Coronavirus Diary #32: We’re Still Here

When I wrote that first Coronavirus Diary in March of 2020, I could’ve never imagined that almost two years later I’d be on the thirty-second installment, yet here we are.

We are tired of it. We are discouraged. We are ready for this mess to be over, but we clearly have a ways to go.

My last coronavirus diary was in September when we were headed back to school, mask-clad yet hopeful that we were returning to some semblance of ‘normal’. My students filed in, grumbling but happy to be together. We re-learned classroom rules — expectations for coexisting in the same space such as arriving on time, sitting in assigned seats, putting our phones away, wearing a mask. When the inevitable happened and someone caught COVID, we followed the CDC’s guidelines for contact tracing and quarantining. Students took turns isolating at home where they could access assignments through Google classroom, if they were so inclined, and then returning to the classroom after two weeks’ time. At the end of October, a high number of staff cases sent us home for two weeks. We returned in mid November, regrouped, and carried on until early December when, once again, we headed home due to a staffing shortage.

Being in the building is better of course. I have had more students in attendance, more students completing assignments, more students dropping in for snacks, more students walking by for a fist bump first thing in the morning.

The school year was beginning to feel a little like ‘normal’. In fact, even with the interruptions for virtual instruction, I got so much into the groove that I began to believe we were truly on our way out of the pandemic — that I had no more coronavirus diaries to write, nothing more to say on the topic. Yet, here we are two years after the first cases were reported, seeing the daily case numbers surge and watching the death count ticker slowly tick-ticking away. Last Friday, we moved back to remote instruction, hunkering down once again in our homes, where we will stay until the end of January.

Over 835,000 Americans have died because of Covid, and this current Omicron surge has us averaging over 600,000 new cases a day. And while word on the street is that Omicron is less severe than previous strains of the virus, it is wildly more contagious — whole school districts are remote, hospitals are at capacity, and the interruption to daily life cannot be ignored.

Guidance on how to behave during this latest wave is confusing, to say the least, but the essentials remain the same:

Source: click here

Some of us read those guidelines and readily do our part; others, for a variety of reasons, have chosen not to get vaccinated, have resisted wearing masks, and have for all intents and purposes returned to life as we once knew it, in those pre-pandemic days.

Is it time for that? Right now? When we are in the middle of a surge of cases?

Don’t our actions, whichever ones we choose, have an impact on not only ourselves, but also on others in our community?

Haven’t we seen the impact of this pandemic and our divided response?

Not only has the virus lingered, but we have, it seems, hunkered down in camps, continuing to point fingers at one another, calling one another names, and blaming one another for the situation that we find ourselves in.

Has that approach been helping? It doesn’t seem to be, neither does pointing blame at governmental leaders, previous or present, who can’t seem to get on the same page either.

We find ourself fussing and fuming at each other, sinking further and further into anger, depression, and hopelessness.

But friends, we are not a people without hope. We have merely momentarily put our hope in the wrong things.

Our hope is not in our personal rights, our own self-righteousness, our rule-following, or our resistance to rules. Our hope is not in the CDC, and it’s not in the Republican or Democratic party. It’s not in Biden or Trump. It’s not in a face mask or a vaccine or a booster.

No, our hope is in God, the Creator of heaven and earth.

Could He not, in the blink of an eye, eradicate Covid from the face of the earth?

He could.

Could He not do this without a vaccine or masks or social distancing?

He could.

Could He also use a pandemic to bring us back to Him?

He could.

Will we let Him?

What would that look like?

Would a return to God look like name-calling, blaming, and judging?

I’m guessing not.

I’ve been struggling with this. In fact, this very blog started out as a rant against those who would not be vaccinated, those who would not wear a mask, those who, in my opinion, seem to be carelessly walking around spreading the virus. I feel angry sometimes because I am trying to do what is right for the sake of my family, my community, and our country, and I feel that not everyone else is doing the same. I blame them. I call them names. I judge them.

“Can’t you see,” I yell, “we are in the middle of a pandemic! And you are only making it worse!”

And what impact does all my yelling, blaming, and judging have? I end up angrier, more discouraged, and feeling like there is no hope.

But, friends, we are not a people without hope.

We are not.

So, I am going to try, really I am, to turn my gaze away from those I’d like to blame and move it toward the One who is able to make all things new.

I am going to stop pointing fingers, calling names, and shouting accusations, and I am going to instead lift my hands to the One who can put an end to the pandemic, can put an end to the divisions, can soften our hearts, and can restore our hope.

He’s managed plagues and famines and wars and all manner of evil that people have inflicted on one another. This pandemic is not too much for Him.

It’s only taken me two years [and 32 coronavirus diaries] to come to this realization; I’m sorry to those of you who got there before me.

Don’t get me wrong — I’d still like ya’all to get vaccinated, wear a mask, and stay away from crowds at least until this latest surge is over, but if you don’t, I’m going to try not to make any assumptions about you. I am going to do my best to love you.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 15:13

The Wonder of Why

Each November my husband and I create a Google doc — a list of all the gifts we’d like to purchase in December. We’ve found this necessary because we have seven (yes, 7!) December birthdays in our immediate family. And all the birthday celebrating we do in December culminates, as you may know, in Christmas! For years we have spent Thanksgiving to New Year’s in a whirlwind of activity — purchasing, preparing, sending, and celebrating.

