Notes from a Non-Essential Life

Our family has been in “quarantine” for approximately five weeks, leaving only for grocery pickup, and medical emergencies. Work, school, meetings, and music lessons have all been conducted online. We wash our groceries. Door knobs are cleaned regularly. I still touch my face constantly.

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When all this began, I was filled with ambition. I was going to write blog posts a couple times a week, maybe run a contest, and get reconnected with other bloggers. Our house was going to be cleaned from top to bottom. I’d get my garden seedlings ready. We’d finish our deck and teach our daughter to drive. Maybe I’d get my curse of a novel edited and revised. I’d get on a regular exercise plan, maybe knock off some extra weight.

canstockphoto11545997Instead, I play “spin-the-bad-news-wheel” rolling from one news source to another. I’m rage-reading Twitter. A good day is one in which I shower and make one family meal. These days, I think about the repetitive pacing of animals in the zoo. Early in the morning, I walk my neighborhood – nearly the same route every day, in order to avoid other humans. The days all run together to the point that I’ve taken to writing the day and date on my whiteboard.

And yet, we’re safe (a relative term). We are able to get by financially. We have access to food and water and electricity. We have solid internet. Our home is a comforting sanctuary. We are among the fortunate.

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Between my daughter’s medical emergencies and the overwhelming news outside our front door, there are days though, when I feel the undercurrent of anxiety. Some nights I wake up, thinking that I hear someone crying out. I toss and turn and the following day is a blur.

canstockphoto8969152I return to the toolbox – meditation, exercise, gardening, writing. Halfhearted attempts at best. I even tried to add a little ritual here and there. During meditation, I decided to try some old incense. Buddhists do it. They seem serene. If serene means filling your house with acrid smoke that smells like an ashtray on fire, then I’m zen itself.

New tools. A Nintendo Switch video game that we gave to our daughter for her 16th birthday. Now our entire family spends time each day building a rapacious island dynasty in Animal Crossing. There is something quite calming about traveling to a remote island, stripping it of all its resources and running away. Virtual colonialism. My family of origin is British, so perhaps there is a genetic component.

As I express my concern about the lessons the game teaches, my daughter rolls her eyes. Mom ruins everything. I don’t want to brag, but I’m good at taking perfectly benign entertainment and deconstructing in such a way that you can’t help but feel guilt. I think it really adds another layer to the game.

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I didn’t think I could do it – writing at home with other human beings in the house. For years, I regarded solitude as necessary to writing. I’m a well-trained caregiver. Any noise or movement and I’m immediately alerted to potential need. I’m being forced to unlearn this mentality. In fact, my family would damn well appreciate it if I would stop checking in with them every hour.

My study has two doors, which creates a shortcut to the kitchen. I’ve had to learn to shut both doors. We all now use door knob signs to indicate “Video Call” or “Writing: Please do not disturb”. I also need NO – I do not know if we have any parmesan left or I know you are bored, but I’m not going to entertain you. They think I am writing a lot.

canstockphoto15046720The upside to the pandemic is (and I say that, acutely aware of my privilege at the moment) that the Gotham Writers Workshop is offering some of their classes via Zoom. These are classes in NYC that I would have never been able to attend. I’m taking a fiction writing course focusing on short stories and a course to complete the first draft of a novel. It’s been an interesting experience, but more importantly, connected me with other writers and feedback on my work.

I’m feeling very writerly these days. This week, I listened to my short story be critiqued six ways to Sunday, shortly after I received two short story rejections. One of those rejections was a kind note from the publication editor. I have surprised myself by being able to handle both critique and rejection well. I don’t think I could have handled it when I was younger. You know, last year.

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To admit to any moments of joy or happiness feels wrong. I know there is suffering and grieving and injustice in the world. I know that I’m a resident and user of services in a system that supports inequality as a feature, not a bug. This was the way before the pandemic and will likely be the way after. Like most crises, we see revealed before us that the “gaps” are canyons, that imagination is desperately needed everywhere – education, government, employment, public spaces, media, and relationships.

I want to think about the world differently. I want, after all of this is over, for the world canstockphoto8183571to be different. Maturing, evolving, kinder, with a sense that we truly are all in this together. I don’t fool myself, though. I knew after the 2012 Sandy Hook murders of school children and staff when nothing changed, that my country was its own worst enemy. And here we are, forced to watch as our government, led by cynical ignorance, fumbles about with our lives.

What I want for and of this world is of no account. I am a non-essential citizen. I started this post writing about perspective. As a nonbeliever in gods, I’ve arrived at a point just past nihilism: if nothing matters, then everything can matter or, to be more precise, I get to decide what matters to me. Kindness, curiosity, and learning still matter to me. I’m not particularly adept at any of those things, but that’s the path I am trying to trod. Same as it ever was.

