A world unraveling in smoke and death — and how one teacher and her students dealt with it
It seems appropriate that the 2020-2021 school year in Portland, Oregon, began amid toxic smoke from the catastrophic wildfires that blanketed many parts of the state for almost two weeks. The night before the first day of school, the smoke alarm in my bedroom went off. Looking back, I see it as a clarion call, a shrieking, beeping warning of all the threats, real and existential, we'd face in the year to come.
On that first day of what would be that fall's online version of school, I was still reeling from the loss of one of my dear friends. As wildfires approached her remote Sonoma County, California, home, she chose to end her life. She'd spent the initial months of the pandemic isolated from friends and loved ones, her serene mountain retreat no longer offering solace. She left no note, only a tidied kitchen and, according to those who'd attended a virtual yoga class with her on the last day of her life, a peaceful smile. She was my friend and I loved her.
Marooned inside our house, all the windows and doors tightly sealed, I stared into the grid of black boxes on Zoom that now represented the students in my high-school visual arts classes. I wondered how I'd find the strength to carry us all through the year.
As I greeted them, the air inside my home was stale, smoky, and distinctly claustrophobic. It was becoming harder to breathe. I struggled to find words of uplift. What do you say when the world is burning up all around you?
Unable to find solutions to the larger and more menacing threats outside my door, I shifted my focus to managing the chaos inside. My first and most pressing concern was what to do with my nine-year-old daughter during the school day. My husband, who works outside our home as a studio artist, was under contract for a job that would last much of the year, ensuring us needed income at a time when so many had none. However, it also left us in a new type of childcare bind.
Last spring, a few friends, also teachers, realized that it was going to be next to impossible to juggle parenting and homeschooling, while simultaneously running our own classrooms. In the spirit of self-preservation and of maintaining a shred of sanity, we decided that three days a week we'd set the kids up, masked — and with blankets and heaters once it got cold — on our porches or in open garages. We decided that, at the very least, left largely to themselves they'd develop skills of resiliency and independence, and learn to navigate their fourth-grade year together.
We put our trust in our kids and gave up control. In truth, we had little choice. We all felt lucky and incredibly privileged even to have such an option. No matter how imperfect, at least it was a plan. Our kids were old enough to make our ad-hoc solution work and they seemed desperate enough to socialize in the midst of a pandemic that they were willing to tough out Portland's cold and rainy fall and winter outdoors together.
And so, until they resumed in-person learning in April 2021, our kids spent a majority of the school week together outside. When it was our day to host such a gathering, my husband set up the heaters, made sure the kids could log on, and left for work. For the rest of the school day, I would rush out to check on them between my classes, delivering food, warm tea, and more blankets if needed. I couldn't, of course, monitor their classroom attendance or help them with their work, but at least I knew that they were together, and could rely on one another. I'd then retreat back to the little room that I'd converted from an art studio to an office/classroom in order to teach my own students.
Going It Alone
The energy, problem solving, and logistics involved in creating a "solution" to our individual childcare problems in the midst of a pandemic will undoubtedly be familiar to many parents. The disastrous spread of Covid-19 forced families to repeatedly engineer solutions to seemingly impossible, ever-evolving problems. It stretched families, especially women, to our breaking points.
It's no wonder, then, that the push to restore the only support most of us rely on for free, consistent, and dependable childcare and resources — the public school — remains one of the most urgent and divisive issues of this period. However, the toxic dialogue that developed around in-person versus online learning created a false dichotomy and unnecessary rancor between parents and teachers. The idea that somehow there was a conflict between what teachers (like me, often parents, too) and non-teaching parents desired functionally obfuscated the true situation we all faced. Parents didn't want their children to suffer and they needed the resources and childcare support schools provide. Teachers wanted a safe school environment for our students and us — and not one more person to die, ourselves included.
If nothing else, the pandemic served as a stark reminder of at least two things: that the nuclear family is not enough and that schools can't be its sole safety net. The ethos of toxic individualism that permeates this society can't sustain families in such crises (or even, often enough, out of them). It's a shoddy stand-in for a more communal and federally subsidized version of such support.
Since March 2020, we've suffered as our children suffered because we've had to do so much without significant help. And yet teachers like me endured our jobs through those terrible months at enormous personal cost, even as we were repeatedly punished on the national stage for doing so. We were called selfish, accused of being lazy, and told to toughen up and shut up, even as the most unfortunate among us lost their lives. What's been missing in this conversation is the obvious but often overlooked reality that many teachers are also parents. Almost half of all teachers have school-aged children at home and, let me just add, 76% of all public school teachers are women.
What Students Actually Learned This Year
By the time my aunt, who contracted Covid-19 in the spring of 2020, died of sudden and inexplicable heart failure in October, I was no longer able to pretend that my personal life was separate from my professional persona. Isolated from my larger family, I found myself grieving the loss of a beloved relative without the normal rituals or sort of support I would have had under other circumstances. On the morning of her death, I logged on as usual and taught each of my classes, digging deep to make it through the day. I then cooked, cleaned the house, answered emails, and negotiated my own sadness. There just wasn't the space or time to stop and grieve.
Despite waking with a heavy heart morning after morning, I would still log on and try to connect with my students. I had to ask myself: if I was feeling this exhausted, worn-down, grief-stricken, and anxious, how were they feeling? I had the benefit of financial security, experience, and years of therapy, and I was still really struggling. My students were coping with the loss of their autonomy, routines, and social worlds. Some had lost family members to the virus, a few had even contracted it themselves. Others were taking care of younger siblings or working jobs as well to support desperate families. Some were simply depressed. It was a wonder that any of them showed up at all.
