The Pandemic Made Me Lose Sight of the Person I Want to Be
I received an announcement last year, on this exact Friday, that school would be out for two weeks due to the coronavirus. I heard about the coronavirus on the news, but it seemed so distant for about two months. It was something that happened in China, in Italy. That week, however, felt ominous. We just had our first COVID case in Maryland a week before. My students shared memes and jokes about the coronavirus, one of a person sneezing at a bus stop and everyone else moving away, with one person spraying Lysol.
When I got the announcement we would be out of school for two weeks, I was honestly relieved. I was rounding out the last three months of my first year teaching, and I was just exhausted. Never had I felt so little control, so incompetent, as after November, my classroom quickly turned into a dumpster fire once my kids sized me up and realized I was too nice and would let them get away with too much.
I couldn’t manage my middle school self-contained classroom. Every day, I didn’t want to go into work. Every day, I tried to do better, only to fail more. I was a terrible teacher. I was tired of being called names, tired of feeling absolutely helpless, begging for June to come as soon as it could. My school was undergoing the closure process, so to some degree, my co-workers, students and I just couldn’t wait for a fresh start where every day didn’t feel so demoralizing and defeating.
My co-workers and I showed up to prepare for the closure. We received word school was out for two weeks on that Thursday, but we still had to show up to work on Friday to make work packets for students. My middle school team and I made one universal work packet for the middle school kids that encompassed all the content areas — health, ELA, math, science, and foreign language. It was easily an over 10 page packet, and in retrospect, I don’t know how we thought many kids were able to complete it. I don’t remember a single one of my students finishing it.
At the staff meeting, reactions were apprehension at the approach of the pandemic. But there was also some relief. My boss said the break would be nice to us — the looks across the room showed it. People were tired. Really run-down. Everyone in education is perpetually run down, and it was nice to finally get a break, but we were expected to be more rejuvenated when we came back.
We were going to be out two weeks tops, I thought. The WHO just labeled the coronavirus a pandemic. Someone speculated we’d be out until the fall, and I thought no way. Others even speculated we’d be out longer than two weeks, but many, like myself, thought we’d be out two weeks tops. The district was preparing for virtual learning as a temporary solution to make sure students did not fall behind on their education, but for two weeks, school was just out. I recall the day before, running in the park, when a group of about 10 kids with lacrosse gear checked their phones and started cheering, ecstatic:
“We’re out of school for two weeks!”
I remember pumping my fists and cheering with them. Before we left, we had some closing remarks, but I never knew it would be the last time I saw some of my co-workers in person again. When we greeted each other, we didn’t shake hands — instead, we greeted elbows. The precaution wasn’t one of caution, but a joke.
Spring is my least favorite season of the year. My eyes are beat red the whole time from itching them. Yesterday, I sneezed over 100 times. My allergies are awful, but at least they’re better than they were when I was in Atlanta, where pollen coated whole sidewalks and cars. I can’t count how many times people have asked me “Ryan, are you high?” in regards to how terrible my eyes look in the spring.
That day, I was trying not to cough. I was trying not to sneeze. After all, this coronavirus thing had everyone inching to go home and stockpile toilet paper (which none of the grocery stores had left of anyway). But towards the end of the day, I sneezed ferociously, and all my friends at my table stared at me weirdly and some moved away. A teacher came from another table came to me to squirt hand sanitizer into my hand, and we all shared a laugh before the year would change forever.
To say a lot has changed the past year would be a drastic understatement. While much of my life was focused around teaching and my first year, these days my job is still important, but not the epicenter of my life. God has been steady this past year, but everything else has changed — teaching turned virtual. This week, I’ve been preparing for students to return in person, which will happen as we transition to the hybrid model on Monday. I’ve received both doses of my Pfizer vaccine. I saw some of my students for the first time at our orientation the other day (the ones who never turn their cameras on Zoom).
