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Starting again?

Remember when the beginning of the year felt like deja vu?

Yeah. That’s not the case this year.

I am about to finish my first week and it feels a bit like I’m Rip Van Winkle or an amnesiac whose memory comes back in spurts.

The last time I had an August first week of school with students in the room with me, it was the salad days of 2019. I had a 2 year old who spent half the day at a Brazilian preschool and was with our nanny the other half.

Now I have three full-day kids at Graded and no nanny. I keep feeling like I moved, but I didn’t? It feels similar to when we moved to Brazil and had to make new routines and figure a new rhythm out, but I never left. I’m still home.

I love being with students. When I got the email 1 weeks before we came back to Brazil that we’d be in 100% in-person, I cried. For a moment I worried that my kids would be freaked out that I was crying on the couch but they never looked up from the cartoons. Pandemic kids, amiright?

This week has been good-hard. I’m not sure I even have the energy to describe it more than that.

As always, I write a letter to students at the beginning of the year. This year, I got to read in front of them in the room, in my real voice, not a voice that has been converted to 0s and 1s and then sent into headphones or speakers. I didn’t cry, but I thought I might, and god bless the mask for hiding any chin quivers.

Like I’ve done in years past, I’m sharing the letter below.


Dear students,

Listen. Do you hear that? That’s the sound of a group of people together, in a room, beginning a year together. That’s not the dings and dongs of Zoom, your dog barking in the background, your home phone ringing. These are school sounds. Can you believe it? 

This is my 15th year of teaching and every year I start by writing students a letter introducing myself. This year feels different. In some ways, I’m also getting to know myself again. Who is Mrs. Griswold who teaches in a classroom and not on Zoom? What is Mrs. Griswold like when she can walk up and down the desks and look over students’ shoulders and not just open breakout rooms? 

Maybe, like me, you’re wondering what this year will be like, and what you will be like. The last time you had classes in a classroom every day, every week, you were fifth graders. You’re different now. I’m different now. So I’m grateful for this letter and this chance to tell you a little bit about me, because I, too, am curious about who I am right now. 

My name is Mrs. Griswold and this is my fourth year teaching at Graded. Before teaching here, I taught in Nashville, Tennessee, and New York City. When I was a kid, like many of you, I was born in one country, but lived in others. I was born in the US, but I moved to Mexico City in middle school, and then to Caracas, Venezuela for high school. I even have an IB diploma! My husband, Mr. Griswold, teaches high school math and computer science, and we have three kids who are students at Graded. Calvin is in grade 4, Matilda in grade 2, and Everett is a K4. 

One of the best parts about me right now is that I am not a homeschool teacher! For the past year and a half, I have been teaching my kids how to write their names, spell short words, multiply, write stories, add, subtract, and more. Can I tell you a little secret? I hate homeschooling. I love my kids and I love teaching, but I don’t love them together. 

One thing this pandemic has proved to me is that I love teaching in a classroom every day. I love the little things like watching students make progress day by day. I love encouraging students, and watching students share big ideas. It’s just not the same on a computer screen. 

I also learned that I am a person who loves teaching middle school students. What I missed most when working from home was the smiles, the chats in the hallway, the silly dances, the laughter, the high fives. 7th graders are funny, caring, energetic, and unique. It’s hard to experience that on a screen of little muted squares. 

At this point in the letter, I usually talk about my hobbies, but so much of that has changed with the pandemic. Right now, I like biking, walking, hiking and camping. But I’m hoping that I can return to some of my old hobbies, like swimming, playing the mandolin, writing, and traveling. Maybe now is my chance to reconsider who I want to be, and how I might be different now. 

Here’s what I know for sure: I am so grateful to be in this room with you right now. I am so happy that I get to teach you and that we get to learn together. We are lucky. Lucky to have this amazing school, lucky to have classmates and teachers who care and work hard. We can’t let any moment go to waste. Every day together is precious, and education is an amazing privilege and a gift. 

Now it’s your turn to introduce yourself. Write me a letter and tell me about who you were, who you are, who you want to be. 

Warmly,

Mrs. Griswold

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This Pandemic Through the Eyes of a 6-year-old

6 weeks ago, the state shut down schools because of nearly overwhelmed hospitals due to Covid-19. Matilda had been in distance learning for the 2 weeks before that and the Monday we closed would have been her turn to be back on campus. School opened up last week in a week on/week off schedule for each student, but it Matilda’s turn to be on campus last week. So, it’s been 8 weeks since my first grader has been inside a classroom.

All last week we kept a daily countdown going. This weekend, she kept saying, “I can’t believe I’m going to school on Monday!”

On Sunday we came to campus and went rollerskating/rollerblading in the gym. When we arrived, we had our temperature taken by the guards. After a few clicks of the infrared thermometer, the guard asked us to pull into the parking garage and try the checks again. Sometimes, she said, the car interferes and makes the temp look higher.

