Teacher as Protagonist

For the first time in many years, I am teaching summer school. For the last two weeks, I have been teaching three small groups of incoming ninth graders about the main elements of fiction, among them protagonist (experiences conflict) and antagonist (causes conflict). I specifically chose a story, Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” to illustrate that a protagonist’s conflict is often internal and/or complicated and that protagonist vs. antagonist often does not equate to hero vs. villain.

As literature is intended to be a way in which we understand the human condition, I think the general public might need a refresher course on the definitions of protagonist versus antagonist. I’m seeing too many people falling back into an old, familiar trope: teacher as villain rather than protagonist.

I belong to a number of teacher Facebook groups, among them an international group about virtual and hybrid teaching methods, a group about addressing racism in school settings, and a local group dedicated to lobbying for student and teacher safety as schools figure out their plans for the coming year. Both in these groups and in other social media activity, some by those directly impacted by education issues and some by others, there are two opposing but equally damaging narratives that I’m seeing reoccur recently.

The first goes something like this, “Any teacher who doesn’t advocate for a return to school buildings, or who agrees to teach a small cohort of students, is ignoring the needs of students and contributing to systemic racism.” There are so many issues with this argument, it’s hard to know where to start. First of all, almost all teachers are painfully aware of the inequalities in education, and more teachers than ever are working to directly address those inequalities. Some educators are, for the first time in their careers, embarking on real anti-racist work. But that doesn’t change the fact that there could be myriad reasons why they can’t go back into a classroom right now and aren’t advocating for schools to open. Doing so might compromise their health or the health of their family. They may have their own children at home doing virtual learning. They may recognize that the disparities faced by many students are not just educational but also health care, employment, and housing disparities, which of course means that they are living in areas with higher Covid numbers. Therefore, bringing those students back into school buildings might not be the most responsible choice.

The second narrative is along these lines, “Any teacher who doesn’t refuse to go back into the classroom this year is a traitor to the profession and doesn’t care about children.” To begin with, this shows a drastic lack of understanding of the dearth of options available to many people in the world of education: adjunct faculty in higher ed, private school teachers, and public school teachers in right to work states. Much of the job security that came with a teaching job is gone and to argue that there is strength in numbers even without formal protections in place is an argument that probably feels safe to those whose employment isn’t on the line. As for not caring about children, it almost feels so laughable as to not be worth addressing. I’m not even sure how you begin to explain to someone who believes a teacher might not care about kids what it means to care about kids as an educator.

I don’t know a single teacher who believes that any option for the coming school year is a good one. This isn’t a story in which you can cast a hero and a villain. Teachers right now are protagonists facing myriad conflicts, both internal and external. What is the right decision for their students? For their families? For their own health, both physical and mental? The last thing teachers, and the students who are impacted by those teachers’ choices, need is the antagonism of people who believe that any part of teaching in a pandemic is easy or clear cut.

Pandemic as Mirror

Full disclosure: I’m writing this when I’m angry and sad and feeling more than just a little bit sorry for myself. I’m currently supposed to be at my parents’ house, seeing many of my family members for the first time since weeks before this pandemic hit us. But I woke up this morning with a headache and sore throat. Even though there’s a better than average chance that it is just my allergies, I sent my regrets, instead of taking a couple of ibuprofen and hoping for the best, because that’s the way we have to operate these days.

But this blog post isn’t about disliking what is required of me right now but more about how much I hate what my reaction to today, and really the last three months, says about me. Because, if nothing else, this pandemic is a mirror, reflecting who and what we are. Certainly we can see that on a macro level in the way that we’re being shown what we’re about as a country–at our best in the ways we’ve come together to help each other, and unfortunately, more often of late, at our worst in our rush to return to “normal” (i.e. individualism via self-gratification and capitalism).

Painfully, for me at least, it is also showing me too many things I don’t like about myself. While I know plenty of people will say it is unrealistic, I still feel like I somehow should have been able to use this time to become a better version of myself, especially since it has stretched on so long. Of course, there is the usual fact that I have a million things that could be done in and around my house, but I alternate between throwing myself into work-related tasks and watching too many British mystery shows. And there’s the probability that, if I was more disciplined about it, I could have finished a good chunk of a novel rather than just the two poems that make up the sum total of my non-blog pandemic writing.

And then there are the subtler things. I wish I could say that I had improved at asking for help instead of retreating into myself when things become difficult. Or that I had become more patient with other people. Or that I had become better at taking emotional risks rather than operating out of fear.

The thing about mirrors is that they reflect things back to us, but they don’t actually show us how to fix the flaws we see. We have to figure that out on our own. Perhaps I should be glad that it looks like I will a lot more time alone time ahead of me to figure that out?

