Missing the Magical, Longing for the Actual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we can’t. Not this year.

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

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

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

Genesis 31:49

Writing Transformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I’ll read:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe I was ready. Maybe I should try again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romans 12:2

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

Coronavirus Day #23 Gathering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I might’ve thought that once, too.

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

I don’t do that any more.

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

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

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

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

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

We have no idea what these kids are going through.

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

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

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

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

She looked into the camera, straight into my eyes.

“You can do this,” I said.

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

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

therefore encourage one another and build one another up

I Thes. 5: 11

Coronavirus Diary #22 Family Medicine

Last Monday, I headed out for the first of three medical appointments I had scheduled for the day. Thanksgiving Break had given me a whole week to manage the myriad visits that I maintain as a person with chronic illness, and although I had been diagnosed with Covid-19 on November 3, I had been released from isolation by the county health department on November 13 to “return to regular activities,” so I assumed I could go ahead with my appointments. Nevertheless, as one does these days, I completed the online screening and walked into the first facility toting the QR code that I’d printed out verifying that I’d “passed.” Inside, I was greeted by two women who read through the current list of symptoms and asked me if I’d been exposed to anyone with Covid in the last 14 days. It was November 23, and I said, “no,” I had not been exposed to anyone, and then headed to the clinic that I visit several times a year.

At the entrance to the clinic, I tried to hand the receptionist the paper with my QR code, and she said, “unfortunately, we can’t accept those” before asking me the screening questions again. I confirmed that I did not have symptoms and I had not been exposed and then matter of factly said, “I did have Covid earlier this month, but the health department cleared me on the 13th.”

She looked up. “What day were you diagnosed?”

“November 3.”

“So it hasn’t been the 21 days?”

“Twenty-one days?”

“Hold on,” she said, “I’ll be right back.”

Other people started to file into the waiting area as I stood awkwardly waiting, standing on the sticker on the floor, 6 feet away from the receptionist, wearing my mask.

When she returned, she had to speak loudly so that I could hear her through her mask and across the distance, “so you tested positive on the 3rd and the health department released you on the 13th?”

“Yes,” I said, feeling the eyes of the other patients on my back.

“Ok, wait right there,” she said, and I continued to stand on the sticker, refusing to glance at the people waiting. Certainly they had all taken a step or two back by now.

She appeared from around a corner and said, “Follow me,” then took me down a long hall, around a corner, and past a closed door where we stood in a hallway and she considered which room to put me in. “Wait here,” she said as she scurried down the hall. Two professionals clad in scrubs and masks came through the door while I waited, asking if they could help me before she returned and opened the door to a room that was draped in plastic covers. It certainly had not been used in quite some time.

“You can have a seat, the clinician will be with you shortly.”

I checked my watch, it was 7:50am. I’ve been forgotten in an exam room before, and since this was miles away from the rooms I am usually seen in, I decided right then that I would wait until 8:30, and then I would leave. Around 8:10, I heard some shuffling outside my door before a woman clad in disposable paper gown, aqua latex gloves, and a plastic face shield came in. She glanced at me as she turned on the computer and waited for it to come to life. She introduced herself and then started clicking through screens asking me all the questions she was required to ask. I felt tension in the room, and I was starting to sweat, so when she began looking through the drawers for an instrument that she needed, I said, “I feel like I’ve broken some kind of rule.”

Her eyes opened wide as she nodded her head vigorously and confirmed that no one was supposed to come into the clinic within 21 days of a positive test.

“I didn’t know that. I pre-screened. Is that information in the online materials?”

“I don’t know about online, but they are supposed to screen you at the door.”

“They asked me about my symptoms and my exposure at the door,” I said, “but no one said anything about 21 days.”

“I will talk to them about that because they are supposed to ask,” by now she was visibly huffing, clearly upset that this mistake had been made.

“Well, why didn’t you guys send me away?”

“Because once you are in the building, you’ve already brought contamination with you; it doesn’t help to send you away.”

Her words struck me, and they hurt. I did not appreciate being the target of her wrath, and, of course, I was also horrified. After all the precautions we’ve taken to limit the spread including worshiping from home, avoiding visits with parents, and planning for virtual holidays, I had unwittingly exposed this health care worker. I felt guilty, leprous, and ashamed.

When she left, and my doctor walked in, he unknowingly diffused the tension by saying, “Sorry for all the overkill,” but still I felt rotten. He examined me, made his usual small talk, and even commiserated with me over an unrelated common ailment. Then, when he dismissed me, I scurried out of the building without visiting the check out or making eye contact with staff or other patients.

The clinician was certainly still upset, and I was upset, too.