We parked, and when we got out, the guard did Matilda first. She showed it to me. 37.9 C. “That’s high, right?” I asked in Portuguese. “Very high,” she answered.

Matilda speaks enough Portuguese to know what we were saying. She looked up at me and her eyes over that rainbow mask were wide. “I have a fever? That means I can’t…” Tears welled up in her eyes.

I put my hand to her forehead. Maybe it was warm? “It’s okay,” I said quickly. “It’s okay.”

The guard reset the thermometer and checked everyone else’s temperature. Calvin, fine. Everett, fine. Matilda…36.3. Normal.

“You’re normal, it’s fine. It was just the car. You’re okay.” I rubbed her back. She immediately brought her fists to her eyes to rub the tingle and tears away. She sniffed quietly and nodded. I could see her try to shake it off, but she seemed fragile.

That whole encounter was maybe 3 minutes but it felt like time dilated. I could see Matilda imagining her week on campus taken away from her. She was devastated. I was surprised to see that she completely understood what that fever might mean. She knew that the temperature checks were important. She knew that a fever could get her locked out. After 8 weeks and being so close, to have school taken away would just be too much.

Just before this current lockdown, we had a bunch of cases that crept closer to our family. We took extra tests. Hospitals and ICUs were at 90 some percent capacity. There was a count in the paper of how many people died waiting for a hospital bed. I was really scared. But even more than being worried about getting Covid, I was worried that one member of our family testing positive would mean Matilda would miss her turn for in-person school. I said to my therapist, “I just can’t handle any more bad things.”

I saw that in Matilda’s face in the garage. She just couldn’t handle any more bad things.

This morning, Matilda bounded out of bed at 6:11. She was bouncing around and changed her hair 3 times, settling on a Carnaval headband with a fake sunflower on it. She dressed in her characteristic hobo fairy princess aesthetic (black pants with gold stars, a dress with a rainbow skirt, and a teal/peach sweater). She snapped a polaroid selfie during breakfast.

When we got to school this morning, Matilda and I walked toward her class down the long hallway that runs like a spine down campus. I heard Matilda say something, muffled behind her mask.

“What’s that?” I bent closer.

“It’s so crowded.”

There was worry in her eyes as her eyes darted around, scanning the kids and teachers walking by her. Even though the hallway is split into directional lanes. Even though there was distance between people. One sixth of Matilda’s life has been spent being told to spread out, wear a mask, don’t get so close. She hasn’t been in a mall, or an amusement park in a year. She hasn’t been in a school hallway with kids in 8 weeks.

It hurts my heart. I’m so glad she’s on campus. I’m so happy to see her happy. But she’s also worried, she’s scared. People talk about how this generation of kids might be affected by this pandemic. I can’t guess what the long-term effects will be, but they’re more fragile than they seem. They understand more than we think. Maybe they, like us, are happy to have some normal life back, but they’re still afraid they can’t handle one more bad thing.

(How did it all go? See below for Matilda at the end of the day.)

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Making Myself my Next Project

In January, we went to a town in the mountains outside of São Paulo that’s built to look like Switzerland or Germany called Campos do Jordão. I took my hiking pants that I had worn in September ’19 on a trip to caves with students. They fit great in September 2019. Friends, I could barely snap them. And I was so uncomfortable. When I came home at the end of the day after a 4 km hike, I had to lay on the bed, pop the pants open and moan.

I had spent 9 months of the pandemic doing a lot of self-soothing with food. I’m not judging myself for that. It was what I needed to do. But there I was in January, on a 5 week break from school. I was travelling (safely) and getting outside. What was my excuse? I needed to take this added well of resilience and use it to take better care of myself.

I decided that I would make myself my next project. I don’t know if you know me, but I am goddamn achiever. (I wouldn’t dare say “over-achiever” since the original meaning of that word was a person (usually a girl) who achieved beyond her capability. Fuck you, I am so capable.) I am really good at getting shit done. My NYU ladies know what I’m talking about because we are total badasses. We are the class of late 90’s early 00’s girls who got perfect GPAs, scored big scholarships, were selected as valedictorian or salutatorian, we start businesses and/or run businesses parallel to another career. We hustle.

I love projects. I’ve written 3 novels. I’ve (unsuccessfully) submitted these novels to agents close to 750 times. I ran a 5K and then a 10K. I ran a triathlon. I learned to knit and crochet. I sewed a slip cover for a chair. I birthed three kids. I taught myself the mandolin and the Irish banjo. I learned to watercolor. I’ve won awards that come with plaques suitable for hanging on the wall; I’ve won scholarships that came with money. Hell, I got a perfect 4.0 in college. I am good as shit at achieving things.

So why have I never turned that sense of achievement on my body? I have to confess with a little bit of shame, that I sometimes thought it shallow when other people got really into exercise or eating well. (Sorry, Internet Vegans, you are not helping the cause.) My achievements tended to be of the mind, or producing a tangible external product. Chuck Wendig, a writer I follow on Twitter, said years ago that we are a computer wrapped in meat and we need to take care of the meat or the computer doesn’t run well. That really got me, and I’m finally taking his advice.