A Teacher Trying to Do Better

Last night, one of my friends send a group of us a text asking our opinion on how she should broach the subject of the murder of George Floyd (and locally, Joel Acevedo) and the connected events of the last few days. As we provided suggestions, I was, of course, thinking of my own students as well. A part of me wishes I was still in some sort of class setting with them to process all of this, and I am struggling with the inherent problems in that.

There are a few things that it is helpful to know about my classroom to understand this. The first is that our English curriculum is justice driven. I inherited a curriculum with a heavy justice emphasis when I came into my position, and strengthening that focus is a continuing goal. It has guided our revamping of what we teach in lower grades. We hired our other full time English teacher largely because she showed a commitment to that goal. I firmly believe that, as the National Council of Teachers of English said in their statement after the events in Charlottesville in 2017, “there is no apolitical classroom.” So, in the far too frequent occasions when black men and women have died at the hands of police, writing assignments and classroom discussions were not as hard for me to integrate as they might be for others.

The second thing is that I am a white person teaching students of color. And it is because of this that I am struggling with my own desire to be in the classroom right now. I can tell myself that I want to provide my students with a safe space to discuss hard issues, and I do want that. But now that I’m not in a position to do that, I realize how much of an excuse I have let that become. Somewhere along the line, I let myself believe that teaching the things I’m teaching and having the discussions that I’m having with my students meant I was doing the work of being anti-racist. And that is so far from true.

I still believe that it is important to teach a justice-centered curriculum and to help my students use their own voices to advocate for themselves and each other. But that is all hollow if my own voice is silent. Or if I’m not having the conversations with the people who really need to have them: other white people. And God knows, there are so many ways that I can to do the real work of addressing racism and white privilege within my own school, the education system, the larger community. Any lesson I teach my students is empty if I can’t tell them how I have backed up what I’m teaching them with more action.

None of these issues will be gone by the time we go back to school in August. I just know that, when I’m in front of students again, I need it to be with the real certainty that I have begun my own work.

 

 

 

Finding a Way to Tell the Story

A couple of weeks ago, I became fixated on the idea of creating a quarantine playlist. I had come across a number of them that I found entertaining, and I thought I would enjoy putting together my own. Before long, I realized that what had developed was not the varied  list with broad appeal to which I had aspired but rather something I began calling “The Saddest Night at Lilith Fair.” I had set out to create something that was inspiring–or at least not depressing– and I had failed.

I tried any number of things to get this to work the way I thought it should. I asked my coworkers what was inspiring them and getting them through difficult days. I asked a friend for suggestions of songs about alcohol. (Yes, the playlist needs one, and honestly, finding the right fit is what is keeping it from being a finished product.) I listened to other people’s playlists again. I started to write a poem that went nowhere.

If it hadn’t been for that failed poem, and the mixed blessing that is the internet, I would never have figured out what was happening. Shortly after finishing the research I had done for the poem and futilely trying to get something down on paper, I came across the reminder, in meme form, of where we are in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We’re way down at the bottom, trying to meet our need for safety and security. I already knew that, but what caught my eye was at the top, the little parenthetical reference under self-actualization–creativity.

And I had my own little aha moment about why I was struggling to write the poem. It took me a bit longer to figure out why my playlist sounds the way it does. I was telling my story the only way I knew how. I am a person whose creativity lies in the use of words, and my own were failing me miserably. The creativity was finding the only path it could in an unsafe world, not through my own lines but through the words of others strung together to speak for me.

And then my coworkers answers about their inspirations–motivated students, crafts, running–made sense as well. When we get through to the other side of this, our stories will be told in all different ways. In work accomplished. In pieces cross-stitched and miles run. Perhaps in poems written. Or maybe just in compilations of songs that capture the enormity of our loneliness.

 

What I’m Fearing Most Right Now

I think it is safe to say that, right now, everyone is living in some degree of fear. Some are afraid of getting sick or losing a loved one. Some are afraid of how they are going to feed their families without a steady paycheck. Many of us are afraid that our leaders will put politics ahead of public safety. My greatest fear right now is none of those things. It is the fear that I am losing my empathy.

Empathy is a tricky thing for most people in the best of times. Either we shy away from others’ pain because we’re afraid it will somehow rub off on us if we get too close or we fall into the trap of believing that personal responsibility will always ensure a positive outcome. Many of us find it difficult just to hold space when those we love struggle rather than trying to fix things for them.

We are certainly not living in the best of times. If there was ever a time when we needed to hold space with others’ pain and fear, it is now. Yet, I fear that the longer I am physically isolated, the more time I spend alone, the more my emotional vision narrows. I am finding it harder and harder to see past my own difficulties, more and more exhausting to try to relate to others’ fears.