We can get so busy, so caught up in the details of all the festivities, that we can forget the why — the reason we celebrate.

We don’t often lose sight of why we celebrate the birthdays of our loved ones because they are (even if virtually) physically present in our lives, and even in the most difficult of years, we are thankful for that.

However, even with all the garland and bows and carols and gifts, or perhaps because of them, we can lose the wonder of why we are celebrating Christmas.

Why is it that most of the country — much of the world — stops what they are doing every year for at least a full day if not a full week or more? Why is it that retailers organize months’ worth of marketing, staging, and purchasing toward December? Why is it assumed that we will gather with family and friends, exchange gifts, and transform our homes for a month out of every year?

What could it be that aligns us all in a common activity, a common momentum, a common — dare I say — purpose?

It couldn’t be — could it? — the ages old myth-like tale of a woman, some angels, a donkey, a stable, and an infant? Is that story, which has been told and retold in various forms for generations, the why that propels us all toward a seemingly united series of activities — where we dress in red, light our trees, purchase stamps by the roll, bake dozens of sweets, and wrap our carefully chosen gifts in the wee hours of the night?

Is it possible that a centuries old story, one that some of us believe and some of us don’t, has the power to draw our eyes, dictate our spending, and determine our social calendars for weeks at a time. Does that seem odd, especially right now when we have trouble agreeing on most everything? We can’t get on the same page about climate change, gun violence, or even a global pandemic, but we all seem to be willing to purchase an ugly sweater and wear it on a prescribed day.

We give lavishly during this season — to our friends, our coworkers, our families, and even those we do not know. We are generous, we spread good cheer, we even dare to hold on to hope. All of us!

Why?

Is it because a baby was born over two centuries ago?

How could one baby born in a manger change anything?

It makes no sense at all.

Omnipotent, omniscient, eternal God distills Himself into infant form, becomes human, and lives among us? How can one life — one perfect sinless life — atone for all the harm we have inflicted on one another?

It’s simple: He’s the answer to our why.

He’s the only One.

He’s the only One who can heal the sick with His touch, calm the sea with His breath, and save us all with His life.

He’s the only One who is with us in the busyness, in the shopping, in the decorating, in the frantic checking off of tasks. He’s with us — God with us — even when we have lost our recognition of the why.

He, my friends, the baby, Jesus, is the why.

The whole earth rejoices — stars appear, angels sing, kings trek across the land — at His birth. And we long, we groan, we wait for His return.

Because until His return, we will lose sight of the why again and again — we will turn to ourselves and strive to create a perfect Christmas, a perfect experience for our families, a perfect celebration of love.

We will get a glimpse, because He — Jesus — is God with us, but we will not yet fully see the joy, the unity, the peace that He will bring.

Yet, even now, from His fullness — the beautiful fullness embodied in that infant — we have all received grace upon grace. Grace for when we overlook him, for when we get caught up in task completion, for when we have forgotten, or for when we have refused to believe that He is indeed God with us — Emmanuel.

How do we adequately pause — rush to the manger, bow down, and acknowledge the one who makes all things new? We start now, in this moment, putting down our list, lifting our eyes, and adoring the infant born in a manger long ago.

We, like the shepherds, bend our knees. We, like the angels, declare His glory. We, like the kings, bring Him our finest gifts. We, like Mary, ponder this miracle in our hearts.

The God of the universe put on flesh — in the form of an infant — to be with us.

That is our why — that is the reason we celebrate Christmas.

O Come Let Us Adore Him.

Open Wound, an allegory*

Stressed Woman At Home Headache Pain Female Portrait. Beautiful Girl Close  Up Face And Head With Hands Sitting Alone Sad. Drawn With One Line Royalty  Free Cliparts, Vectors, And Stock Illustration. Image
Source
Click arrow to listen.

*allegory, a symbolic fictional narrative that conveys a meaning not explicitly set forth in the narrative

Her wound was open. She sat, sobbing.

It wasn’t the first time. Although it had scabbed over time and again since the injury was first sustained, it could be torn open with the slightest impact, even now, decades later.

She’d been a child when the initial blow had been dealt and her still-young flesh had first been split open. The pain had been stunning — it had shoved her back, and she had sat, a child, weeping on the floor, holding her chest, trying to stop the hemorrhaging.

After she had tired from much sobbing and flailing about, it had subsided — the pain, the bleeding — receding to a dull but ever present ache.

Since then, she had carried it around with her, this bruised and tender flesh,

It was the kind of injury that never fully heals, the experts had said. Even when sustained during the growing years, the body — the heart — could not regenerate enough cells to fully heal the damage that had been done.

The injury would remain, opening up from time to time. Then, new cells would form to stop the bleeding, to cover over the gaping wound. She’d use caution, covering the tender area with a protective layer, shielding it from subsequent blows, learning to avoid danger, developing a keen defensive awareness.

She’d be so careful, so vigilant, that she could even believe the spirit-altering injury might actually be healing. The pain would subside, and she would become hopeful that she would never again shed tears, never again ache, never again sob with the pain or even the memory of the pain.

But then, from out of nowhere — but often from somewhere familiar — a pointed blade would find its way through her armor, past layers of clothing, beneath the dressings, to pierce the flesh. Just like that, the wound would be torn open and she would crumble again, down, down, down, weeping, sobbing, holding her heart, and begging for the pain to stop,

In the early years, not long after the wound had first been dealt, she would, in pain, lash out — swinging and flailing at those closest, begging them to join her in the misery. Over the years, however, she learned this strategy was ineffective — it did not diminish her own hurt, but rather multiplied it. Instead of joining her in her pain, the others turned away, kept their distance, isolating her, piling guilt and regret on top of pain, and leaving those she loved with their own wounds to tend.

