Monthly Archives: June 2020

Journal of the Plague Year: #20

As a high school English teacher, I believe that on Friday, June 12, 2020, I experienced the strangest last day of school in the history of last school days. I mean, on the surface, it was somewhat unremarkable. I got out of bed at 8:30 a.m., took a shower, didn’t shave, moseyed on downstairs in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, took my meds with a glass of orange juice, boiled some water for tea, and made myself a cheesey egg sandwich. By about 9:30 I was ready to read a bit of news, mostly bad, check the Facebook, and open up my work email. I checked in with my intern to see when she might be ready to input her grades, and she said 3:00 pm. I had some time to kill, during which I walked the dogs, did some writing, some household chores, listened to some music, and I made a goodbye video for a colleague who is leaving. My intern wasn’t actually ready until about 4:30, and it took us about a half an hour to finish that task. After 5:00 I started but did not finish the check out process in a google form, you know: what’s your summer contact info, are you holding on to your keys and your computer, is anything broken inside your “classroom,” have you turned in all of your shit, grades, fee reports, your professional development log, and a pdf of your semester grade book? And then I filled out Incomplete forms for the five (yes, only five) kids who hadn’t done any work before schools closed or afterwards.

I administered no finals. I looked at no student work. I didn’t even enter the schoolhouse. I saw or spoke to zero students. There were zero cheers of excitement from teenagers as the bell closed out their last final exam. There were no bells. No students were visibly stressing about their grades. I gave no grades. I said zero goodbyes. I gave beloved colleagues zero hugs. I attended zero end of the year staff parties. My final year-end conference with my supervising administrator didn’t happen. I submitted no student growth goal data. I didn’t clean up my classroom. I didn’t pack up my stuff. Almost nothing happened that would normally happen on a typical last day of the school year.

And today, Monday, in turn, was the strangest teacher work day at the end of the year in the history of end of the year teacher work days. We held a virtual staff meeting at 9:00 am, the purpose of which was primarily to say goodbye to four members of the staff who were leaving this year. So folks took turns saying nice things about them and it was lovely and moving, despite the sterility of the Google equivalent of Zoom. We couldn’t hug anyone or shake anybody’s hands, but in every case the sincerity of good feeling was palpable in the words of every individual who spoke about their beloved colleagues. After we said goodbye to our friends, distantly, our principal somewhat unceremoniously concluded the meeting, hanging around for a bit to answer any lingering checkout questions. I had a handful of things to do before I could officially wrap up the school year, you know: submit my summer contact info, let the head secretary know if I am holding on to my keys and my computer, if anything is broken inside my “classroom,” and whether or not I had turned in all of my shit, grades, fee reports, my professional development log, and a pdf of my semester grade book. Check, check, check.

I did not run around the building like a headless chicken. I did not spend most of my last days talking to good people that I wouldn’t see for two and a half months. I didn’t work my way through the last pile of final exams. I wasn’t the last one out of the door. I never even had to go through a door–at least, not that one, that big iron double door at the end of the hall by the parking lot. I didn’t stand there for a few minutes after those doors shut behind me wondering if I had forgotten anything. I did not, once I remembered that I had indeed forgotten something, have to put my stuff in the car and walk all the way around to the front of the building, walking all the way through the school again to pick up what I had forgotten, a thing, it goes without saying, that was likely not very important to begin with. One more time through the school–that’s probably what it was really about (but not this year), because really, as much as I love summer break, I love my schoolhouse, and truly, during the summer months, I miss it. I hope to return in September.

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Journal of the Plague Year: #19

The United States is dealing with two plagues simultaneously: the plague of the coronavirus pandemic and the plague of racism. It’s pretty clear to most white folks how they can protect themselves against COVID-19: social distance, wash your damn hands, don’t touch your face, wear a mask, stay home if you’re feeling sick, get tested if you have symptoms, quarantine. It’s less clear to white folks how best to help solve the plague of racism. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that it is, in fact, in our ballpark; it is our responsibility–our solemn responsibility. We broke it. We must fix it. But how? For so long, even liberal, well intentioned white people have been oblivious to systemic racism, convinced somehow that we lived in a post-racial society, or, so insulated that they never understood the depth of the problem, or, unaware of their own deep-seated racism. Some others are way out front, learning about anti-racism, becoming the best allies they can become; some of these folks have been at this for decades. And then there are those who are blatantly, unapologetically racist, and are that way because . . . Christ, who knows why. It’s difficult not to make broad generalized strokes–they are southerners, they are rednecks, they are right-wingnuts, they are nazis, they are republicans, they are ignorant, they are afraid. That pretty much covers the stereotype spectrum. And the stark political and cultural division in this country makes it very difficult to simply “bring up to speed” our recalcitrant brethren. They vilify those on the left as libtards and communists and heathen. And they hate the people who are characterized this way in the same way progressives hate the injustices and violence perpetrated against black Americans and other Americans of color. People are entrenched. So we seem to be at an impasse. Or are we?

For the first time during the corona virus shelter-in-place order from March 13, I found myself inside of a crowd. On Tuesday night I attended the Black Lives Matter Milwaukie Sit-In for Solidarity on the waterfront. There were hundreds of people there, spacing themselves from each other as well as they could on the grounds of the park, almost all wearing masks. And despite being, perhaps, the most racially diverse group of people to ever congregate in Milwaukie, most of the people there were white folks. But all of the speakers were black. And that is exactly how it should be.

