A Day in the Pandemic: A BLTN NextGen Writing Retreat

May 28th, 2021 | By | Category: BLTN NextGen, Spring 2021

On February 20, 2021, the Youth Advisory Board of the BLTN Next Generation Leadership held a virtual writing retreat drawing youth and educator participants from Alaska to Kenya, with many sites in between. Our goal was to capture moments and insights from the remarkable and trying life of students and teachers during the pandemic. When I told youth leaders about a series of “Day in the Life” writings teachers in the BLRTN network published in the 1990s, they gave the idea a new spin. Write from your own perspective (teacher or student), then switch, and take the perspective of another. The clips assembled below include an introduction (from me and Dixie Goswami), a prompt and sample piece from Gladdys Jiminian, a second prompt and sample piece from Faith Omosefe–you won’t want to miss these readings–and final reflections from youth advisors Lena Ashooh, Leah Sneed, and Ra Spencer.

The theme of the value of empathy during hardship is hard to miss across these writings and reflections. Readers may enjoy a small sample of the day’s free verse and free-writing–mixtures of one’s own and fictionalized others’ perspectives.

And a Teacher Speaks
 Exhausted. Every day I wake up, exhausted
 uninspired, unmotivated because
 This particular brand of isolation makes 
 an introvert like me feel like 
 I am carrying it by myself 
 
 Starbucks espresso roast from my pour-over coffee carafe 
 Silence writing in my journal 
 Perseverance reading my well-worn Bible until
 wringing wet emotions dampen 
 and  I wipe my tears with them 
 
 and prepare my heart for 13 and 14-year-old souls 
 waiting online for any courage I might have
 for Santa Fe Indian School Braves 
 and Lady Braves 
 from 19 Pueblos 
 and the nation of Navajo 
 and... so... I click the button 
 stare at tiny pictures of innocent faces 
 or iconic images of anime characters

 I Push, probe, prod...push, probe, prod
 ask. wait. ask. wait--- wait--- wait.
 ask and listen for a response, google, “Ye”
 Any emotion? Any emotion.
 
 My screen is suddenly black
 I have to reboot 
 And they are still there!
 And they waited for me to reconnect
 And even though...
 he lost both sets of grandparents to the “Damn-demic”
 And she lost an uncle 
 and three cousins 
 and she lost her mother 
 and her auntie three weeks later
 And all seven of  them  caught the virus because
 Brother worked at a prison where
 100% of inmates caught the virus

 And they waited... for the “ word nerd”
 To come back with corny jokes
 silly smiles and quiet questions
 and even when silent 
 they show up 
 and even though exhausted 
 I show up, too. 

 And a  Student Speaks
 She wants me to write about my feeling
 I don't know her
 who is this black woman
 smiling. smiling. smiling. 
 what is there to smile about?
 
 my Grandpa died.
 a tribal leader
 Wise, kind. 
 He smiled.
 He had reasons to smile.
 I write about my grandpa
 I read angry words
 About how he was stolen from me 
 by a thief named COVID
 Here! Take that you smiling black woman
 What is that?
 Tears? 
 She cries with me.
 I know her.
 She loves. 
-Maria Inez Winfield, Teacher, Santa Fe Indian School

 Is It Worth it? 
 Back at it again I guess,
 The routine, the dreaded routine
 of the living through a pandemic.
 
 I wake up to the same sound from my phone
 and the same sound from my head telling me
 “Welcome to the same day, nothing new here”
 Oh how my heart aches at the sight of my friends through a screen, that I can’t touch, that I can’t see, that I can’t feel. Not physically but spiritually.
 
 Is it worth it? Do I have to wake up everyday just to wash my face, watch my teacher’s face
 and glance at the new face of our earth. Our sleeping earth, our dying earth. I guess I have to, it’s only right don’t you think? 
 
 My 10am Class
 
Ok look, hear me out, I, I, I can’t can’t do this for any longer I’m sick of it, my brain can’t handle it, but I can’t silence it.

It’s what I wake up to it’s what I go to sleep to, it’s what I eat to and it’s what I shower to, it rings in my ear like the silence that roars in my 10 am math class.
 
My computer screen remains as the alternate universe that is a reach away but just as it is a reach away it is miles away and oh, my body can’t go through my screen, it can’t sit in my silent math, I can only listen to the silence as I have to endure that noise, I wonder what it would be like- no that’s insensitive, I can’t say that, but, no, no. I can never imagine a life without my ears.
 
I really can’t do this any longer, the noise taunts me and I can’t even do simple division for my 10am math class, one student asks, “what is that sir?”, another student tells me to mute my mic in the chat, and all the others stare in disbelief as the scream the words I never knew I could even say.
 