Later, as she aged, when certainly, she thought, this decades-old injury had to be fully healed, she could still be brought low by a stray arrow, an unintended blow that nevertheless grazed the tender flesh, re-opening the wound.

It was open now. The middle-aged heart had been hit, and it was laid bare.

Seeping.

Throbbing.

Reminding her of the many years of pain, many years of tears, many years of swallowing feelings past a tightened aching throat.

She lay supine, futilely wiping away an unstoppable deluge of tears, fighting against the years of pain — still not wanting to feel it — still not wanting to admit I’m hit! I’m hurt! I’m bleeding! I’m suffering!

Those standing over her, observing her as she lie bleeding, sobbing, say her wound, her perpetually open wound, informs her compassion, gives her language to comfort others with the comfort she herself has received, but that is little consolation when the tenuous flesh has been recently sliced, when the blood is dripping on the floor, when she is doubled over, trying desperately to silence her own cries.

Nevertheless she hears.

She admits they are right.

Her pain does give her compassion for others.

She sighs in resignation, then does what she has always done.

She rises.

She sits up, dabbing at the now-congealing blood,

taking a sip of cool water,

applying fresh dressings,

washing her face,

combing her hair.

Then, as she examines herself in the mirror, she hears a still small voice, “Do not be afraid; do not discouraged, for I am with you wherever you go.”

“I know,” she says, nodding, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye, “I know.”

And she, carrying the open wound with her, steps back into the land of the living.

Time for Refreshing

Chester and I relishing the end of a restful week.
Click the arrow to listen.

A thick blanket of wet snow covers our yard, our driveway, and the playground across the street. It’s almost 7:30 am, but the heavy winter clouds overhead are allowing just a soft gray glow to light the neighborhood. It’s a quiet ending to a quiet week.

In the months leading up to our Thanksgiving break, my husband and I had imagined all kinds of scenarios — flying someplace warm to sit in the sun for a few days, driving across the border to Canada to “flee the country” for the day or even a few hours, dining out, going to a movie, or possibly visiting with family. We scrolled through flight options, investigated Airbnbs, read restaurant menus, and discussed possibilities. We really wanted to get away. I had had a busy fall, but his had been even more taxing. We knew we needed a break and possibly even an escape.

For weeks we ran scenarios and dreamed dreams, but it seems each time we got close to a plan, we ran into a difficulty. Flight costs had skyrocketed, all of our usual caregivers for our aging golden retriever were unavailable, and I had to attend a virtual professional development on Monday and Tuesday, so the escape to a sunnier climate was off the table.

Still, a day trip to Windsor seemed doable, so my husband scouted out some restaurants and began to plan our day, but then we realized we’d need a negative Covid test 72 hours prior to our visit. That wouldn’t be a problem, but then, as we started to investigate a little further, we noticed from the New York Times Covid Map that Michigan was one of the hottest spots in the nation. Would it really be responsible to head across the border, especially since both of us spend our days in a petri dish surrounded by teens and young adults? What might we carry with us?

As we were coming to terms with our reality, my brother reached out. He was hosting Thanksgiving at his house, and he was inviting us to join. My mother and stepfather would be there along with my other brother and his family. That sounded lovely. We were not able to do Thanksgiving or Christmas with family last year. The idea of driving “over the river and through the woods” to enjoy a feast surrounded by loved ones sounded amazing. However, it wasn’t long into our discussion of this possibility when we realized that that, too, would be irresponsible. My mother, although fully vaccinated, has chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), and while she is in remission, her health is still quite compromised. We are fully vaccinated, and even boosted, but we still didn’t feel like it would be wise with the current spike in cases to gather and bring any traces of virus we might be carrying into her midst.

So, it was around last weekend when we determined that we should probably just stay home, roast our own turkey, binge on some Netflix and football, and get some rest. It was disappointing at first, but, as you might have guessed, it turns out it was just what we needed.

On Monday and Tuesday, I had a couple faculty meetings, and then I was afforded the time I needed to write detailed lesson plans for when I return tomorrow. Often that work is squeezed into my prep period or in the before or after school time, so having hours to imagine how my lesson might play out, to design an instructional activity, and to create a detailed rubric was luxuriant.

Between meetings on Monday, I popped a turkey into the oven, then at the end of the work day I threw together a couple of sides, and we welcomed a couple dear friends who already navigate within our work and social bubbles to share it with us. Then, because I didn’t think to send leftovers home with our guests, we ate turkey for the rest of the week — first in the form of reheated leftovers and then in bowl after bowl of yummy soup.

With days at our disposal, and nowhere to be, we were able to manage a car repair, sewing machine servicing, some quick dashes to pick up birthday and Christmas gifts, and a long walk in a county park nearby. We lost track of time, ate when we got hungry, and napped when we felt tired. Every once in a while, I would default to my schedule-checking mindset, “What nights next week do we have plans? Am I all set for teaching on Monday? What do I need to take with me?” and then I would remember that it wasn’t even the weekend yet. I could keep relaxing.