I also realized a few years ago that while I was working on something (writing a novel, say) I consciously chose not exercise. I reasoned that I couldn’t be good at everything. I had to cut something out, I told myself.

But wait, you said you ran races and did a triathlon, Meg? You’re right. But I did only that, and usually I didn’t stick with it after I was done. Race completed, metal scored, I’m laying on the couch. It’s not that I didn’t want to exercise, it was that I saw exercise as part of something to be achieved and then abandoned for another project.

For a long time, I also resisted calling exercise and eating well “self care.” There is a whole military industrial complex of “self care” that makes its money telling women they aren’t enough and are doing everything wrong. I didn’t want to associate with that. But there isn’t a better word. Self care. That is what I am doing. I am taking care of myself.

Exercise and self care are a life project. This isn’t radical. People reading this are probably saying, “Duh,” at the screen right now. Exercise is a practice. It’s not an achievement. You don’t do it and then get a diploma and then never do it again. You do it every damn day. I had not really accepted this before now.

I’ve struggled to write during the pandemic. It may feel unrelated, but at first I resisted exercise as a new project because it felt like I was putting the nail in the coffin of my writing. It doesn’t make total sense, but that’s how I thought about it. It felt like I was cheating on writing if I dove into taking care of my body. It felt like either/or. Either I write or I exercise and take care of myself. Maybe any new endeavor would have felt like it was crowding out writing. But the writing had already stopped on its own.

Yes, I’m contradicting myself in multiple ways. The point is, in January, on January 6, in fact (I’m good with dates) I decided that I was my next project.

It’s amazing how focused I got. My competitive streak fired up, even though there was no competition to train for. Maybe that’s the secret for some of us achievers, we can feel competitive and be motivated to “win” even when there’s not really anything to “win.”

Around this time, I read an article in the New York Times about new research around exercise and eating. If you’re like me, I get super hungry when I’m working out a lot and then I overeat. But this article gave me hope. I could eat and satisfy that hunger as long as I worked out 300 minutes a week. I set my iWatch exercise goal to 45 minutes a day and I met that or beat it almost every single day. I got back on the stationary bike we own. I started walking more. I did Essentrics classes on the iPad (my mother-in-law turned us on to this). Once I set that tangible goal of 45-60 minutes of exercise a day, it wasn’t hard to achieve it.

Then, I started paying attention to my eating. I’m working on mindfulness with my therapist and she told me to pay attention. Am I eating mindlessly or am I really enjoying the moment I’m in? She encouraged me to just slow down and only do things that I was really soaking up, including eating. I started just saying out loud “I want to eat, but I don’t actually feel hungry.” Just saying that would make the urge to eat dissipate and then I’d stand in the pantry having a little moment with myself. My internal dialogue went like this:

Hey, what’s going on?

I don’t know. I just want to eat another dinner.

You already ate dinner.

I know.

What do you think you really want?

I just want to feel better. It’s been a long shitty day, I feel totally ragged, and I deserve to feel better. I want to feel like I’m doing something for myself.

Yeah, but are you going to feel better after you eat this?

No.

Okay. So how about don’t do something that you will regret later. How about some online window shopping?

Yeah, maybe.

Or an episode of Queer Eye? A trashy TV show with people in a beach house stabbing each other in the back?

Honestly, the trashy TV shows were key. It felt self-indulgent and selfish and I loved it. I watched two seasons of Are You the One? and one season of Too Hot To Handle. All while pounding away on my stationary bike.

Lo and behold, I discovered that when I exercised with a nice hard bike ride, or a fast walk, I felt better afterwards. I started to get on the bike when I felt myself getting angry or frustrated–the kind of angry or frustrated I couldn’t shake. It didn’t make the feeling going away completely, but I did dull the rage.

What you exercise people have been saying forever is totally true! (Ugh, I sound so gross even to myself. Of course they were right.)

Now, I go for a walk every day or every other day. There’s a path through the woods in our condo and it’s through a small section of Atlantic rainforest. There are butterflies, all kinds of birds, and stunning flowers and plants. I feel like my head is cleared when I walk through there. I pretend for a moment that I’m not in a mega city. I feel better afterwards.

I hesitate to even mention weight, because it’s so tricky and so loaded and definitely not the only measure of health. I feel weird talking about it. But I now weigh what I did before I got pregnant with Calvin. If you’ve had a baby, you know what a big deal that is. Hey, 27-year-old me. Nice to see you again.