“Shut up you dumb dog, you’re ruining my life dumb dog, I want to see you drop dead dumb dog!”
 
 My 10am math class turned into my 10am anger management class. 
—Kanyiri, Student, Nairobi, Kenya

Okay, what is going to be the current schedule now? You mean to say that I will not have one group four times a day as planned? What’s that? You mean I get to see them now once a week? Oh, so we could at least see all students in the high school schedule once a week instead of excluding four grades? Okay. That makes sense. Can chew on that and swallow. We can make it work…so our students can at least come back to what could be called the modern gasgeq (traditional gathering place for life lessons).   

As is tradition in village schools, transient teachers and principals come and go. Each new person brings his/her culture into an alien environment with no thought or acknowledgement that life in the villages gathered stories of many lives already lived. . .way before any of us were ever born.   

A new person from Georgia (assistant principal) literally followed me this past year trying to do his job of evaluation. “M’am, I need to watch you teach. What are your objectives? Are they posted on the wall?” Talk about breathing in and out quietly as not to scream…like how modern Yupik girls are taught at Pre-maternal homes before having babies. “What? Do you have to do that this year? The young lives in my room are not even listed on my roster. I have to give assignments to students in other classrooms instead.” Breathe in and out once more. Be nice. Be polite. Remember that ignorance is real. We are all guilty of it. Sometimes too much, I’m afraid. Now, why was I surprised in the first place? School requires certain papers to be done, regardless. Tests are still given out. We still have to follow the rules of “education.” Do not be five minutes late.   

Two different cultures…both important. Yupik universe. Western universe. Seasonal cycle. Clock cycle. Yupik language. English language. American-Yupik. Yupik-American. To my students, I am the latter because I am bilingual. I can remember when my first students were fluent Yupik speakers. Back then, there was no such thing as Yupik day within the school district. My students spoke only English to me while they conversed in their own language to one another. Now I can speak Yupik to my students who do not understand much about the power of language. Just that alone can power our brain to think and behave accordingly. A huge issue. Life lesson.   

This pandemic should make us humble. We are human beings first. Most of the time, we strive to do good to those we love, but that is not all. As we witnessed on television, there are many heroes behind the scenes. So many people doing good for one another…so many angels on earth, helping strangers. With this thought, I am reminding myself to be patient with myself and the Lower Kuskowim School District as we try to find ways to help our children. May we come out of this pandemic with appreciation for days we are given. Quyana.

—Pauline Morris, Teacher, Kwethluk, Alaska


the days breeze by in an endless cycle of stress boredom and mindlessness
 i spend the time with a lot of nothing on my mind
 college? sure. hair dye? always. school? i guess. 
 life’s been a blur. 
 school isn’t school
 learning isn’t learning. 
 its almost as if this life is no longer my own
 i’ve become a robot, stuck in my schedule of
 work, school, sleep. 
 i have so much time it’s like there's no time to do anything at all. 
 i just don’t know what to do with myself any longer except manage
 manage to school, manage to color my hair, manage to get out of bed in the morning
 i’m managing myself
 i just wanna graduate already.
 -Miya Chavez, Student, Santa Fe Indian School

 A Pandemic Kind of School Day

 It’s that pandemic kind of a school day
The one with the temperature checks at the school door
The one with a robotic thermometer reading low temperature two times before a green light appears
It’s another day where we face our anxieties and fears
It’s the one where the teachers all teach in their own room, their own zoom
Their own place Shared space seemingly erased
It’s the one where a momentary touch on the copy machine, the lounge microwave, or door
turns into a spray, wipe, and sanitize chore
It’s that kind of day where even simple actions, instincts, or impulses we never gave much thought
turn into a complicated onslaught
of time-consuming tasks
but
without the extra time
without the extra people
It’s a pandemic kind of school day where I hear teachers say “pull up your mask” or “keep your mask on”
It’s one where I hear students say
“I forgot my mask”
“I need a new mask”
“my mask got wet”
“my mask is too tight”
Another set of sentences to capture our new educational plight.
It’s that kind of day where I remember that for months I haven’t seen an actual student’s smile or frown
That kind of day where non-educators mythologize and mislabel and say schools have shutdown
It’s the one where stacks of paperwork have turned into mountains
Where “do not use” signs cover the hallway water fountains
It’s the one with the “It’s time for your child to log-in on Zoom” parent texts
It’s the one where class and student quarantines unleash a domino game of new schedules and new models to learn
Elevating more burnout and concern
It’s the one where the intercom loudly speaks “This is your hand hygiene reminder” at 9, 11, and 1 on the dot
It’s the one where there was another battle to advocate on and where I fought
And it’s the kind of pandemic day where sanitizing cannot wash away or cleanse the pain and worry we feel. 
—Lauren Jewett, Teacher, New Orleans, LA

Hmm.  A day in the life in a pandemic.  Sitting. Sitting. Sitting.
Waiting Waiting Waiting
I’m going to go ahead and share my screen…
Why is no one answ----
Mr. Hall you’re on mute!
 