I crocheted, and I mended. We put up and decorated our little Christmas tree. We zoomed and Facetimed with family, and we did a lot of sitting around. I finished one book and started another, and we completed three jigsaw puzzles!

And still we had more time. Time to do yoga, to write, and time to just rest, sipping tea, and gazing out the window into the snowy day. This is what we needed — not a flight to sunny spot, not a run for the border, just some quiet, uncommitted time. We are thankful to have had it because tomorrow we will suit up, grab our bags, and head back into our work.

We are breathing fresh air, our bodies are restored, and we are ready to greet our students and colleagues.

Buckle up, kids, here I come!

I will refresh the weary and satisfy the faint.

Jeremiah 31:25

Teacher Tired

Click the arrow to listen to me read this post.

It was a long first quarter.

We started school on September 7 and went straight through without a break. Outside of a week and a half of virtual instruction due to a high number of Covid cases, we were in the building with our students, following Covid protocols, managing the movements of a few hundred teenagers who are struggling to re-acclimate to the structures of school, and — oh, yeah — trying to provide high quality instruction.

Then, this past week was extra busy.

Monday, I drove home after school to log on to a short informational meeting about a Social-Emotional Learning pilot program we are starting next week. Would I be willing to be a participating instructor? Tuesday, I left school early so that I could be home for an online training from 3:30-5:00. Then, Wednesday, when we see all of our classes on a shortened schedule of seven forty-minute periods, we stayed late for in-person parent-teacher conferences. The school provided pizza and salad at 2pm, then we stationed ourselves at tables in the gym, and met with parents to discuss their students’ progress.

I had arrived at school at 7:30am; I left the building at 6:15 pm.

Thursday, I was up at 5 to do my morning routine, wanting to be in the right headspace before I taught three 100-minute blocks. I arrived at school at my usual 7:30 and was making last-minute preparations in my classroom when I saw my principal at my classroom door.

“Rathje, let me talk to you for a minute,” she said, as she pulled two other colleagues from across the hall to join us. “I just want to let you know,” she said, “that tomorrow we will be virtual. Be sure to take everything you need with you tonight. We won’t be back in the building until after Thanksgiving.”

“That’s amazing!” I blurted, and I kind of surprised myself. I have so loved being back with the students. We have learned more together in one quarter of in-person instruction than we learned in the whole of last year. I know every face and every name. I’m familiar with personalities, quirks, strengths, and challenges. I can anticipate which class is going to be a challenge to keep awake and which class is going to be a challenge to keep in their seats, on-task, and engaged.

If I love it so much, why was I so happy to be going virtual for the last day before the break? Because I was exhausted.

I’m not the only one. Teachers across the country are wiped out. We knew this year would be challenging, but we could not have know what all would be entailed. We knew that we would be re-acclimating students to schedules, to classrooms, to mask-wearing, and to seven-hour school days, but I’m not sure we fully pictured the volatility of emotions we would see in a school full of teenagers who have lived through the multiple traumas of a pandemic — how quick these kids would be to lash out, to cry, to completely check out. We knew in-person teaching, talking through a mask for the full day, would be a different kind of tired, but I, for one, never imagined that we would be short-staffed for the entire first quarter. Could I have guessed that my prep periods would sometimes be used to cover the class of another teacher? that we would fully employ not one but two building substitutes? that other schools would be cold-calling teachers on our staff, enticing them away with signing bonuses, higher pay, and grass that is much, much greener than ours?

Not even a little bit.

And though we started the year hoping and praying that Covid was winding down, officials are now saying that Michigan is in the “fourth surge” of the pandemic that “could last 4-5 months” (Fox 2 Detroit).

Teaching under these circumstances is stressful, and we are tired, folks. Teachers are tired.

So tired, in fact, that Detroit Public Schools have determined to be virtual every Friday in the month of December.

In a special announcement on the district’s website, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the decision was made “after listening and reflecting on the concerns of school-based leaders, teachers, support staff, students, and families regarding the need for mental health relief, rising COVID cases, and time to more thoroughly clean schools.” CBS Detroit.

School leaders are getting creative in order to hear the concerns of teachers and respond so that they can hang on to the ones that they still have. Our school, for example, announced before the school year began that they were issuing retention bonuses to all returning staff — the longer you’ve been on staff, the higher the bonus. Then, last week, they announced a mid-year pay bump for all staff, paid out in two installments over the coming months. Additionally, to discourage absenteeism, our school leaders offered a raffle wherein each teacher receives an entry for each day they attend and those with perfect attendance receive 25 bonus entries. Next week during our two professional development days, three names will be drawn, and winners will receive $100, $40, or $25. To build collegiality and team spirit, our building principal initiated a team-based contest — daily challenges encourage teacher teams to complete tasks, take photos, and share them in our group chat, earning points toward a team prize.

Do teachers need all of this? Yes, we need every bit of it.

Teaching is not easy. For each 100-minute block with my students, I spend at least that much time in intellectual preparation, thinking about behavioral strategies to increase engagement and decrease undesirable behaviors, procuring incentives, meeting with other staff, attending professional development, and myriad other tasks. That’s in a normal year.