I fired off a text to our family group chat. We’d been sending messages back and forth for a couple of weeks. It started when I was diagnosed with Covid, and continued as others in the chat dealt with their own symptoms and diagnoses. I was looking for sympathy — I felt mistreated and ashamed and I wanted their compassion. I wanted to vent about my experience and receive justification for my feelings.

The health care professional in our family, who has been treating patients all throughout Covid, expressed empathy for my feelings and perhaps disappointment in the professional who might’ve done been better in spite of the circumstances. She gave me what I was hoping for, an “I’m so sorry that happened to you.”

I was just about to lean into that comfort when a couple others in the chat disrupted my viewpoint. Had I thought about the fact that health care worker has routinely put her life on the line? Wouldn’t I be frustrated if people didn’t observe the safeguards that had been put in place to protect me? Also, had I considered that as a white woman, I don’t regularly experience stigma in the medical office while “women of color are routinely treated like lepers and not trusted to know their own bodies?”

Well, I wasn’t anticipating that reaction. I had been hoping for sympathy and solidarity, and they were pushing back. They were making me take a wider view.

I sat with my now jumbled feelings for a bit as I called the other doctors’ offices I was supposed to visit the same day. “I was diagnosed with Covid on November 3,” I shared. “The health department cleared me on November 13th; do you want me to come in today? Or would you rather I reschedule?” I heard “Let me go check,” several times before all of my other practitioners confirmed that I could indeed be seen, as long as I didn’t have active symptoms or hadn’t been re-exposed. So, I sallied forth.

For the next couple hours, as I went from doctor’s office to doctor’s office receiving respectful high-quality care, the members of our family group chat continued to discuss the complexity of my experience — the uncertainty and fear surrounding Covid, the inequity in the health care system, the privileged experience of white people in America to not only receive care but to complain about any perceived injustice, and the stress that we are all under right now to move around in a world that seems uncertain, even unsafe.

It got emotional at times as rapid-fire and lengthy texts sometimes collided or overlapped, but it was thoughtful and informed, passionate and compassionate. It was a response to my experience, but it contextualized my experience inside a broader lens which is where I really needed to view it from.

And somewhere along the way, I realized that my adult children were choosing to engage in the kind of complex conversation that I’ve been promoting and dreaming of — they were holding competing truths and examining them from all sides. It was fine that I had an emotional reaction to the treatment I received, they acknowledged. It was also valid that the health care worker was annoyed by being put at risk at 7:45 on a Monday morning of a holiday week. It’s true that I enjoy high quality health care almost every week of my life from practitioners who believe that I have the symptoms I have, even with very little clinical evidence they exist, and it’s also true that many don’t have that kind of experience — particularly people who don’t look like me or have the same resources as me.

They identified my reality and then situated it inside the systems that exist in our country — they thought critically and communicated articulately. They weren’t always delicate — perhaps the time for being delicate in such matters is over. If we want to see change — if we want all people to have access to high quality health care, to be heard and respected and seen, then those of us who regularly receive it have to demand that they get it. We who have the privilege of complaining about inadequate care and even the minor lack of courtesies that I experienced need to raise our collective voices and demand better for those who can’t demand it for themselves.

I visited three offices last Monday, but the some of the best medicine I received came from my own family who was willing to meet me in my experience, have compassion for me, and challenge me to think beyond myself.

Now that was some high quality care.

Therefore, ridding yourselves of falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, because we are parts of one another.

Ephesians 4:25

Coronavirus Diary #21: Tales told in School

Click the arrow to listen, or read on.

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

Election 2020: Who are we going to be?

For audio, click the arrow above.

Early last week, I was scrolling through social media, when I saw a post claiming that if Biden is elected, it will be the ruin of our country. It didn’t take long before I saw another post claiming that Trump, if re-elected, will certainly destroy any sense of civility we have left.

The next day, I was listening to this episode of The New York TimesThe Daily podcast which interviewed people across the country who are buying guns in record numbers in preparation for the riots/unrest/civil war that will certainly ensue if Biden/Trump is elected.

Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Libertarians, the far left, the far right, seniors, millennials, Black, white, Latino, are agitated and terrified. They are fighting with family and life-long friends, making accusations and spreading information and misinformation like it’s their job.

Americans of every persuasion are holding their collective breath and bracing themselves. Well, at least we’ve still got something in common.

Sometimes when I am with a classroom (or a Zoom room) full of students, a situation or comment from a student will trigger a response from me. I will hear myself sharing a treatise on academic integrity, intolerance for bullying, or (most often this year) the benefits and necessity of education. After declaring my passionate beliefs with preacher-like cadence, pacing back and forth in the front of the classroom and wiping my brow with my imaginary handkerchief, I’ll come to my conclusion and say, “and that my friends, was Sermon #479” or whatever number pops into my head at the moment.