I’m trying not to be orthodox about anything (no new orthodoxies!) because I don’t want to burn out. I try to make all of these choices about me and putting me first. About doing what makes me feel good tomorrow and not just standing in the pantry at 10:30 at night eating a bag of chocolate chips. (To illustrate a point, I ate a handful of chocolate chips in the pantry last night, but I’d done a spin class, eaten a salad for dinner and I really savored those chocolate chips.) I also hate it when people propose a solution to a really complex problem with a platitude or a single word, but I’ve found a balance. I made carrot cake last week. I didn’t eat a piece every day. I made sure to keep up with my exercise so that I balanced out the cake. Today, I had yogurt and fruit for lunch because we’re getting ice cream after school and ordering burgers and fries for dinner. I’ve built myself a safety net.

Ugh, have I become an Internet Vegan? I don’t want to tell anyone what to do. If I had told myself to do this 6 months ago, I would have punched me in the nose. But I do think it’s worth telling you this. I’ve become somewhat devout about exercising and eating well. A lot of vegetables, very little sugar, very little super processed food. It’s much easier to eat that way in Brazil where fresh food is cheap and processed foods are not as common. Fruits and vegetables are amazing and cheap. I’m not tempted by giant chip and cracker aisles.

I’m at the point where I’m afraid what I’d be like if I didn’t do this. As I sort of start to see the light at the end of the tunnel, I’m thinking about how to keep this good part. I worry that I won’t be able to return to old passions like writing if I want to keep exercising like this. I wonder what life will be like when this is over. Whatever it is, I want to keep this: I’m treating my body the way it deserves. Nobody puts Baby in a corner. That’s me. I’m Baby.

Teaching

Better, Not Awesome

Things are better, but not awesome. I don’t think awesome has really been on the table for the last 55 weeks, but it’s worth adding that caveat. Sometimes when you are struggling, people who wish you well want you to be great again so that they can not worry about you anymore. And sometimes those struggling get tired of carrying their own load plus someone’s else anxiety and worry, so we smile and say we’re fine! All cleared up!

It’s not “all cleared up,” but it is better. This Monday, Everett’s day care reopened. As a day care, they are classified as essential, even in the emergency phase we find ourselves in as a city with regular schools closed. On Monday morning, I sent this gif to my coworkers in our group chat with the message “Me walking away from dropping Everett off at day care this morning.”

For a moment I felt a bit bad. I don’t have tons of mom guilt, but sometimes I worry non-parents are going to be shocked.

So I followed that up with this gif and the caption, “To be fair, this was Everett running in the door without looking back.”

Monday was so much better. The two older kids did their work and due to leading less attention, I was able to focus on what I needed to do with less interruption.

Everett was sad before he went to school and said he’d miss us. I reassured him that we’d pick him up at the end of the day. He still repeats that feeling some mornings, but he comes home dirty from the sandbox and talking about what he did that day.

The other change I made that has improved my mental state was planning in more offline time in each of my 80 minute blocks. When we started the school year, I planned in 30-50 minutes of off-screen (asynchronous) work time for students. But as we went back to campus, I started running 80 minute live Zoom classes. It’s just exhausting for everyone involved, and I need to be free to help my children with their lessons and activities. Just being able to send my students off to work while I go get lunch started or help a kid with their writing assignment has done so much for me.

In case you needed reminding, I’m working two jobs and parenting at the same time. Matilda can’t read her math word problems or log herself into her computer. She needs help with instructions. She needs pencils sharpened and clean sheets of paper. She needs help finding her Portuguese book. They all need a time keeper to get them logged into their 4 Zoom classes a day. David and I have all these alarms set and we have to stop our teaching to tell the kids to join their Zoom classes when our phones start playing funny songs. And many times, we have to strong arm them into logging on because they resist.

They resist? I must admit that until March of this year, my kids have done 0 specials classes in distance learning. No PE, art, music, or counseling classes. And until this semester, they weren’t always consistent about going to their Portuguese classes every day. So, about half the time I tell them they have Portuguese or special, a cloud rolls over their eyebrows and they start negotiating skipping it. We’ve held the line and they always have a good time in those classes.

So I’m not in the low-bottom any more, in the words of Marc Maron. And that’s huge. I’m more focused, I’m less stressed, I’m less depressed.

We’re still waiting to find out if the state and city government will allow schools to reopen next week. Because we have parent/teacher conferences next week and only have classes on Monday and Friday, we bumped our tentative reopening to April 19, the following Monday.

The situation in Brazil and Sao Paulo is still really bad. You have to be really avoiding the news to not know that. There are a few signs of improvement in our state and city. Hospitalizations are down and we have some days of lower cases. It’s going to take some time for that to have an effect on the death rate and the ICU occupancy.

Teachers 47+ can get vaccinated starting on Monday. They haven’t announced when teachers under 47 will get vaccinated, but I’ve pre-registered and our school is hosting a vaccination site, so we may be able to get ours on home turf.

So, everything is “a little better, but…” That’s about as good as it gets in this pandemic, I guess.

But, hey, both my kids went outside to play with friends during our lunch break today and I’m writing this in a quiet, nearly empty apartment. I’ll take it where I can get it.