This year, we’ve had the added stress of Covid. In the beginning of the year, some students needed daily assurance that it was indeed safe to sit next to peers, masked, for an entire class period, and that we were doing everything we could to stop the spread. Other students (and some staff) needed constant reminders to keep their mask over their nose and mouth throughout the school day. All teachers have had to keep seating charts to enable contact-tracing when students test positive, which has happened continuously since school started. Then, when students are quarantining, teachers have the added load of making sure all assignments are posted online and that students who return to school having done no school work at all get caught back up. And perhaps the most stressful for me have been the almost daily group chats informing staff how many teachers, behaviorists, or administrators will be out for the day, because any time a team is down one man, the rest of the team has a larger load to carry, and sometimes we’ve been down four, or five or six staff members on a single day.

It’s been stressful, to be sure, but let me reiterate that I love my job. I seriously do. I believe that most teachers who are still showing up, still standing, still delivering instruction to their students, and still opening their doors before school or during lunch so that students can drop in desperately love their students. They drive home thinking about how a lesson went well or how it tanked. They lie awake at night creating new strategies for content delivery. They write long blog posts sharing what’s going on so that others will care about their kids, too.

And while certainly the public is aware that teachers have a hard job and that teachers are essential to our communities and society as a whole, it seems that rather than offering support, encouragement, or suggestions that might lighten the load, public discussion about education often misses the point. Before this school year started the public was up in arms about the alleged insidious introduction of Critical Race Theory into the curriculum and whether or not schools had the right to issue mask mandates. These discussions and the enflamed and politically-charged emotion around them did nothing to improve the actual day-to-day experience of teachers, let alone students. The problems in eduction aren’t that easy to solve.

Problems in education are complex and often grow out of inadequate funding, inequitable resources, and societal systems that need to be restructured because they are outdated, ineffective, and designed for an economy, a culture, that no longer exists. Nevertheless, teachers continue to show up to buildings in need of repair, to use materials that are out of date, and to give what they have for children that they care about. And we need them to.

We’ve been moving toward a teacher shortage for years, and Covid has exacerbated the problem. The teachers who are left in classrooms want to be there, but they won’t stay unless they are given what they need — community support, parental cooperation, adequate pay, and the kind of respite that comes from a Friday of virtual learning, a week off at Thanksgiving, and two more at Christmas. Teachers need us to acknowledge that the load is heavier than anyone thought, that continuing to teach and learn in the wake of widespread trauma is taxing, and that we don’t know what in the world we would do if every last teacher woke up tomorrow morning and said, “That’s it. I can’t do this any more.”

I’m not anywhere near that breaking point. I’m still glowing with joy over the fact that I get to be back in the classroom. However, countless teachers are standing on the edge, wondering how many more times they can show up for our kids. If you know teacher, even if he or she seems to be doing just fine, grab them a cup of coffee, a bottle of wine, or a dinner out. Let them know you appreciate the work they are doing. You just might get them through to Christmas.

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

Proverbs 3:27

Health Check

A friend asked me recently, “How are you doing with pain now that you’re back in the classroom?”

I appreciated her asking — it was an acknowledgement that she remembered how far I had come and that my move back to the classroom was not taken without much prayerful consideration regarding the impact such a move could have on my health after the years-long journey I have just taken.

It’s a good time to ask because a) last year wasn’t a real test since the students were learning from a distance and the physical demands were not as great and b) we’re now back in person, and the first quarter will end on Friday.

It’s an important question, too, because this blog started when I had to leave my teaching career due to health issues. I was struggling with pain, fatigue, and issues with my skin and eyes, and I just couldn’t bring quality care and instruction to my students in that condition.

My body, it seems, had gone on strike after years of overwork complicated by a failure to process my emotions or take care of myself. Inflammation was so prevalent in my body that I could feel it– it bubbled into my joints making them hot and stiff, it irritated my skin causing scaliness and itching, it inflamed my eyes sending me time and time again to a specialist for treatment.

Many times I’d landed on the couch or in my bed for days at a time. In the early years of my recovery, I had to lie down several times a day even though I slept 8-10 hours a night. I often found myself limping through the house or lying on the bathroom floor waiting to throw up. I was miserable, and I couldn’t imagine a time when I would be able to return to the rigor of the classroom.

However, over six long years, I learned strategies that began to reduce those symptoms and that have kept me on a path to improved health. Among those strategies is a diet that is rich fruits, vegetables, chicken, rice, and fish, and that avoids gluten, dairy, beans, and corn. I also exercise every day, write every day, and see a therapist, a physical therapist, a chiropractor, and a masseuse. When I do all of these things on a regular schedule, and get plenty of rest, I mostly stay well.

The progress has been slow and incremental, just as my return to working has been.

If you’ve been tracking the saga, you know that I didn’t work at all for six months, then I started by tutoring and proofreading. I moved on to part-time work in an educational agency, then progressed to teaching part-time as a college adjunct instructor. From there, I moved back to the agency and eventually worked full-time in a leadership role, but I still didn’t believe I would ever have the capacity to teach in a classroom full of students, managing their learning, their emotions, and their movements five days a week.

It was at this time, about almost six years into recovery, that Covid hit. We as a nation were knocked down by this highly contagious pandemic, and, as we social distanced from one another, we had some time and space within which other ailments — widespread poverty, systemic racism, educational inequity, and the like — became more evident.

The situation looked familiar to me because I had just lived through something similar — autoimmunity had knocked me down and forced me to take some time and space to recognize that I hadn’t been attending to my mental or physical health or to that of my family. I had to acknowledge that they were suffering, too.