Part of how we get beyond this impasse, first of all, for those of us who are sympathetic to the idea of justice and equality, is to listen. And even for those of us who consider ourselves allies, that listening can be painful, like it was to hear one of the speakers, a 2020 graduate, a former student of mine, talk about the difficulties she faced in the school where I teach. But this listening has to be done. So I’m listening. And it appears many of my Milwaukie neighbors are also listening. And we’re fired up. I don’t think that I have ever seen a gathering like the one I saw Tuesday, for any political issue, on Milwaukie’s waterfront or in its streets. I could be mistaken there, but it seems to me that my little town is waking up from a long slumber and I’m doing my best to wake up with it. It’s a step in the right direction–a step in the left direction.

Continuing with the tradition of ending with a poem, my choice today is “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes. One of the pieces of advice for white people on a flier that was circulating at the rally was to read black authors, black poets, black journalists. I know the power of reading to be the best way to exercise one’s empathy muscles, and personally, I know that until I started reading black authors, late, when I was almost as old as the speaker in this Hughes poem, 22, I was oblivious. With each piece I read by a Hughes, a McKay, a Hurston, a Walker, a Morrison, an Ellison, I became less and less oblivious. As an English teacher, I am biased toward literature, but I do believe with all of my heart that it is a correct bias, that literature is part of the cure, a significant one at that.

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #18

It’s been almost two full months since my last entry in A Journal of the Plague Year, although, as part of National Poetry Writing Month I wrote 30 poems, many of which were, by their nature and subject matter, a continuation of the journal in another form. During the month of May I took a little bit of a hiatus, posting to the blog just a couple of times, both times, not about living through a pandemic, but about music, one of the key components of my survival during this, and other, difficult times in life. My last post was on May 11th, and on May 25th George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis. Since then, words are difficult things to manage, and rather than writing, I have been reading and listening to the words of others, the words of people who are far better prepared or who can articulate the tragedy of our time more effectively than I ever could.

But today there is much to say, and I resume A Journal of the Plague Year in prose. There are things I would like to share, like the fact that I got a haircut this week, or that I’ve had a meal in a restaurant for the first time in almost three months, or that I’ve mowed the lawn a bunch of times now with my new Electric Mower, but all of this feels absolutely stupid and inconsequential. I mean, even if I had the most adorable puppy or kitten video ever known to humankind, I’d feel stupid about posting it now.

Even my recent facebook series of posting my most influential records from the turn of the 21st century onward, seems insignificant, superfluous, slight, insensitive. Except that: I am discovering that the music of the 21st century that has been most influential to me was often made by artists of color and by women. And that seems significant. As a child, and in my formative years, I listened to and enjoyed black music I heard on the radio, had tremendous respect for the black musicians who backed up Zappa’s band, and as a teenager and in my 20’s there were a handful of women who completely rocked my world, but it probably wasn’t until the 90’s, when I heard Fishbone and Rage Against the Machine for the first time and was exposed to the fierceness of Tori Amos, P.J. Harvey, and Liz Phair, that my record collection and musical proclivities began to diversify. My list of influential 21st century artists includes Brittany Howard, Janelle Monae, Anderson Paak, Childish Gambino, Mitski Miyawaki, Thao Nguyen, Neko Case, and Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent. All of these artists are making music, I think, that I find challenging, beautiful, content-rich, music that expands the head and the heart, music that has taught me, I think, a lot about the world from perspectives that are radically different from my own. I am listening.

Watching the news of the protests, this incredible convulsion in our country, my emotions have been all over the map. I am outraged. I am disgusted. I am worried. I am terrified. I am inspired. I am hopeful. Yesterday, I was reading about the action in Washington D.C., that on the 9th day of protests, the largest crowd had assembled and the police had essentially disappeared. Something is shifting and I felt a tremendous surge of hope and tears welled up in my eyes. I believe this nation is at a crossroads and a turning point. Politically speaking, it has been the most devastating three and a half years of my life time, and it culminates with this pandemic, 100,000 American deaths and counting, and the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, the catalysts perhaps for what looks like might be a long overdue reckoning in this country with systemic racism and the overt oppression of people of color. We cannot go back. There is only forward. I am learning how to be an anti-racist. I am trying to find the best way to be an ally. It is perhaps, one more good reason not to retire from teaching.

In other Plague Year News: we are moving into the last week of the school year, and the 8th or 9th week of distance teaching and learning. It has been the most paradoxical of times. My seniors gone, having been cut loose almost immediately after the closure on March 13, and the gift of having an exceptionally capable and caring student teacher taking over my sophomores, I have had some time on my hands, the understatement of the year. I have counseled my intern to the best of my ability, I have participated in staff meetings and department meetings and professional learning communities, I have recorded a whole slew of poetry for the pandemic, I have immersed myself again in Neruda, I have helped advise the roll-out of a district on-line literary magazine, I have read some, and I have written a lot: 18 Journals of the Plague Year, 30 poems, a couple of music blogs, and I’ve been working somewhat in earnest on the draft of a new book, a memoir in micro chapters about religion and the lack thereof. I realize that I have been exceedingly lucky in all of this. Dickens said it best in the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities. I don’t even have to quote it.

I wish you all health and safety. As has been customary at the conclusion of each journal in this series, I would like to leave you with a poem, one that seems appropriate for the moment, as much so now as when it was published in 1921. “America,” by Claude McKay.

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