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The Worst It’s Ever Been

A week ago, two weeks ago, I started feeling vaccine FOMO. All of my US teacher friends were posting and sharing vaccine selfies. It was a new kind of social media envy, different from the regular vacation and foodie jealousy.

But still, I was hopeful. Teachers will be vaccinated after we finish with everyone 60+. We are ticking down, with those 74+ scheduled for March 15. I felt that it would be our turn by May.

But then came the news 2 weeks ago that we were going into the red phase, the most restrictive. But schools remained open at 35%.

Last week came the news that 3 families in Everett’s class are Covid positive. His whole class was shut down for 2 weeks. Matilda had secondary exposure after playing with a friend. And early this week, the news got bleaker and bleaker. Our deaths were rising higher than they ever had. We crested 2,000 a day. That is the second highest total. Only the US beat us.

Despite having vaccinated some of the elder population, things were getting worse by the day. By Wednesday, we were at 2,200 deaths a day. Then 2,400.

Then the news that 50% of ICUs are at 100% capacity. The newspapers were sharing a count of how many people died while waiting for a hospital bed.

Sao Paulo state is the epicenter of this explosion. The governor of our state gave a press conference on Wednesday, but no changes were announced. He held another press conference on Thursday where he announced that we had created a new phase: purple. Worse than red. Churches and soccer were closed. (The fact that they were still open is almost stereotypically Brazilian. God and soccer are high priorities.) State schools were going to close and only allow students who depend on their school for food to come into the buildings.

But that is the whole state. What about our city? We had to wait until today. The mayor decided to close all schools for 3 weeks. Distance learning until April 6, unless the shut down is extended.

It was exactly 52 weeks ago that Graded closed for the first time (March 13, which was a Friday last year.) Brazilian schools closed the following week. And here we, doing it again. Last time, the shutdown of schools lasted from March to October. And then it was only for “review” or “remediation,” We didn’t teach new content in person until February. How long will this shut down be for?

And I’m so mad that we stayed closed in August and September when our cases and deaths were so much lower. We could and should have opened in those better conditions. Now, it is completely justified and necessary that we close. But can I trust that they will reopen schools when things have improved and are safe again? That remains to be seen.

I am very, very afraid. On Wednesday night, I realized that the virus has creeped very close to us, closer than it has ever been. And now that it’s closer, if one of us gets it and needs a hospital, that will not be possible. That’s a really scary thought. (And yes, I thought through the idea of trying to fly to the US. They wouldn’t let a Covid positive person on the plane. There’s no rescue.)

I’m thinking about things this week that I haven’t thought about. Yet again, this pandemic has pushed me into fresh anxiety and stress. New scenarios I’ve never considered. Right as many, many places in the world are getting better and better, we are at our worst.

And there’s a sense that the restrictions aren’t being enforced. The poor point out that the Governor of our state’s kids through a party and the rich point out the parties happening in the favelas, or slums. They are both the problem and it doesn’t seem that the police are enforcing or fining the violators. Many are frustrated and angry.

I don’t know what comes next. I was supposed to be on campus next week, so was Matilda. Our school has given us permission to take leave to fly to our home countries and get vaccinated. But we’d have to pay to for the flights. And in the case of most vaccines, that’s two round trips. With the whole family, that’s impossible. But maybe one parent at a time, and with the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, is that a possibility now? I don’t know. I don’t know anything. So much is out of our control.

Everything sucks. That’s not very poetic, but it’s the truth.

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A Huge Loss

It feels only fitting that I use this platform to express my deep sadness at the death of my Uncle Mike. I call him Uncle even though he’s an uncle-in-law, because he always called me his niece and never niece-in-law. In fact, that’s exactly what he said last week, when he was shared my blog post on Facebook, singing my praises, just as he always did.

No matter what I did, he was always there to celebrate and shout from the roof tops. That’s who he was. He loved to celebrate others. He loved seeing pictures of our kids and their accomplishments. He was often the first comment with kind words.

This morning I woke up and saw a message on my phone that stunned me. Mike had died suddenly last night. I couldn’t understand at first. I’d read a Facebook post from him shortly before going to bed. He’s always posting funny memes and roasting the local newspaper or sports coaches. He was just here, I wanted to say.

He was so funny and smart in such a quintessentially Southern way. He always had these long, meandering, hilarious stories with amazing punchlines. He was so happy to sit and visit and laugh for hours. He was always so happy to be in the presence of family. He was game for anything, and just radiated joy and happiness.

And he wrote these great Facebook birthday messages.

And have I mentioned the memes and political cartoons? They were legendary.

And no one roasted the local journalists like he did.

It’s amazing to me now how he was able to stay so connected and supported of us. He always kept up, he always reached out.

I am so sad for his family. His wife, Cathy and his daughter, Beth are surely going through an incredibly difficult time. His sister Kathryn (my mother-in-law) and his brother Stephen as well. It’s so hard to lose him right as he was completing his second Covid vaccine, and perhaps looking forward to trips and visits in the near future.

