Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Sunny and School

In January 2017, we got a fish. Actually, Annabel was gifted the fish by her best friend for her sixth birthday. Annabel named the fish "Sunny Sun Sun," although we have since called her "Sunny." We have no clue if this betta fish is even female, but that's beside the point.

For the past three years and three months, Annabel and I have taken care of that fish with love and dedication. Granted, we don't do anything fancy, but I do switch her to a clean bowl every few weeks, Annabel keeps a calendar of her daily feedings so one is never forgotten, and in those nostalgic times when we left home for vacation, we always left Sunny with trusted neighbors. We talk to Sunny, include her in family dinners, and sometimes she even makes it into the count as a member of the family. Even our morning babysitter (slash, lifesaver-angel, Kathy) has a special place in her heart for Sunny.

My students know about Sunny, too. One morning earlier this year, I was teaching my high school juniors when I saw a call from Kathy ring through to my watch. Nervously, I picked up the phone, well aware that my students were all listening.

It was Annabel, sobbing.

"Sunny is asleep?!" I gasped. "Where? Is she at the bottom of the bowl or floating at the top?" I was upset, but my students' giggles convinced me to pretend to smile.

Annabel was bawling. "She's at the bottom." Good. I assumed that fish float to the top when they die so I was hopeful. But I know nothing about fish.

Annabel, still sobbing, handed the phone to Kathy. Within seconds, Sunny was awake / back to life. Praise the Lord.

When I got off the call, my students all seized the moment to take us off-track from the lesson, so they asked me questions about the fish. They told me that when Sunny died, I would have to find a fish that looked the same and replace her. They told me a few of their amusing fish-replacement stories. I listened and laughed, then made sure that they knew I wouldn't let them out of the lesson for long. I remember feeling truly happy that morning. Sunny was alive, Annabel and Kathy were relieved, my students were comfortable, and the morning's lesson persevered through distraction.

*   *   *

I'm pretty sure I have wanted to be a teacher since the day I met my first teacher. Since my first (and best) teacher was my mom, I guess I've wanted to be a teacher since the day I became more than a cluster of cells. Maybe it's because I'm bossy, or because I can't sit still. Maybe it's because white boards and bulletin boards make me giddy. Maybe it's because I love the innocence of kids (yes, even high school kids), or because they are way more fun to hang out with than adults (especially adults who are lawyers - ha!). Maybe it's because when I read something beautiful, I want nothing more than to share it with someone else who will analyze it with me. Or maybe it's because I honestly believe that the hope for individuals and for humanity begins with great education. Whatever the reason, I will never feel a place of belonging as perfect as the classroom. 

Of course, yesterday, we learned that we will not return to our classrooms this year. I wasn't able to sleep the night before and now I wonder if the root of my anxiety was knowing this announcement was imminent. Certainly we all knew it was coming. But for some reason, the finality of the decision formed a heavy lump in my throat that still hasn't gone away. I know I'm not alone. 

I knew that school closing would hurt me and Brian (also a teacher), and I knew it was going to crush our kids, too. So, for weeks, I have made it a point to ease the idea into their minds. I was subtle at first, starting sentences with phrases like, "If we go back..." The first time they each registered that we may not return to the school buildings this year, I could see in their faces that their hearts had sunk. Those sunken hearts were (and are) painful, but they are beautiful, too. Because loving school is a sincere blessing. 

So here we are -- our kitchens, bedrooms, and basements; our Zooms, Nearpods, and Google Meets the "classrooms" for (at least) the remainder of the school year. The reality of that change had me anxious and restless this morning, both for "my kids" (my students) and for "my real kids" (the ones I birthed). 

I am certain of this -- in homes across America and, I'm sure, around the world -- teachers are fighting back the tears. The luckiest of us are grieving the end of the school year with the simultaneous guilt of knowing how fortunate we are for our health, our safety, and our (relative) job security. But please remember, we get our kids as members of our classroom families for just one school year. This year, a virus kidnapped them from us for three-and-a-half months of that year. And there's nothing we can do to get them back. 

