We’re not okay. We’re not even close.
We’re going to pretend to be okay. We’re going to smile and look on the bright side and stay positive! That’s just what we do. But inside, we are crumbling.
We are terrified. We are making appointments to see our doctors for anxiety and our lawyers for estate planning. We are school shopping for scrubs and face shields and considering leaving the careers we love. We are not okay.
We are used to remaining calm so the little ones watching us will also remain calm. We are used to taking deep breaths and smiling through impossible situations. We are used to using a soothing voice to explain why we have to stay quiet during active shooter drills just in case. We are used to removing all traces of fear or anger before responding to a student whose screaming meltdown is endangering the classroom. We are used to showing no panic when a child has fallen off the playground equipment.
We are used to being calm and in command. We must be. We know our students’ reactions will match our own. We know that the only thing that stands between their tender hearts and the traumas of the world is us. So we stay positive, we take a breath, we say, “Don’t worry, we can handle this!”
But we can’t handle this.
This is COVID-19. This is 155,000 dead Americans and counting. This is 50 times the carnage of 9–11. How could you possibly expect us to handle this?
When we were told that school would need to go online for a few weeks, we handled it. We weren’t thrilled, but we knew it had to be done. We stepped up.
When we were told that school wouldn’t be resuming, that we would end the year teaching remotely, we handled it. We weren’t excited, but we did it. We thought every day about those students who would be most anxious, who were hardest to contact, who might need some extra love. We found ways to give it. We mailed letters, we drove to students’ houses just to see their faces through the window. We dropped off books, made extra phone calls. We found a way to make the end of the school year feel special. We stepped up.
When we were told to be patient and wait for decisions about next school year to be made, we handled that, too. We weren’t happy about it, but we trusted that the decision makers would do right by us. We had stepped up time and again. We knew they would do the same.
We were wrong.
Now we are being asked to sacrifice ourselves, our families, our own children to save the “economy”. As if hundreds of thousands of people dead and dying, billions of dollars in unpaid hospital bills, millions of patients with possible lifelong complications, a traumatized and grieving workforce won’t be just as severe a drag on the economy as staying home until a vaccine is developed. As if our lives can be gambled with for some greater good. As if we don’t matter.
We don’t matter. We see that now. All the spring memes extolling our superhuman abilities are long gone. All the parents exclaiming, “teachers should be paid a million dollars,” after spending a month with their children are now silent at best. At worst, they’re calling us selfish and lazy, as if remote teaching isn’t work (despite the millions of remote employees in other fields who are not similarly vilified or threatened with the denial of wages).
So, no. We are not okay. But we also don’t have a choice. We will put on our PPE, we’ll smile so wide that our students can see it in our eyes. We’ll work up the most enthusiastic “Welcome!” that we can when those kids walk though our door.
We’ll notice their anxious faces, but we won’t be able to hug their fears away. We’ll do our best to teach from the front of the room. No more small groups, no more projects, no more story time on the rug. We’ll hold onto every last possible shred of joy as we monitor behaviors that should not have to be monitored — sharing a marker, whispering in a friend’s ear, using the bathroom. We’ll use our calm, commanding voices to tell kids, “It’s okay. We’re going to be okay.” We know they’ll be watching us, and they’ll need us to be strong and calm and reassuring. We’ll do what they need us to do.
And then some of us will get sick. Some of us will die. Some child, some teacher, some family member. You’ll probably know one.
The kids we worked so hard to reassure will mourn. We will mourn. The leaders who have abandoned us will mourn.
And we are not okay with any of it.