Still so sad and so shocked. To end, I want to share some photos of Mike here, if you’ll indulge me.

First, in the photo booth at my wedding in 2010, with his wife, Cathy, and daughter, Beth.

Here he is with David’s sister, Allison, at Kenneth and Amanda’s wedding, also 2010:

No photo description available.

Here he is in 2017 at Allison’s wedding.

May be an image of 2 people, including Mike Muller and people smiling
Teaching

The relationship between my kids’ joy and my own

I’m back in distance learning this week after a week on campus. It’s been a rough couple days. The depression and anxiety–vague, amorphous–have crept back in. I just feel a general despair and frustration. To combat it, I want to tell you about a moment of joy yesterday.

Starting yesterday, Matilda is beginning 2 weeks of full-day, on-campus learning. Everett is beginning half-days on campus that will be indefinite. His half-day session rotates between mornings and afternoons each week. And without buses running, this means that David or I have to transport him to and from his day care and Graded. In the middle of the day. When we also have classes and duties.

Yesterday, I picked up Matilda and then we went and got Everett, then began to walk back across campus to where we were parked. We stopped at the library and Everett loaded his arms with every single dinosaur book he laid his eyes on, then demanded we sit on the couches and read. Matilda got two more books (to add to the two she checked out during the day when her class went to the library).

Walking up a ramp from the library, I was carrying my backpack, my swim bag, my tote bag with books and teaching stuff, Everett’s backpack, and the bag of library books. My shoulders hurt and I was panting.

But the chatter of the kids next to me was like hearing birdsong after emerging from a nuclear fallout bunker. Everett was talking about singing a dinosaur song, and Matilda was telling me about lunch and snack. As I write that, it doesn’t sound that remarkable. But my eyes started to fill up. They had a normal day. They were both energized and tired. They had things to tell me that I didn’t already know about. Matilda said, “Today I learned that the Earth goes around the sun. I didn’t know that!” Amazing. I was weeping. A day at school felt like a miracle.

I knew then that for me, the risks are worth it. Sending them to school, having Everett go to day care the other half of the days, all of it is worth it. To hear them chattering away about what activities they did, their specials, whatever, it’s worth it.

I felt a joy I’d forgotten I could feel. The joy of knowing that my kids are happy. I don’t always think consciously about carrying the weight of my kids’ pain. Honestly, it’s so painful to consider, so I think that I shield myself. Instead, I get mad about distance learning and students not turning in assignments. But that moment after a day at school made it clear to me that a huge part of the anxiety and depression of this time is how hard it is for our kids. How powerless we are to help them, to soothe them, to give them hope.

With kids as young as mine, we have had to soften all of the blows of the pandemic for them. We don’t tell them about death rates and ventilator shortages. We don’t mention variants. We don’t talk about the risk that their grandparents could die. Matilda is fascinated by birth and death, and so she’s often asking just the right questions. But even when she asks, I have ways to reassure her that I won’t die, her friends won’t die, even though I know that it’s not 100% certainty. I guess I’ve decided that I’ll apologize to her in the small chance that life proves me wrong.

Man, that’s some heavy shit. There’s a weight to all of this that we don’t let ourselves consider. The weight was somewhat lighter on Monday, and it made me realize what I’ve been carrying. Today it feels like I picked it all back up again.

I’m teaching from home today, so David will bring them home, and maybe that rush of chatter and flutter of papers from the backpacks will get me through the rest of the day.

Teaching

Let’s Face It: Teaching with an Intense Desire to Quit

I remember being in my 20s and not really knowing who I was as an educator or what my value was. I dove headlong into committees, task forces, seminars, clubs or anything else I could sign up for. It wasn’t the wrong choice for me then. I was single, I didn’t have kids and I was trying to learn as much as I could. As I was trying to find my voice, and I ran myself ragged in the process.

The first two schools I left, it took me a while to realize it was the wrong fit and make the decision to go. I didn’t know if what I was feeling was normal, or if it was just growing pains. I didn’t know what the just-right fit was.

Now, here I am. I have a solid sense of my strengths, my goals, my worth as a teacher. I have made choices to be in a school I feel really strongly about. I am doing work I love and value.

And then the pandemic.

I’m not exaggerating when I say I have jobs I hate now. Online teacher? I’d rather wait tables. Homeschooling mom? I’d rather…every thing I stick at the end of this sentence is horrifying. Just know that I’d never choose this for myself.

Many times a week, sometimes many times a day, the voice in my head says, This job sucks and you shouldn’t put yourself through this anymore! Quit! Find something new! RUN AWAY!

[This is where I jump in and say that I need you to finish this post before you jump to conclusions. I am not saying I hate my real job. I’m saying I hate my pandemic job. Stick with me.]

But online teaching from my apartment with my kids next to me isn’t really my job. This is a temporary terrible job that I have to do until I can get back to my real job. But my inner sense of self worth doesn’t know that. It just knows that I deserve better than this. I do! And that better is my real job teaching in a classroom, at my school, to a room full of real-life middle schoolers.

