I turned on my lights. I powered up my computer. I made coffee. Then I sprayed down the door knobs, the light switch, and wiped off all my tables.
Downstairs in the English hallway, students were singing, laughing, typical shenanigans.
It felt like a normal Friday.
My students trickled into Room 303. They were quiet. Shayda told me her knee was flaring up. She’s a ballet dancer. “But it doesn’t matter right now anyway. Our show’s cancelled. Dance SCAPA’s cancelled. Everything’s cancelled.”
Erica, who was sent home yesterday by the nurse with a fever, bounded in, looking fit as a fiddle. “It was just seasonal allergies, guys! I’m not going to die.”
Soon the bell rang. The PA system squeaked on, and our PE teacher Mrs. Howard led our school in its Mindful Minute, a contemplative practice we’ve been doing every morning since August.
“Breathe in. Calm,” she said. “Breathe out. Relax.” I planted my feet on the floor, put my hands on my knees, and closed my eyes.
It had been exactly one week since the first coronavirus patient had been confirmed in Kentucky: a 27-year-old WalMart employee from a small rural town about 30 miles from Lexington, where I teach. It was a week of will-we-or-won’t-we. A week of rumors. A week of jangly energy in the cafeteria. A week of “Have you heard anything?” when teachers congregated in the halls.
Just yesterday as I drove home through downtown Lexington past Rupp Arena, it had been announced that our girls state basketball tournament, which had already started, would be suspended indefinitely. People were standing in clusters on the sidewalks, looking dazed. Girls were hugging and crying as they boarded their busses to go back to their hometowns.
Last night, we finally got an email from our superintendent: we would be out of school for three weeks. Friday would be the last day we’d be together for a while. Districts all over the state were making similar decisions about how to best serve their students, how to deliver instruction, how to keep kids engaged, safe, and fed.
I opened my eyes. A lot of my students had not come to school, but those who did were ready to go. We spent the first 20 minutes or so discussing how surreal everything felt. I tried to answer questions as best I could, making sure they knew that everything I was saying right then might change by tomorrow.
My students are smart consumers of current events. They are politically and culturally engaged. Nobody was panicking. Nobody was crying. But I knew they were shaken a bit. It felt like the last day of camp had arrived, and we weren’t ready for it.
“Let’s do some poetry,” Evelyn said.
“That’s the spirit.”
We started off with storyboarding Matthew Zapruder’s poem, “Birds of Texas.” Then we read a bit from Gregory Orr’s essay, “The Four Temperaments,” on the story, structure, music, and imagination of poetry. Then I opened the podium up for an anything-goes-poetry reading.
Everyone in the room shared. They read poems about grandparents and eyes and lust and death and sardines. My colleague Mr. McCurry popped in and read a poem from his first book of poetry, which was launched today, Open Burning.
We snapped and read and clapped. We made jokes about the apocalypse.
“I won’t see you guys again until April 6. Let’s take a selfie!” I said.
“Coronavirus!” we all yelled.
“I’m already missing you guys,” Erica said.
The bell rang and it was time for them to leave. We bumped elbows, and I promised to see them on Google classroom Monday morning.
I don’t know what the next few weeks are going to look like. I don’t know how we’ll make up the lost time. I don’t know how to plan for any of this.
“This is us against the coronavirus,” our governor has reminded Kentuckians this week in his twice-daily press conferences. “We will get through this, and we will do it together.”
But my kids and I were all going our separate ways, to hunker down against the looming pandemic. We had been doing our innocent, every-day school stuff that we love – and suddenly we are not. Maybe it’s just a brief interruption. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe a mystery of COVID-19 is that it’s not clear whether it’s causing us to pull together or pull apart. This is somewhere we’ve never been before.
If teaching has taught me anything, it has taught me the power of community. And even though Americans may pride ourselves on our independence, our rugged individualism, community is the thing that will serve us well in this moment. When we sacrifice, when we love each other, when we give grace, and when we do it together, we can thrive.
And let’s not forget about poetry – and art and dance and song and theatre. Poetry takes on new meaning as well, as we walk out into this strange territory. Poetry becomes how we stay connected. It becomes life.
“Be well. Take care of each other,” I yelled after them.
When I left school later that afternoon, the sun was shining. Yellow jonquils and purple crocuses were everywhere. Spring had sprung, and it seemed like a normal Friday afternoon.
Except it wasn’t.