, that thousands continue to protest racial violence and inequity across the nation.

I made myself a cup of tea and walked right outside, mindless of the fact that over 2 million in our nation are incarcerated — over 500,000 of whom who have not yet been convicted but are merely awaiting trial (Prison Policy Initiative) — and can’t escape their cells, let alone take a leisurely stroll out the door to enjoy some fresh air.

Back here, next to my lush garden from which I pick lettuce and kale each evening for my dinner salad, I can forget that 1 in 5 households with children aged 12 and under are experiencing food insecurity right now (Brookings).

Sitting in my air conditioned home by the river in the middle of a summer heat wave, I can forget that latest estimates (prior to Covid-19) suggest over 8,000 people were homeless in Michigan alone (United States Interagency Council on Homelessness) with well over half a million nation-wide.

This is what privilege looks like: me, sitting in my backyard on a Sunday morning, having the time to type words on my MacBook Air, listening to the birds, admiring my garden, virtually immune to harm.

Privilege looks like a refrigerator and freezer full of more food than my husband and I can eat in a week, a stockpile of pantry items, and enough toilet paper for the next two months.

Privilege looks like both of us having jobs that we enjoy doing, never having missed a day due to the pandemic, never having missed a paycheck.

Privilege looks like closets and drawers full of clothing and the ability to donate the items we are tired of, that no longer fit, that have a stain we can’t remove, that we never liked in the first place.

Privilege looks like discussions over whether or not we want to run out and pick up a gas grill one day this week, if it’s time we purchased a new car, if we want to get dinner from a restaurant or make it here at home.

Privilege looks like both of us having all the medications we need, the insurance to cover the majority of our medical costs, and high quality practitioners who we are able to see often the same day we call.

Privilege looks like watching Hamilton on Disney + on Friday night, scrolling through home improvement shows on TLC on Saturday afternoon, and bingeing on Netflix on Sunday night.

Privilege looks like a quick stop at Whole Foods on the way home from church, a dash into the library to grab the books I reserved online, and a Zoom call with the family.

Why do I have all of this privilege? Why am I so fortunate? I haven’t made all the right choices. I haven’t utilized all of my resources. I haven’t done my best and worked my hardest.

Sure, I went to school. I got good grades. I’ve pursued jobs in my field. I’ve been a mostly honest, law-abiding citizen. However, I have broken speeding laws, I’ve lied to my friends, I’ve parked in no parking zones, I’ve used work time for personal business, I’ve yelled at my kids and spanked them too hard. I’ve shot off my mouth more times than I care to admit — sometimes at authority, my bosses, my coworkers. And yet, I have a pretty comfortable life.

My missteps have not cost me my privilege. The system works for me. I have the presumption of innocence. I have the benefit of the doubt.

I’m a middle-aged white woman in America, and people assume things about me — that I can be trusted, that I’m reasonable, that I’m responsible.

Not everyone gets that. That’s why it’s a privilege.

And because I have privilege, I have a responsibility to speak up for those who do not.

And not just speak up, but act up — write blogs, upset family and friends with my questions and comments, step into awkward work situations, give money to those who need it, and protest. If I can do more, if my privilege affords me the opportunity to be an agent of change, a worker for justice, I’ve got to do that, too.

Why? Because it’s the right thing to do. And further, it doesn’t cost me my privilege. It costs some time, some comfort, and likely some money, but it doesn’t take away my ability to enjoy my backyard, to move freely in society, to live and breathe without fear that my life will be unexpectedly cut short due to racial violence.

Rather, speaking up — and acting up — for the sake of equity, for the sake of someone else having an opportunity to sit in the cool breeze of a summer morning, sipping tea and watching bunnies frolic in the grass, for the sake of another human being feeding her children and expecting that they will all live into adulthood, that — that just might make me more fully human.

How can I do otherwise?

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,

    for the rights of all who are destitute.

Proverbs 31:8

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