And as I observed our nation’s symptoms in real time, something just clicked. It was like I had been training and preparing for this moment. I was in good shape and ready to step back in the ring, and if I was going to do it — if I was going to put myself out there and see if I still had the juice — I was going to do it in a place where I could turn the dial, be it ever so slightly, by identifying and using strategies that might reduce the impact of poverty, racism, and trauma for students who had been knocked down the hardest.

If you’ve been reading along for the last year, you know that I am intoxicated by the opportunity I’ve been given at Detroit Leadership Academy — I can’t keep my mouth shut about it.

But that didn’t answer my friend’s question, did it? How am I doing with pain now that I am back in the classroom full time?

I’d say I’m doing better than I might’ve hoped for. As I’m writing this, I’m tired, and I’m on the second day of a headache. I’m not surprised. It’s the weekend before the final week of the first quarter. We are still short one staff person, plus we’ve had one out due to Covid for over a week. I’m working in a setting that is rich with trauma and the impacts of trauma, and it shows. The students are tired, and worn, and often quite raw. I see all of this, and it weighs on my heart.

And, if I’ve learned anything through this journey, it’s that emotions are stored in the body. My students’ bodies show it, and my body shows it.

So, yes, I do have some pain — in my heart, but also almost always in my right sacroiliac joint, often in my low back, a little less in my hips and neck, and today in my head, and much to my dismay, my left eye.

That left eye — he’s the lookout — he always lets me know when I have pushed too far, when I need to take a down day, when I need to attend to self-care. Today I think he’s shouting because on top of a long week, I pushed a little further on Friday night, went out to dinner with my husband and a coworker, then travelled through a downpour to an away football game where my students were playing against a team with far greater resources — a well-lit turf field, cheerleaders, a marching band, and stands that were 1/3 full even in the downpour. Our side of the field had about a dozen fans including us. Our guys, after arriving late because the contracted transportation was late picking them up, fought hard, but they were outmatched; the final score was 42-6. The other team was jubilant — they had claimed their victory. Our team was despondent — their hopes were dashed. It felt emblematic of the divide in our country — the inequity of resources and opportunity I see in my work every day and the impact that inequity has on the lived experiences of students like mine. It was hard to watch.

We got home after 10:30, damp and chilled, and I crawled into bed to sleep. Through the night I felt a headache and some nausea. This morning, my body has the hum of inflammation — the heat and a quiet vibration that calls for my attention. Less subtly, my eye is shouting, “For the Love of God, take a break!”

So, I’m spending my morning writing and doing some yoga. Next, I’ll eat a breakfast of non-inflammatory foods, slowly go pick up some groceries, then come home, sit on the couch, and watch some football.

I’ll take the weekend to rest, recover, worship, and see some friends, and by Monday, I should be ready to step back into it again.

It takes vigilance to stay well — everyday attention to self care that puts the oxygen mask on myself before it dares to assist the person next to me. It’s counterintuitive to how I always imagined I was supposed to live — squaring my shoulders, gritting my teeth, muscling through, grinning and bearing it — and it’s a better, richer way.

I have way more gas in my tank, way more capacity to put my work down when students gather in my room like they did on Friday morning — a bunch of seniors huddled around my desk, asking for snacks, chatting, busting on each other, making me laugh.

Pain? Sure, I have pain; my students do, too. Somehow, we’ve landed in the same space, and we are learning how to be together, how to learn from each other, and, on the richest of days, how to laugh with one another.

For this, I am so thankful, and so committed to staying the course and attending to my wellness so that I can keep on showing up for these kids.

He picked me up

And He turned me around

And He placed my feet

On the solid ground

Hallelujah, hallelujah

Corey Asbury, “So Good To Me”

A drink of water

I was so excited last spring when I saw a crew replacing our hallway water fountains at school with filling stations.

As part-camel, I consume a couple quarts of water each day while I’m in the building. I’d been lugging in a large Igloo water jug all year; this would make my daily trek in from the car so much easier.

It made sense, in the times of Covid, that we would do away with traditional water fountains, the likes of which I’d stood in line at in my growing up years. It was the only way we got drinks of water back then, by bending over a shared porcelain bowl and glug-glugging until the person behind us got impatient and we stood up, wiped our dripping mouth on our sleeve, took a big gulp of air, and moved on.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen filling stations pop up everywhere — office buildings, airports, and, of course, schools, but in my little charter school in Detroit, which is on lease from the Archdiocese and in need of myriad repairs, I was surprised to see this improvement. Certainly, it was an expense mandated by Covid — I couldn’t imagine the funds would have been found otherwise.

However it came to be, I happily began to refill my water bottle and gladly left my Igloo at home.

I pictured my students doing the same — bringing a water bottle to school and carrying it with them all day, independently managing their thirst as countless students across the country do without thinking. No such thing happened. The students came, but they brought no bottles. They wanted drinks, but they had nothing to put them in.

“Mrs. Rathje, do you have a cup?”

“A cup?”

“Yeah, so I can go get a drink of water.”

“Oh, right. I guess you can’t get a drink of water unless you have something to put it in.”

The school could hardly let the students go thirsty, but what were we to do? The traditional fountains were gone. We certainly didn’t have a supply of water bottles lying around. Instead, as students became thirsty, they went to the office, asked for a paper cup, filled it at the filling station, and carried it back to class. Day after day after day.

It was a disruption to class and to the office staff, but even more, this paper cup carrying seemed like a step backward. Weren’t the filling stations supposed to be an improvement?