And yes, I am very fortunate to still have a job. I know that. But knowing that rationally doesn’t change how the experience internally.

Cut to every day when I have to talk my inner voice off the quitting ledge.

We can’t quit. These kids need us. Our colleagues need us. We love the job we get to go back to (someday). We love living in Brazil. We love our brilliant colleagues. [Deep breath].

One thing I’m learning is that it’s both/and.

I BOTH want to quit AND I will keep going.

Maybe that doesn’t seem revolutionary, but how many people acknowledge the first part of that? Our culture tends to emphasize the positivity without acknowledging the real feelings. So, the feelings get silenced or swallowed. That doesn’t work; that only backfires.

So, what am I suggesting? I think we should acknowledge that we want to quit. Say it out loud. When teachers say that we hate this and want to quit but are choosing to stay, I want school leaders to know this is a statement of love and dedication. Please don’t police our tone or chastise us for not being a positive team player. (Magic phrase: this sucks, I’m sorry.)

I know that for some, to say “I both want to quit and I will keep working” sounds purely negative and unproductive. You are dragging us down; you’re disrespecting the work.

I propose that we shift our thinking. When people show up, listen when they tell you how hard it was to show. Hear them. Because they didn’t run away. Hear their pain, and celebrate their courage to stay.

This is part of a bigger strategy that relates to mindfulness. I’m learning that the first step to gaining some mastery over my thoughts and feelings is just to acknowledge that they’re happening. That sounds so obvious, but it’s hard.

“Oh, yeah, I’m starting to worry about that. I’m starting to panic.”

“Oh, look, I’m feeling some dread about work tomorrow.”

It’s amazing how naming it deflates it. The unspoken has so much power–name it and you take back some of that power. It’s a classic trope: you can’t outrun yourself. You’ll have to face yourself sooner or later.

So, let’s face it. Let’s face the dark side, because we withstood it for another day. The dark side didn’t win today.

Again, Glennon Doyle says it better than I can.

May be an image of text that says 'glennondoyle A journalist once asked me, "With the onslaught of bad news and endless needs- how do you not quit?" said: "Oh, do quit! Quitting is my favorite. Every day quit. Every single day." I wake up and care the most amount. And then- at some point put it all away and melt into my people and my couch and food and nothingness. And care not at all. forget it all. Then go to sleep and wake up and begin again. Begin and quit every day! Only way to survive. Embrace quitting as a spiritual practice, loves. G'

That’s the both/and.

Are you sticking around as a teacher even though you want to cut and run? That’s amazing. You’re incredible. You live to fight another day. I’m right next to you.

Administrators, leaders, mentors: can you have the courage to acknowledge what teachers are feeling, really listen to the struggles? Can you also hear the love and dedication implicit in their presence, in spite of it all?

Am I saying you should high five me each time you see me on campus and say, “Woo! Didn’t quit today!” Hey, I wouldn’t mind that at all.

Teaching

What teachers need: Gratitude and Acknowledgement of Challenge

I just finished my second day of parent-teacher conferences, conducted entirely through Zoom. I have one more tomorrow. At the end of the day today, I felt strangely happy. I even mentioned to David at dinner. “I’m really happy. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s that I exercised more today?”

In talking to my therapist tonight, she asked me to tell her how conferences went. They were great actually, I told her. The parents really listened and they showed a lot of gratitude and empathy. So many parents said things like…

“I know you have little kids at home, and this is so hard…”

“I can’t imagine how you do it with little kids at home and a full time job…”

“We know how hard this is, and you are juggling teaching your own kids and teaching our kids…”

I realized that this is something that has been missing from my life: Personal acknowledgement. To see and say out loud that what I’m experiencing is really, really hard. I know that they can’t really do anything to help me, but to just say it out loud, that what I’m doing is hard. And they see it. They appreciate it for the struggle that it is. There was another unspoken element there: thanks for showing up. Thanks for taking all the hard stuff and continuing to show up.

A friend sent this Tweet thread a few weeks ago:

The parents gave me something I need. They saw me. They acknowledged the challenges and made space for them. They saw me and they thanked me.

Yes, of course, I’ve heard “Thank you,” from administrators, but it generally happens in group emails and in large meetings. By contrast, in the parent conferences, it felt much more personal. The parents mentioned details of my life that they knew about, so it wasn’t just a canned line to say to every teacher.

The other really important thing that came from the conferences was parents and students saying positive things about my class and my teaching. These affirmations of my work have been something I’ve really missed in distance learning. You don’t sense a student’s joy, you don’t hear them saying, “That was so cool!” as they leave the room. You don’t see the giant smiles or the “Yes!” when they get a good score on an assignment.

But in the conferences today, I heard kids and parents say that they were excited to come to class, liked this class the most, talked with their parents about what they were learning. Parents thanked me for my enthusiasm and encouragement. I had been feeling like I wasn’t able to encourage and celebrate kids enough because I couldn’t walk around the room and give students little check ins. Yes, this isn’t ideal teaching, but parts of me are still coming through to kids.