I know, I know. I, too, love the quotes about the school buildings being closed but all of us still being teachers. Many teachers are working as hard as ever before and we are excited about the opportunities to learn new ways to teach our students. But there is magic in a classroom. There is an electricity that is lost in remote learning: a pure, exhausting, unpredictable, invigorating spirit that cannot be created in even the best of virtual lessons. 

*   *   *

When humble moms and dads I know make self-deprecating jokes about unsuccessful "home schooling," I try to remind them that we are not "home schooling;" we are "crisis schooling." Athletes training for the Olympics (and others, of course) "home school." Right now, we are just trying to get through a global crisis with as much sanity and love as possible. And maybe for a split second, I buy what I'm saying.

Crisis schooling.

But then my mind starts to race. Crisis schooling. I beat myself up for not doing enough as a teacher or as a parent. Crisis schooling. My lessons for my students have been subpar, and Teddy is back to playing video games for hours every day. Crisis schooling. Sometimes I convince myself that things are good enough in my own house, but then I'm still worrying about others. I worry about hunger, and abuse, and the traumatic stress of kids being forced to care for the sick, the young, and the old. No schooling. Just crisis. 

Part of me is jealous of the people who still think that some of us are overreacting. But I can't unsee what I have seen in the countless articles and posts I have read reporting from the front lines. And those images are terrifying from the comfort of my own home. I can't fathom what patients, their families, health care workers, and so many others are enduring right now. Because compared to them, teachers have it pretty easy. And my heart hurts. 

*   *   *

So where does that leave us with good ole, Sunny? The poor old fish can barely swim up to the surface to get her food anymore. She pretty much lives in a vertical position and it's clear that one day soon, her nose will just float to the surface and her body will follow until she's horizontal, and no longer breathing. 

Sunny Sun Sun: April 22, 2020

But here's the one tiny thought that organized my anxiety enough this morning to take me to the "New Post" button...

A few weeks ago, I heard Annabel talking to Brian about Sunny. She said: "When Sunny dies, we will have a funeral for her in the backyard but no one else can come." (The kid shares my passion for social distancing right now.) She was strong in her assertion. Confident in her decision. And accepting of this reality. I know that may sound like nothing but in that moment, the world felt just a bit lighter. 

Here's the thing. I don't know what home schooling, crisis schooling, or future schooling looks like. I didn't know what to tell a junior student who asked me yesterday on a call, "Will this virus end our senior year?" All I told him was that I did think the virus would change what he had always assumed his senior year would look like. And change is hard. 

That's it, really. Change is hard. For many people around the globe, this pandemic is not the first time that their entire world has changed almost momentarily. Cancer flipped the world upside down for me and for countless men, women, and children long before COVID-19. For others, a different physical or mental disease changed everything. For yet others, the entire world changed with the death of a parent, a sibling, a spouse, or (gulp) a child. People's worlds have changed in an instant with paralyzing falls or experiences in war. With divorce, or assault, or mistakes that cannot be fixed or forgiven. With tornadoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. With poverty that broke them. For millions of people, including myself, this pandemic is not the first time that the universe has made us question our ability to survive. 

While I still believe that hope is the most important life raft in a turbulent sea, I also get frustrated at the simplified message that "we will get through it." Many of us will, and the number of survivors increases with education, hard work, strong leadership, and cooperation. But like cancer, this virus is a beast, and some of us won't beat it, no matter how strong we are or how hard we pray. 

That's what my upside down world taught, and continues to teach me: in the end, none of us get out of here alive. I don't know the first moment when I learned that. But I do believe that whenever that moment was, it was the first moment I really started to live. 

Which leads to me to the end of this circuitous message: my nine-year-old knows that her beloved fish, Sunny Sun Sun, will die one day soon. That means that she knows that the world changes, and that the future will bring pain. She also seems to be building the confidence and the skills to face those changes and that pain. She's had awesome teachers and decent parents but I'm pretty certain that none of us created a lesson plan to teach her these life lessons. But somehow, in her old school, home school, or crisis school, she learned about compassion and resilience. And truthfully, I can't think of two more important virtues for any parent or school to teach, no matter what a classroom looks like today, or in the scary, uncertain, and promising future.