It is hard to imagine that any of us will come out the end of this without having lost something. Right now, I can only hope that what I lose is not my ability to hold space for others.

 

A Real Hunger: Why this Is Not the Same for Everyone

One of the hardest things for me about this new normal has been trying to silence the angry voice that keeps playing in my head when other people talk. It keeps screaming, “It’s not the same! It’s not the same! It’s not the same!” whenever someone is searching for the common ground in all of this. I’m not getting any better at it, but a number of things–a conversation with someone in the same situation, Zoom with my family on Easter, and a journal entry written by a student–have at least helped me pinpoint part of what is leading to it.

Most of us have been doing some sort of social distancing for a month or so now. Here in Wisconsin, the governor just announced yesterday that he is leaning toward extending our stay at home order through the end of May. Assuming that is the way it plays out, by that time, I will have spent nearly three months without any sort of physical contact with another human being. (My chiropractor is pretty amazing, but I’m not counting that.)

Now, before you reply with the meme about how this is really hard for huggers, which yes, I acknowledge that it is, ask yourself some questions. Are you living in a home with a spouse or a significant other? Do you have kids? You probably aren’t spending all your time six feet apart from them. You’ve probably touched them once or twice since the beginning of March.

Because I wanted to know if I was having some kind of overly extreme reaction to this whole thing, I decided that I would do a little research to see what happens to adults who are deprived of human touch. It turns out that experts actually call the longing that results from that deprivation “skin hunger.” It can lead to all kinds of things that are unfortunate in the normal world–depression, increased stress, immune deficiency–but significantly harder to deal with during a quarantine. In severe cases, it can lead to alexithymia, the inability to interpret or express emotions, and/or fear of social interactions (Sado). This is what many of us who are truly, physically by ourselves during all of this are experiencing.

I want so much for all the people who are saying we’re going to come out the end of this collectively better to be right. I think the only way that has any chance of happening is if, instead of pretending this is exactly the same for all of us, we really listen to each other about the significant ways in which it is different. The different things that sometimes make it seem impossible. That, I believe, is the only way we’re going to come out of this any better than we went in.

 

Sado, Omokhefue. “The Power of Touch: What Happens When Physical Contact is             Lacking.” Women Working. 24 June 2019.

 

I Thought this Would Get Easier

There are some Emily Dickinson lines that have been floating through my head recently: “They say that ‘time assuages’ —/Time never did assuage -/An actual suffering strengthens/As Sinews do, with age -.” In my normal life, I think that this is ridiculous. In this new normal, it seems frighteningly accurate.

I thought this was going to get easier because that is how life works. Right? Situations are difficult and then we adapt. Or maybe we just get better at pretending we’re okay.

I know that tomorrow, I could be telling myself a totally different story. But today, the writing that rarely feels like much more than public whining is the alternative to curling up in the fetal position. And it never helps that the triggers are stupid things. For instance, this morning it was deviled eggs or rather the absence of. That was all I really wanted from the eggs I dyed. But they wouldn’t peel correctly, and the yolks weren’t cooked hard enough. Apparently, I’m not only losing my sanity, I’m also losing my basic cooking skills.

Today was supposed to be my personal day; my friend and I were going to a spa. Instead of getting a massage, I’m ending one of my classes early for a doctor’s appointment to try to deal with my upside down sleep schedule. Instead of getting a mani/pedi, I’m anxiously awaiting the callback from my vet about what to do with the cats who have regressed so much in their interactions with each other that one is no longer properly using the litter. Instead of day drinking, I’m having a breakdown about hard boiled eggs.

And while my personal day would have been cancelled regardless, I feel like none of those other things would be happening if I were personally doing a better job of adapting. I wanted this–expected this–to get easier. Instead, I feel like I’m just trying to cut through the sinews of this new normal.

 

Making Sense of the Messages

Maybe you’re like me, and you’re overwhelmed by the messages that have been coming at us constantly in the days of this new normal. I don’t mean the messages coming from press briefings or doctors’ interviews on cable news. It’s the messages, all of them intended to be helpful, coming at us constantly from social media. (If you’re doing a better job than I am of limiting your social media intake, I applaud you.) Here are some of the frequent messages that are posing a problem for me.

“Whatever you are doing is enough”: I do appreciate this one as a response to the ridiculous (at least for most people) learn a language/write a book approach to quarantine. I’m struggling with it in the context that I’m getting it most often, which is in relation to my job. Most days, I don’t feel like I’m doing enough when I’m doing my job in normal conditions. I certainly don’t believe I’m doing enough in the pale imitation of my real classes that I can create for online learning. (This is not to imply that I think no teachers are doing amazing things in the online environment. I’m speaking only for myself now.)