One student said she was so proud of herself for reading 5 books during independent reading in just 3 months. Many parents thanked me for including independent reading in class each day. They are happy to see their kids rekindle (or kindle) a love of reading.

I heard from parents how much they appreciated my feedback on assignments. Now, all my feedback is online in our open gradebook, whereas before I’d write comments on a piece of paper. As a result, parents are able to see the time and detail I put into the feedback I give to students, and they thanked me for that effort and attention.

One parent said that he felt like I really knew his kid, really got what he was like and what he needed. I was so shocked by that. I always feel like online learning is so much more disconnected, that I have way less opportunities to form relationships with students. But my relationship building hasn’t been completely lost.

One parent even said she loved my voice! That had me laughing.

Okay, this isn’t magic. I think what’s so good about today is that I got real, personalized compliments on what I’m doing well. Not just like a “Thanks for doing your job,” but a thing specific to me. That’s the first part.

The second part is acknowledging how hard this is. How much this sucks. How much I’m juggling. How much I’ve lost. Just say it. And again, make it personal. Point out what is real about each person’s struggle.

Sincere, personal thank you + acknowledgement of specific struggle. That’s the formula.

I’m not a school leader, so I don’t want to make guesses about what’s going on in their hearts and minds. But those of us in the arena of daily Zoom classes and online teaching really need to have our challenges acknowledged and our efforts celebrated. There’s so much our school leaders can’t do, but this is one thing they can.

This year, our PTA gift for teacher appreciation week had two items. First, was a monogrammed blanket–a super fuzzy and soft one.

Second, we received a candle. I really love what’s printed on the candle:

This is a gift that speaks directly to my human needs, my struggles. It is my favorite gift I’ve ever received for teacher appreciation week. It just so happens it’s a chilly night here in Sao Paulo, so I think I’ll go get under that blanket right now.

Teaching

Grieving My Lost Silence

By talking to a therapist each week, I’ve started realizing how much grief I am experiencing. I’ve been lucky in my life to not have much experience with grief–the kind of grief someone feels after a death, a divorce, an illness, a lost job.

But I am grieving. On March 18, 2020, from one day to the next, I lost the life I used to live. And I am grieving.

One thing in particular I think about a lot is the loss of silent space and time. I used to have either 80 or 160 minutes of free period time each day at school. Add to that the 15 minutes in the morning and an hour after school. I had time to sit and read student work. To plan an upcoming unit. To create samples of work to show students. I lost that so suddenly.

While I may have blocks when I don’t teach in distance learning, I am doing my other jobs in that time: homeschooling and being a stay at home mom. I have to get my kids in their Zoom classes at the right time. I have to help them read the day’s activities and complete them. I have to cook, fold laundry, do dishes, clean the messes. I have to put the toddler in time out and solve the dispute over the couch blanket. I have to get snacks and wipe a nose. I have to remember to drink enough water and brush my teeth.

Here is what my week looks like:

Every member of my family has a color (I have two, one for school and one personal). Anything on the schedule is a Zoom call or meeting, not just an activity or suggested off-screen thing. Those are all things that are part of my job or my children’s classes. The people in pink, blue and green don’t wear watches and only one can read the Zoom app. The brown is David because he and I juggle who teaches from the living room while also parenting and who teaches in the back room.

By comparison, if I was on campus, my schedule would look like this, if you ignore Wednesday. Wednesday would look like the other days.

That first calendar feels like it looks. From one day to the next in March, I lost all opportunity to sit and work without interruption. Overnight I got 2 more jobs. And the expectation is still that I deliver quality instruction and quality feedback to students every day. When and where will that work take place? That’s not rhetorical. It’s a real question. My children go to bed at 8:30 pm and it is the first time I am able to work. After a day like you see on that calendar, what is left at 8:30 pm?

Let’s talk about Maslow again.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs | Simply Psychology
Source

I live in red and orange all day, every day. Yellow is an aspiration. Yellow is reserved for small moments on Saturdays and Sundays. Green is nearly impossible when my teaching is done on screen.

I am grieving. I know this because I am angry and depressed. I cycle through those two over and over each day. I had a good life. A curated life. One with balance and separation of work and home life. I no longer have that. That was taken from me, even if I know it was for a good reason. It was still taken and I am grieving its loss.

Just know that if you ask me for yellow, green or blue, I am going to feel a wash of new anger and sadness. Because I remember what I had. It feels like mockery.

If you want to help teachers, give us the gift of silent time. If you can’t give us silence, give us time. Time when you don’t tell us where to be or what to do. Time where we can decide for ourselves how best to get through this day. That is the help we need. You can’t come baby sit my kids. So, take my advisory one day. Be a guest teacher in my class. Run a check in on Wednesday with a student who is missing work. Release me early from a meeting.