This whole situation really started to bug me, but in a world full of planning, teaching, grading, and managing the movements of hundreds of bodies of teenagers in a building, the water problem was not top priority, never mind Maslow.

We were about four weeks into the school year, four weeks in to the era of the paper cup, when a friend from our St. Louis days reached out to me. He said he’d read my blog and would like to support my students. How could he help? My first response was to say that although I had had a great deal of initial support that had allowed me to purchase snacks and prizes for my students, my supply would certainly need to be replenished in time. My reward system was working, and students were claiming prizes for their hard work, and the word was out — Mrs. Rathje has snacks — and the kids were making a bee-line for my classroom.

However, I had no sooner sent him that message when the water situation popped into my mind. I sent a follow-up: “Another project I’m thinking about starting soon is purchasing re-usable water bottles. We have those refillable water stations, but nobody has a bottle. Right now we are using paper cups. I’ve got 80+ seniors. I’d at least like to get each of them a bottle.”

Before too long, he replied that he’d like to support the water bottle effort and asked how he could get me some cash. As it turns out, he is the pastor of a church called Jacob’s Well. Do you remember Jacob’s well? The place where the Samaritan woman gave Jesus a drink, and He told her that He had water that would forever quench her thirst? (I really can’t make this stuff up.) It seems that Jacob’s Well wanted to make sure my students could get some drinks of water.

Within a day or two he had sent me enough money to purchase water bottles for the whole school. My mind was blown. I wanted to act as quickly as possible to put water bottles in my students hands, and since I was still preoccupied with planning, teaching, grading, and the like, I reached out to a few people who quickly got to work on ordering some pretty sweet water bottles — complete with the school logo — that would arrive within a week! I was telling a friend about this purchase, and she said she wondered if there would be confusion with 300 identical bottles all in the same building. Could she create and fund some custom name labels for the bottles? Before she could change her mind, I supplied her with the names of all of my seniors, and, guys, before I could blink twice, these were in the works.

Front side
Back side

Last week, we had just returned from two weeks of virtual learning due to a high number of Covid cases in our school, and I had brought in some new items to put in the prize bins. I was organizing these prizes Tuesday before I left for the day when one of our custodians said that UPS had just brought me a large delivery — the water bottles!

In my class, each time a student completes an assignment, he earns what I call a Rathje ticket (more on this here); on Wednesdays, students can use their tickets to purchase items in the Rathje Store. I have three bins of prizes that are worth 1, 3, or 5 tickets (almost all of this donated by friends). Additionally, each Wednesday, I hold a drawing; students can put a ticket in a cup, and I draw out the name of one person who can win a prize from the 5-ticket bin.

When my students walked in on Wednesday, tickets in hand, I couldn’t wait to show them that they could get a personalized water bottle for just 3 tickets.

“They have our names on them?”

“Yes!”

“I want one!”

“Me, too!”

It’s not a small thing to have a water bottle of your own, is it? It’s not nothing to be able to fill up your water bottle on the way into the building or in between classes — to take care of a vital need, to do it yourself, to not have to ask someone for a cup for your water every single time you want a drink, to know that this is something that belongs to you.

When people ask me what I mean by educational inequity, I cite examples like this. How can a student focus in class when he has to problem-solve to get a drink of water? And, let me be clear, this issue is not due to an uncaring or irresponsible school administration. I’m working with a very committed team of educators who are working hard each day to provide for our students. If lack of water bottles were the only inequity, it would’ve been handled already, but we’re also trying to ensure that all of our classes have teachers, that every student has a ride to school, that every student has a mask, that students have access to mental health care, winter coats, and all the other things that teenagers need.

Getting a drink of water is so basic, so ordinary, we might overlook the need. Having a water bottle is standard, isn’t it? Don’t we all have several in our homes? Don’t we assume that everyone does?

The fact is that everyone doesn’t. Everyone doesn’t have everything that they need — a water bottle, a warm meal every day, transportation to school, a home with electricity, or access to a quality education. But those of us who do can do something, We can turn the dial on societal inequities — one water bottle, one warm meal, one winter coat, one helping hand at a time. So thank you to my friend who asked how he could help, and thank you, Jacob’s Well, for quenching the thirst of my students.

I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,”

Matthew 25:35

Animal Tales

Click the arrow to hear me read this post.

When we lived in the little house by the river, on the campus where my husband is Dean of Students, we often had encounters with wild life.

Situated right next to the Huron River in Ann Arbor, Concordia is home to many kinds of animals.

Probably most populous are the less-than-desirable Canada geese that invade in spring and occupy until late fall, dropping unsightly bombs all over the campus grounds, causing students, faculty, and guests to acquire a particular gait that enables them to avoid calamity.

More pleasant in terms of fowl was a small flock of turkeys that visited one fall, taking up residence among the students, blending in, perhaps hoping for a short course in the benefits of veganism or nonviolence.

Most impressive in the category of fowl was a hawk who appeared outside our door last spring — huge, majestic, and unable to fly due to a damaged wing. I admired him from my window and watched when animal rescue arrived, wrapped him in a blanket, and took him away for repair.

Beyond birds, we were often visited by various little critters: countless squirrels dropping acorns on our metal roof — ping, ping, ping — moles who built a metropolis under our backyard and garden, opossums who scavenged through our compost pile, and woodchucks, one of whom found his way under an overturned bucket behind our house and scratched and clawed until I mustered the bravery of my husband to go free him.