I decided I would have to shift my thinking about what learning should look like in that strange pandemic season. If my students owed me nothing and their time was a gift, then I would have to approach teaching with a kindness, openness, and willingness to listen unmatched in my 20 years in the profession. I showed up because I knew that, even if students were silent and didn't turn their cameras on, most of them were actually there and were, in fact, taking in far more than they were being given credit for.
Extraordinary learning has taken place in this school year. It's just not the learning we expected. All the hand-wringing and fears of students' "falling behind," not taking in specific material in the timelines we've adopted for them, reflect the setting of goalposts that are completely arbitrary. That way of thinking is rooted in viewing certain kinds of students as eternally deficient and their struggles as individual failings rather than indications of historically inequitable systemic design and deprivation, or extraordinary circumstances like those we faced together this year.
The skills and the knowledge we promote as most valuable are tied to workforce demands — not to what should count as actual life learning or growth. When you narrow achievement to what's quantifiable, you miss so much. You fail to see just how infinitely resourceful and resilient kids can actually be. You ignore skills and learning that haven't historically been considered valuable, because it can't be quantified. We've become accustomed to looking for skills that can be neatly measured and distributed like any other commodity. We've adopted standardized benchmarks, standardized modes of assessment, standardized testing, and standardized curriculum, but the truth of the matter is that knowledge is rarely neat and tidy, or immediately measurable.
This year our children figured out how to navigate complex technologies and online platforms, and many did so, despite considerable disadvantages. They had to learn how to self-regulate, how to deal with complex time management, often under genuinely difficult circumstances at home. Older students sometimes had to sort out not just how to manage their own schooling, but that of younger siblings. Some of my students demonstrated extraordinary emotional growth. Sometimes, they would even talk with me about how the pandemic had shifted their understanding of themselves and their relationships. They learned the beauty of slowing down and the preciousness of family and friends. They have a far clearer sense now of what's most worth valuing in life as they step back into a world radically altered by Covid-19.
As it happens, much of their learning has taken place outside school walls, so they've developed a deeper understanding of the forces that shape and control their world. Students in Oregon watched climate crises unfold in the form of catastrophic wildfires in the fall and terrible ice storms in the winter. Together, we all had a real-time civics lesson in the fragility of our democracy. They watched — and a number participated in — a civil-rights uprising. They experienced their families and their communities being torn apart by political divisions, conspiracy theorizing, and a deadly virus. They suffered as the holes in what passed for America's social safety net were exposed.
And yet most of them continued to show up for school day after day, still trying. And it's a goddamn miracle that they did!
One More Layer
When it was announced that we would be returning to our school buildings in late April, I realized I had finally hit my own personal wall. My daughter, who attends school in a different district from the one where I teach, was to be in-person at school for only 2 hours and online for the remainder of the day. I, on the other hand, would be required to be in my building full-time, four days a week (with Wednesdays still remote). I had no options for outside childcare and no extended family or friends who could help me cobble together a plan.
Logistically, my husband and I were at an impasse. Personally, I was a mess. I'd lost four more loved ones and our cat had been eaten by a coyote. My husband, struggling to remain sober without the support of his recovery community, relapsed. My daughter had become increasingly anxious and fearful. When I tried to problem-solve an answer to our childcare predicament, my mind simply shut down.
For the decade since my daughter was born, I'd been trying to manage a difficult balance of working, commuting, taking care of myself, and raising her. I considered myself fortunate to have healthcare covered and an option at work for maternity leave. After all, my own mother, a kindergarten teacher, had been forced to return to her classroom a mere six weeks after giving birth to me (and she already had two kids at home to care for). Many women in America are ineligible even for unpaid Family Medical Leave. Upon returning to work after her birth and a three-month maternity leave, I had no sick days banked and had exhausted our savings. When I experienced a period of severe postpartum depression I pushed through it and never missed a day of work. I didn't feel then as if I could rest or be vulnerable or simply put the needs of my baby, or even myself, first. It took me years to recover from the physical, emotional, and financial toll of having a baby. And then the pandemic struck.
As the discourse about schools, teachers, and teachers' unions became more vitriolic and antagonism toward educators grew louder, I realized that I was experiencing yet another layer of trauma. It was as if the work I'd sacrificed so much for had not only been invisible, but I was actually being punished for it.
This time, I decided, I needed a different answer. I applied for a leave of absence and left school for the last two months of the semester in order to take care of my child and myself. I did so knowing how lucky, how privileged I was even to be able to make such a decision.
As We Emerge
It would be no exaggeration to say that I did not love my job this year, but I did it with diligence and fortitude because it was the way that I could still contribute. I developed an entirely new online curriculum and learned to teach by Zoom. I also showed up each and every day for my students, no matter what was happening to me personally. I did that because I witnessed the ways in which my daughter's teacher showed up every morning for her and how much that simple interaction with another adult buoyed her, how much it kept her spirits high despite the mounting mental-health challenges she faced.
My situation is neither unique nor extraordinary. If anything, I'm lucky. Nevertheless, I feel irrevocably changed by the past year. Some days, I'm flattened by grief, wrung out and hopeless. Other days I find myself daydreaming of the transformative potential of this hardship, imagining a future that better serves all our children — one that acknowledges their shared humanity, the fragility of our existence, and the tenderness required of all of us to build something better together.
Copyright 2021 Belle Chesler
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.
Belle Chesler, a TomDispatch regular, is a visual arts teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.
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