“Be flexible”: I totally understand the recommendation, again especially in relation to my job. But most days, I absolutely want to rebel against it. I’m pretty sure that the only thing that is allowing me to function at all is maintaining a structure that is as similar to my normal schedule as I am able to make it. I can’t believe that I’m the only one wanting to cling to what little routine we can maintain.

“Be kind to yourself”: I’m sure my uneasiness with this one is closely related with my personal ambivalence about the concept of self-care. This is because I really struggle with distinguishing between being kind to myself and making excuses. I’m seeing it in concrete ways, such as the fact that, due to my extreme aversion to anything resembling cleaning,  I have done none of the preparation I need to do for a virtual gathering that takes place in a few hours. I’m seeing it in a lot of abstract ways as well, and most of the time, I’m not really sure if I’m slipping back into old negative patterns or protecting myself emotionally.

Maybe I’m the only one having a hard time making sense of all the messages right now. But considering how much more time we’re all forced to spend inside our own heads these days, it seems unlikely.

The Danger of Subtle Shaming

By now, most of you have probably seen the series of concentric circles urging you to ask yourself who you want to be during Covid-19 and dividing the answers into zones: fear, learning, and growth. (No, I won’t post a graphic because there’s no attribution on any version I’ve found.) It has been popping up all over my newsfeed, and I finally got so angry about it, I had to write something.

Why would something like that make me angry, you ask? Let’s think about this for a minute. If you start with a question about “Who do I want to be during….?” and then giving options, it implies that everyone can make the choice, and some people are just willingly choosing “incorrectly.” Welcome to the world of mental health shaming.

No one would choose to live in something labeled a “fear zone.” If someone is afraid, it is because they don’t know how to, or far more likely their brain chemistry will not allow them to, operate differently at this point in time.

I know, some of you are still thinking, “But it says ‘who do I want to be?’ Isn’t it just encouraging me to be self-aware?” Nope, it’s a freaking dog whistle. If moving out of fear (or sadness or exhaustion or anger) were as simple as just declaring that today you weren’t going to be afraid anymore, no one would be afraid. Just like no one would be depressed or anxious or compulsive if those were choices like it is so often implied that they are.

Any of you who have read more than one my previous posts during this time probably realizes that I’m not okay a lot of the time these days. There’s a good chance that, if you ask me how I’m doing, I’m going to tell you I’m fine. It could be because I’m having a legitimately okay moment because my worst moments are when no one else is awake to talk to me. It could be because you caught me at a time when I’m focused enough on work to not notice I’m not okay. The most likely reason is that two decades of living with depression have taught me to tell people I’m okay even when I’m anything but. Choosing isn’t really part of it.

Sure, making a choice to be what you define as better is great. Subtle shaming of people you don’t believe to be doing the same thing is not.

 

 

Being Reminded that I Should Know Better

I’m a teacher, so I should be used to the fact that things need to be repeated, often many times, for them to sink in. I’m also a pretty reasonable adult, so I should actually know that social media is where terrible ideas and misinformation live forever. And most days, being a pretty modest person, I realize that blog posts aren’t necessarily effective ways to influence the world. So, I really should have known better, but apparently, I didn’t.

I haven’t been sleeping particularly well lately. Actually, that isn’t even true; my body has just decided that 1:00 AM is the time it should wake up, which means that I’m struggling to stay awake past 6:00 PM. Because I’m using what little mental focus I have right now to teach, I can’t really concentrate on something worthwhile like a book, so I’m spending too much time on social media. In the five hours I’ve already been awake today (currently, it’s 5:45 AM), I’ve seen the following posts:

  • unattributed “scientific” information about coronavirus (sometimes one person posting multiple contradictory unattributed posts), which still bothers me because it’s dangerous
  • assertions that the coronavirus is the hand of God at work reminding us what is important, which still bother me because they also are dangerous
  • seemingly endless references to people homeschooling their children, which bother me because they negate the hours of work that educators around the world are putting into their work
  • reminders that I should be using this time to learn a new hobby or organize my closets, which bother me because they make me feel guilty about the fact that neither of those things are going to happen
  • reminders that I should be cherishing the extra time I get to spend with my family, which bother me because they ignore the fact that for many of us, this situation means the exact opposite
  • reminders that anyone who is feeling depressed in this new normal needs to reach out to someone for help, which more than bother me because they shows a profound misunderstanding of how depression works.

I didn’t expect writing about these things over the last two and a half weeks to change  everyone’s mind. (Okay, I hoped maybe it would change a few people’s minds.) I expected writing my way through the days of this new normal to make me feel better. Maybe I should have known better about that as well.