All week long, I’ve been feeling one of these sermons percolating in the pit of my gut.

So, class, buckle up.

The election is tomorrow, and we have never been more divided. If you are wringing your hands, pacing your floors, and nervously watching the news, you are not alone. Many in the country are confident that if their candidate is not elected, we will see the end of our country as we know it.

Although we are the United States of America, all I’ve been hearing for the last who knows how long is division. What often begins with an accusation, “Obama is a socialist,” “Hillary is a liar,” “Trump is a racist” or “Biden is old and incoherent,” soon devolves into a lob fest of incendiary language that torches any hope of meaningful conversation. We find ourselves watching it all burn, pointing fingers, slinging insults, and refusing to engage in any kind of meaningful dialogue.

Have we forgotten that “united we stand, divided we fall”?

Where this is playing out most often right now is on social media — where we can lob our bombs from the safety of our homes, our beds, or our cars in one-line statements or retweeted memes and we don’t have to engage in the what could possibly follow. We feel smug sharing these posts, thinking, “There, I said it. That’s how I feel, and I want everyone to know it.” Then, we watch to see how many likes or shares we get and feel offended if anyone would dare to challenge our opinion. But isn’t that one of our freedoms — to have divergent views and to enjoy the freedom to share them? If we don’t want others to respond to our opinions, why are we posting them on a public platform?

In the past several months, as we’ve had heightened anxiety from living within the reach of a sometimes deadly pandemic, as some of our liberties have — for a time — been compromised for the sake of safety, it seems many of us have felt the need to more fully express our opinions than we may have in the past. And while this could be healthy, if we were all willing to civilly discuss issues and platforms, it has often become inflammatory. Peaceful protests have been met with law enforcement in riot gear and counter protestors bearing guns. Often what could have been quiet demonstration, has escalated into violence and death. Speaking aloud your choice for president might get you uninvited to social gatherings, judged by friends and family, and targeted by those who want to silence you. Putting a sign in your yard could get your house vandalized; putting one on your car, could make you the target of road rage.

Right here in Michigan, emotions have climbed so high, that citizens have walked into the capital building carrying automatic weapons in a coordinated act of intimidation, and a small faction was arrested by the FBI for plotting to kidnap the governor.

People aren’t playing around.

I have a theory why — I think we are downright terrified. We’re afraid of the pandemic. We’re afraid of economic crisis. We’re afraid of change. And our fears are being stoked by leaders who would use pointed, fear-inducing language for their own benefit. They aren’t talking about coming together; in fact, their language is tearing us apart. In this climate of fear and suspicion, we lash out defensively often hurting those we care about.

Friends, we are not these people.

I know you. You are caring. You support people even when you don’t agree with them, even when they don’t look like you, even when they speak a different language, and even when they worship differently. You know how to get along, how to compromise, how to work things out. And you can do it without name-calling, without belittling, without bullying, without intimidating.

You are smart. And resourceful. You have brilliant ideas and a multitude of resources. You are resilient and forgiving. You know how to have deep conversations and to hear the hearts of those you love and care about.

We haven’t forgotten what that looks like, have we?

The 2020 Presidential Election is tomorrow. And while we may not know the results for several days, or even weeks, we can decide today how we are going to be in these moments.

Whether or not our candidate wins, we can refuse to engage in wars of words or worse, to take violence to the streets. We can express our emotions among the people who love us and care about us with our voices instead of our keypads. We can celebrate or cry, we can be angry or relieved. We can feel any way that we feel, but at the same time, we can be respectful, dignified, and caring toward the people in our lives.

If our team wins, we can gracefully accept the victory and extend a hand of consolation and even brotherhood to those who feel they’ve lost. If our team loses, we can accept that, too, and extend a hand of congratulation to those who feel they’ve won. We can decide, right now, that regardless of the outcome, we are going to step forward and work hard to re-unite our country, to work for the good of all people, to stand against sickness, violence, injustice, and hate. We can insist that our leaders do better — that they engage in meaningful debate about ideas, philosophies, and strategies, not in assaults on character, family, and humanity.

It’s really not hard. What we have found ourselves doing is juvenile. We can admit that, and we can turn around and go the other way.

We don’t have to have a civil war to change our country. We just have to come together and demand that our leaders serve all of our citizens, not just the ones who wield the most power or have the most money. We just have to choose who we are going to be during difficult times.

Let’s choose wisely, my friends.

And that’s the sermon, folks — sermon #2020.

Go in peace, serve the Lord.

If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all people.

Romans 12:18

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