We loved watching the deer who lived in the woods behind our yard, often venturing onto campus in the early morning, looking for food or exercise. During the pandemic shut-down, when all was desolate, the deer boldly explored central campus in the middle of winter, during broad daylight, searching for leaves, and seeds, and any other vegetation that remained.

We knew we would miss the exposure to animals of such variety when we moved to our mid-20th century neighborhood with its fenced yards and close proximity to I-94 — that we wouldn’t get as many great sightings. However, recently, we have had some close encounters with the animal kingdom, much to our dismay.

It was several weeks ago when my husband excitedly bounded in from his early morning walk.

“Kristin, oh my gosh, I almost got sprayed by a skunk!”

He had been on the sidewalk down the street when, in the morning darkness, he suddenly saw, right in his path, a furry black critter with distinguishing white marks down his back. Both of them stopped dead in their tracks and made eye contact. My husband adeptly turned and ran the other direction in hopes of mitigating the skunk’s fear response. In doing so, he was able to safely return home by an alternate route.

A similar scenario happened not long after. Then, one morning, as he was stepping outside for his morning walk, he spotted the skunk in our driveway! Again, my husband’s quick-footed response saved him from a morning spent showering and applying all manner of concoctions to eliminate that particularly acrid smell. The only consequence he felt was an elevated heart rate.

As days went on, the skunk seemed determined to get to know us better. On two or three occasions, my husband or I took Chester to the back yard for his morning relief and spotted the skunk in the bushes near our house. Panicking, thinking surely Chester would see him, move to investigate, and get sprayed, we whisper-called our nearly deaf doggo, waving our arms, trying to rush him back to the house. Miraculously, we continued to avoid trouble..

However, not wanting to continue standing idly by as this skunk got bolder, perhaps with eyes on taking up habitation in our backyard, we started taking action. We purchased a few solar-powered landscaping lights and placed them near the bushes where the skunk had been seen. My husband started carrying a large flashlight on his dark morning walks, and recently we purchased a motion-detector light for the backyard. We were going to make sure this nocturnal critter was greeted with light whenever he showed up.

We were taking action, but let me tell you, we were still looking both ways whenever we stepped outside after dark, until a few weeks ago, when we thought our worries were over.

I was driving home and was on the final leg of the journey. Several blocks from our house it hit me — the smell of skunk! It was late afternoon, the sun was still in the sky. I surveyed my surroundings and saw, lying in the street, a rather large skunk who had met his demise trying to get to the other side.

I immediately called my husband. “I have some sad news to report to you, dear.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, I am sorry to inform you that our friend, the skunk, is lying in state in the middle of the road. You might slow down at the corner on your drive home tonight and tip your hat in farewell.”

“Ah, yes,” he said, “I shall do that.”

Don’t let our solemn exchange fool you. We were rejoicing! We thought we were out of the woods, so to speak. We thought we had prevailed in this saga of the skunk. But alas, there is more to the story.

This past week, my husband was gone on a business trip, and while I had been teaching virtually due to a Covid outbreak at our school, I had agreed to go in to the building early on Wednesday morning to administer the SAT to a small group of students. I rose at 5am and walked with Chester to the side door for our first stop of the day — the back yard.

I was still rubbing my eyes when I opened the back gate, so it startled me when Chester bolted straight for the bushes at the back of the house. I wondered what he smelled there, but I wasn’t conscious enough to register an answer before he bolted right back out and started rubbing his face in the still-wet grass. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement — a small black critter, about the size of my hand, scurrying along the back of the house, under the fence, and away from us.

I looked back to find Chester still rubbing his face in the grass. I don’t think he had even relieved himself yet, he was so focused on getting rid of whatever was on his face. Still, I didn’t smell an oppressive skunk smell, so I wasn’t sure he had actually been sprayed. Nevertheless I led him back into the house, plunked him right in the bathtub, and started hosing him down and shampooing him before either of us had a chance to realize what was happening.

I washed and washed — his face, his paws, his body, his undercarriage — then I rinsed and rinsed and rinsed. As I became fully awake (and fully drenched), I did indeed smell skunk, but it was not overpowering. Perhaps the little guy who got him did not have the capacity of a full-grown skunk, and for that I was thankful.

I toweled Chester dry, put his leash on him, and walked him just outside our door so that he could do what we had set out to do in the first place. He gladly complied, and then we quickly went back into the house.

Chester watched me sheepishly as I ran through my morning routine, put him in his crate, and hurried off to work. As I drove away, I began to think that perhaps I had become nose-blind. Maybe he smelled much worse than I thought, but I wouldn’t know that until I got away for a while and then came back. I hoped my entire house hadn’t been tainted with the stench; I prayed I wouldn’t have to spend my evening on stink-abatement.

Later, after hours of reading SAT testing instructions, I arrived home, opened the door, and smelled just a trace of skunk, right near the door — right where I had brought Chester in after the encounter. I also smelled a little near his crate, where he had spent most of his day.

I was relieved. We had once again escaped almost entirely unscathed, but clearly, this saga is not over. It seems the skunks are here to stay. And, as long as Chester lives, like most old men, he’ll have to take care of business at five o’clock in the morning. So, I’ll continue to grab the big flashlight, wake myself fully, and step boldly forth to take Chester into the back yard.

And…I’ll keep hoping that the faint smell of skunk at the entry way will dissipate.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

John Rutter