That Wasn’t on the Lesson Plan

You need some love?canstockphoto3020791

He said it a second time in a low, creepy whisper. The teenager was 6 feet tall, 250 pounds completely dry. He’d been whispering at me the last five minutes from the back of the room. What’s your name? Are you mad? Need some love?

I could feel the muscles in my neck and shoulders tighten and I began the scenario run down, mentally practicing blocks. Thinking about how to leverage advantage. He was wearing pants halfway down his ass which would easily be yanked to hobble him at his knees. He was too big for punches or kicks, but a downward fist or upward knee to the nuts would bring him down.

His words were meant to be intimidating and my adrenaline rose. I’ve heard these things from random boys and men my whole life. I am an ignorer and can usually count on the behavior getting much worse before it goes away.

I could hear the blood pounding in my ears. I inhaled and exhaled slowly. If it were an elementary school kid, he’d be saying he had to go to the bathroom for the 50th time or that he didn’t feel good or that his crayon broke. But this mutant boy/man is crossing a threshold and he sees every interaction with a female person (even someone likely older than his mother) to be an opportunity to sound like a rutting boar. He still just wants attention. But it makes me feel ill.

I work to calm myself down and decide not to cripple him for life and spend time in jail on an assault charge. But my brain is churning – I think of snide comments meant to humiliate and destroy. Anger. Anger. Breathe. And back to stoicism.

You need love?

He thought volume was the problem. This time the teacher heard him and sent him to the dean.

canstockphoto24048860Another boy is using his phone to take pictures of a girl in the room. She asks him to stop and he doesn’t. She raises her hand and the teacher locks up his phone.

I ask another boy to put his phone away a second time and he gets up and walks away from me in a show of defiance. He gets sent to the dean’s office.

The boys in this class talk more than the girls, often talking over each other in a bid for attention. The few students who have a genuine desire to learn, sit through this boorishness for an hour and a half.

When people talk about public schools, I find the conversation to be fairly superficial. All the talk about teachers’ unions and curriculum and complaints about taxes are simplified political talking points with no hint at solutions. And offering up for-profit Christian madrassas is unlikely to solve the complex problems of teaching and managing students with diverse learning abilities and economic backgrounds.

I’ve been volunteering in classrooms since my daughter entered the public school system. It’s a large public school system, where reduced lunches can approach 70% and where the attempt to mainstream and equalize has become an unwieldy juggernaut.

Admittedly, elementary kids bring enough charm and curiosity with them to offset most behavioral issues. Middle school kids are all over the board and a bit feral. High school kids are worrisome. They are a foreshadowing of the future.

canstockphoto1076788Both my husband and I are products of public education. I went into the Army to pay for my college degree. My husband spent summers roofing and doing part time work to pay for his. We are autodidacts in that we pursue learning on our own, so perhaps we didn’t have as much riding on the quality of education. We never assumed it would be all we needed. We don’t assume that for our daughter, either. The emphasis in our house is always on the learning and much of that doesn’t come from school.

Unfortunately for a lot of kids, school is it for them. It’s not happening at home and all the years people have been deriding teachers and public education have paid off. Those attitudes of disrespect have infiltrated families and students, and it shows up in the classrooms. Education is now characterized as some elitist hobby and no billionaire with a theological ax to grind is going to change that.

Public schools and teachers are being asked to do impossible things. Behavioral and learning issues plague nearly every classroom I’ve been in. 10% of the students take 80% of the teacher’s time and attention. It would be easy to blame this on mainstreaming, but the sorting hat of the past put a lot of kids in the wrong classrooms, where growth was limited. It’s easy to see why equalizing learning space became a thing.

While people are content to sit back and play the roulette wheel of blame (it lands on parent, teachers, unions, government and students themselves), few are able to offer anything helpful or substantive.

canstockphoto13763092Smaller classroom sizes, improved buildings and higher staffing levels are needed. Parental accountability. A culture that supports learning as a worthwhile pursuit and doesn’t like to brag about its ignorance. Curriculum that is implemented and maintained for enough time to see what actually works, instead of going with pedagogical light bulbs that seem to turn on and off on a whim.

I wrestle every year with how I feel about public education in theory, especially when it comes to my own child in practice. I understand parents who advocate for school choice, although how this helps rural kids or kids with transportation issues or poverty level children or special needs children, I don’t know. And while I understand those who home school for religious or academic or safety reasons, not every family is capable of supporting that kind of system.

canstockphoto41865678So where does it leave the rest of the kids? Because people talk about caring about the children, but what they really mean is they care about their children. Every student is the future of our country. They’re going to be the difference between my generation living out our golden years or being soylent green wafers.

I’m done at school for the week, albeit a little unsettled by my recent interactions. But I remember, too, that when I walked into class this morning I overheard a student tell the teacher, I saw Michelle in the hallway. She’s coming to class. I’m glad because she helps me.

Well, alrighty then. I guess I’ll show up next week, too.