But other parts of life came drastically to the forefront as well. My girlfriend and I spent a lot of time together as we quarantined, leading us growing closer together. In the early parts of the pandemic, not everyone wore masks — the guidance was to socially distance and keep six feet. In April, the CDC started to recommend wearing face coverings in public. Soon, masks started to become mandatory everywhere.
I essentially stopped running. With everything else going on in the world, it just didn’t seem that important. I started writing — a lot. For a while, I tried to follow the “publish an article every day” and “write every day” trends, and then I gave up on that pressure on myself. However, that just led me to write more, and I realized the joy of writing was in the process itself, not in all the external validation of trying to “make it” as a writer.
The spring would trudge on slowly. The days essentially blurred together. I often forgot what day of the week it was, but I spent almost all my time at home. School districts across the country announced they would have in person schools closed all spring, and they were going virtual. My district just kept pushing back the return date as we stayed virtual. Most of my assignments were done on Google Docs, and my students had a habit of submitting completely blank assignments. I noticed a lot of the work looked like it was completed on their phones, where Google Docs are especially difficult to edit.
I sat many days in virtual classes with no students in the spring. The months of March until June seem like a distant memory and years ago at this point. But I barely left either my apartment or my girlfriend’s apartment. I found a new placement for my school, and I agonized over where to go and which options to choose from.
Again, I wrote a lot. I was determined not to just stay stagnant and watch Tiger King all day, which was the buzz at the time. The summer quickly came around, and with the summer came the national reckoning with George Floyd’s death and the wave of protests all throughout June. My girlfriend and I worked at Amazon over the summer, and the summer presented a mirage of normality. I applied and got into a Master’s program. I met my new staff and co-workers over Zoom. Outdoor restaurants and bars were as crowded as I ever remembered them, but the fall’s spike in cases would quickly put an end to that mirage.
Here we are now, an exact year later.
Through the pandemic, I have been very privileged. I’ve stayed employed the whole time. I’ve been able to work from home. I’ve never had any health issues and have never been diagnosed with COVID-19. Even during my short time working at Amazon, I never tested positive despite seeing alerts of positive cases throughout our large warehouse.
But it has been a crazy, hectic year, with a virus that has taken the lives of over 530,000 Americans. As an extrovert who derives energy from seeing my friends and interacting with people, it’s been difficult for me not to see friends, strangers, and students. I distinctly remember I stopped giving to the homeless because of fears of transmission. I started to become more distrustful and apprehensive around others, believing I was simply doing my duty as a good citizen by not being in contact with people.
I have grown in the past year, but I still do wonder whether 2020–2021 has made me a worse person. I’ve grown more self-righteous in my beliefs, especially in politics. I’m definitely not as nice as I was around this time a year ago, and I rationalize not being as nice with not spreading around COVID and simply surviving better as a teacher. Like a lot of people, I was wound up and on edge for much of the last year.
Instead of loving my neighbor and prioritizing relationships, I regret to say I’ve dived into overcommitting myself with work and tasks, putting way more on my plate than I should. To keep myself from agonizing about this pandemic, I’ve sought to keep myself busy by whatever means necessary. I can barely sit through a movie anymore without pulling out my phone or computer. The last year, I’ve lived working myself like a horse, tunnel-focused on bettering myself as a teacher, writer, student, and athlete to the point where I may have lost sight of the most important things in life: relationships, kindness, empathy and compassion. A deadline cannot and will not ever be more important than actual people.
Now, I want to slow back down and prioritize the right things again.
I’m tired of this pandemic. I know despite both my shots, things are not back to normal. But I want to go back to shaking hands with strangers, not wondering where a homeless person has been when I give these days. I want to see my friends and family more often. I want to help my students who are struggling the most with virtual learning right now.
Those two weeks I thought we would be out of in-person school have stretched into a year. It seems like it may even stretch into the fall as schools maintain a hybrid model. I feel significantly more seasoned as a teacher, which I am, but there is still a lot to grow.
This new normal is here to stay. The pandemic made me lose sight of the person I want to be. I don’t know what the future holds, but life will go on, and going forward, I pray I can model God’s love a bit better than I have this past year.