Growing Up in Santa Cruz, February 2022, Teacher’s Desk, “The World is Knocking” by Lisa Catterall.
He who has a why to live can bear almost any how. – Friedrich Nietzsche
This week I had the pleasure of teaching in a true N95 mask for the first time. Due to the current escapades of our favorite evil little spike protein, my school thoughtfully gave the teachers each a precious, high-grade mask. I feel cared for and protected, and I also feel as if an anvil is smashing my face all day long.
The mask muffles my voice. Many years ago, I got laryngitis but wasn’t ill, and I came to school and taught in silence. It worked oddly well; I can do a lot with body language, writing on the board, pointing at handouts, and video. I think the students were entertained and learned a lot. But using your voice, projecting over the new Hepa filters and the noise that flows through the windows and doors that are flung open for ventilation, and having no one able to hear it, is sort of a miserable experience.
My respect for our healthcare workers was already sky high, but now it’s in outer space. These masks are not only uncomfortable, they are isolating. Of course, it is better to have one than not to. The mask stems my worries about taking potentially deadly germs home to my preschool daughters who are too young for the vaccine. My neurons, and my face muscles, hurt.
Yes, neurons. A human sees 300 points of recognition in the face of another human (we see 10-fold fewer in other objects as we take them in). Being hyper-sensitive to other people was part of our evolutionary niche as we developed as a species; we are wired to be social animals. My primate brain craves a full view of the faces of my colleagues. We have new teachers, staff and students this year, and in January, I still have no real idea of what they look like. And I can’t get anyone’s attention using volume, a key skill, because young students are talkative. I’m heading to our theater department this afternoon to see if they will give me a stage microphone to use when I’m teaching.
So, have we hit bottom yet? Maybe. Maybe not. I could see a combination of all the inconveniences of the entire pandemic running into each other as the most horrible moment of COVID-tainted teaching ever. It looks like this: the scene plays out at the end of a six-hour day of teaching exclusively outdoors in cold weather. My fingers and toes are frozen, I’m moving slowly, and my jaw also aches from habitually pushing against the N95 mask to get it off my eye sockets when I look down at a student’s work. Half of the students have again become white Arial-font text names in squares of black pixels on a laptop screen, pointed hopefully at the classroom area, but no one can get their microphone to work and the meeting has somehow crashed. The new, online Learning Management System pops up a cheerful message that all new work for today has suddenly been lost. I excuse the students to find 14 separate emails about positive cases at the school, each of which involves days of quarantine and myriad new procedures.
Is this the bottom?
It’s a beautiful day. We are in our classrooms again, wearing comfortable masks, and no one is quarantining. We go for a walk and we are allowed to take our masks off. Everything is perfect and lovely. I excuse the students to find one email. Someone close to our community has died of COVID.
Sigh. Both of these scenarios are hypothetical, thank goodness. But I needed the perspective. Yes, all of the testing, the new rules and recommendations that seem to come out daily, the uncomfortable steps we take daily to keep everyone safe are all inconvenient. But there is a worse day that is much more likely to happen if we don’t deal with all of these precautions.
I can’t imagine a teacher or a healthcare worker who has not, at least for one small moment of the pandemic, asked themselves why they go on doing the work. Of course, it is a calling, but do we ever wonder if we just might be called away or called elsewhere? I am lucky to get a moment, each and every day, without fail, that shows me the value of what I do for work.
My son is 18, and he has been at my preschool through grade 12 school since he was three. This year, he has a little sister here who is three. She rides the big yellow school bus up from the preschool area of campus to the high school every day to find us. As the littlest, she sits behind the bus driver and is the first off the bus. My son delights in running over from his last class to meet her. He swings her up high into the air, gives her an enormous hug and happily walks her through the long winter sunlight across the meadow to his car. I realized with surprise that he is not the only senior who does this. His best friend from when he was three is also a senior here, and she has a little brother who is three and rides the bus. I get to watch the two teenagers, at the end of a sometimes stressful or dramatic day (hey…they’re teenagers), get a lilt in their step as they skip across the meadow with their fresh-faced tiny siblings.
It’s a beautiful circle, seeing these preschool friends become adults, and become mentors to their little sister and brother. This tiny family reunion reminds me every single day of the privilege I have, whether I’m shouting through a mask or not, of nurturing kids through this time in life where so much is forming and solidifying for them. The span of years during which children unfold like blooming lotuses walks in step before me, the buds and the beautiful full blossoms. They walk confidently, because a school community that cares enough to protect them and stay with them has gathered around them and held them for as long as they can remember. I wish every child in our country could experience the stability, continuity, and love that students in a preschool through grade 12 school are surrounded by. The gratitude I have for it makes my mask feel lighter and my voice feel stronger. We will get through this, and so will our children.
Lisa Catterall teaches STEAM, math, science, and art at Mount Madonna School and is a senior associate of the Centers for Research on Creativity. She lectures and trains teachers and administrators on innovation in education in Beijing, China. Lisa has five children and lives in Santa Cruz County.
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Nestled among the redwoods on 375 acres, Mount Madonna School (MMS) is a diverse learning community dedicated to creative, intellectual, and ethical growth. MMS supports its students in becoming caring, self-aware, discerning and articulate individuals; and believe a fulfilling life includes personal accomplishments, meaningful relationships and service to society. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville. Founded in 1979.