A day in the life in a pandemic.
Virtual quick recall from 8-7
“I need to report a student for academic dishonesty.”
“What’s the evidence?”
She was moving her head around too much…
WHAT THE ****
 
A day in the life in a pandemic.
Alright it’s time for your attendance question of the day
What’s your favorite beverage?
Big Red, McCallister’s sweet tea,
Guava juice, hibiscus tea, mountain dew
Just plain ol' water
 
A day in the life of in a pandemic.
A student in your class has tested positive for the virus
There is no need to quarantine at this time
On Monday march 8th you are scheduled to get your 2nd dose of the moderna vaccine
Tuesday March 9th will be an online day for all students
Due to the reports of 2nd dose side effects
 
A day in the life in a pandemic.
I’m glad you are here
The sunshine is out
And hopefully will melt this ice away
It’s time to move
 
***
 
I think my kids are just ... bummed out. It’s tough not to be with the sheer amount of screen time we’re asking of them.  Of us. It’s a different kind of tired.  Not the I got through the school day and practice and work and now its time for homework tired either.  It’s a my eyes are tired from the inside out type of tired.  And I can’t think beyond where is my pillow. 

I’m proud of them for maintaining through the incessant notifications and Zoom, Teams, Google Meets.  The 
Flipgrids and Jamboards.  Their resilience and their laughing and smiling on a computer screen that helps me laugh and smile on a computer screen at my kitchen table.  I’m grateful for their patience with my attempts to figure out this hyflex or hybrid style of teaching.  I’m honored by their grace with and frustration with technology and I try to understand their anger and boredom and fear as much as I can.  I’m thankful that they are with me and I am with them and for the opportunity to make something new and profound in an all too human way.
 
-John Hall, Teacher, Louisville, KY

A Day in the Life in the Pandemic
I love meeting new people. There's something exhilarating about going up to strangers and saying “hi” with a bright smile.
Now, we have 6 foot barriers and shields across our faces to protect us from those same strangers. I've resorted to smizing and head nods from afar. 
I love reading people's expressions and their reactions to the world around them. Now, I only get half of that story. Now, I give love through a computer screen. I miss hugs. I miss everyone’s spirits filling up a room.
How can one love through a webcam? Virtual hugs aren't as warm as real ones. I miss hearing Ceci and Lou’s laughs fill the space and enter my heart.
Now, all that fills the space is silence. I have become friends with silence.
 
Thoughts of a New Zoom Professor 
What is happening?
My student’s camera is never on.. I hope they’re safe
They seem frustrated; I am too
I just wanna hug them all
How can I open this barrier between us?
I hope they’re paying attention
How do I get this kid to mute their mic without being rude? What is sleep?
Will anyone show up to class today?
Nonononono the wi-fi CAN’T fail me right now
Will the wi-fi be stronger if I move here?
Why is everyone frozen? Am I frozen?
I need something to wake me up
My butt is numb from sitting here too long
“What? You cut off, can you repeat that?”
How do I keep 18-year-olds entertained?
I still can’t hear them
Which lesson plan am I on?
Am I doing this right?
What do you mean they’re reopening schools?
What is happening? 

—Jackie Schierembergg, Organizer, Lawrence, MA

Looking at the Pandemic through the Eyes of a Student
 
What is happening?
It feels like the teachers are just giving us work to keep us busy. 
         Do they have some kind of quotas they need to fill?
         Do they get a pay raise if they give out more assignments?
         Don’t they have to grade all these assignments?
I am so tired of hearing people say we are “falling behind.”  Behind what?  What kind of ruler are they using to measure our “growth”?
 
WE ARE IN A PANDEMIC, FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE!

***

I am learning a lot, but I don’t think this is what they mean.
 
         I am learning…
         How to check on my friends,
         How to gauge my own emotional status, what am I feeling/why,
         How to help my family stay as “normal” as possible,
         And how to maneuver through the political minefield that going to school has become. 
Do I care if my sentences end in prepositions?  Maybe not so much!  I am learning to live in a topsy turvy world, and that is enough.
 —Ceci Lewis, Professor, Sierra Vista, AZ
                                                                                                         

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