The last time you heard from me, I explained that in my pre-retirement planning, I had decided to make Renfrew County German research my chief focus. I came to that after observing a number of retirees in action, sampling a number of activities, and evaluating my interests and my willingness to “be busy” in that anticipated state of freedom.
Since writing that, I started lining up those proverbial ducks and considering possible retirement dates. The preferred one would have been a natural break in the school year and therefore the easiest transition for my students and supervisors. Another might have been decided upon seeing my September teaching assignment or class lists. The third would have been the least desirable and least likely option – the give-them-the-finger retirement. (I don’t think I am the only person who has these thoughts occasionally.)
At the moment, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all plans for retirement — or anything else for that matter — are on hold.
Schools have been closed and the Premier of Ontario said last week that they are not reopening on April 6 as had been previously hoped. (I am not surprised.) So, I am at home, social-distancing, keeping in touch with my principal and colleagues, checking in daily with students and doing my best to convert my curriculum to a format that can be shared by email or an electronic platform.
Obviously, my students are anxious. All of them are in Grade 12 and therefore potential graduates.
Society — and this includes parents and schools — have placed a lot of pressure on young people to meet milestones, get accepted into specific programs, and to win scholarships. Having taught Grade 12 students for a long time, I have seen the collective stress level rise tremendously in recent years. Now they are faced with an unprecedented crisis that even the Boomers can’t fathom. We don’t know what’s coming. What will it mean to be a graduate in the 2020 cohort?
Teachers are communicating with students and sending them activities and work. It is our job, and besides following health advisories and taking social distancing seriously, it is something we can do to help others get through the pandemic. The contact, the routine, and the intellectual stimulation are good for our students. They are good for us too. What happens when large numbers of teachers and students get sick, we can’t foresee. All we can do is calmly proceed with what we can do today.
There are many challenges. Not all students have access to the internet at home, but school boards are working on this. It will be hard to give students with learning disabilities the support they need, but again work is being done. Some students are very busy looking after younger siblings while parents are working in essential services. There are students who want to do their part for the community, are working longer hours at grocery stores and they are very frightened. Many heads of families have no work and insufficient resources. Some students are sick, are self-quarantining or have family members who are sick.
Everyone is in the same boat. From an educational standpoint, educators and students in elementary schools, high schools, colleges and universities are all trying to navigate an unprecedented situation. Will students be able to complete their courses? Will colleges and universities process applications? Will school resume before June? None of these questions can be answered at the moment. We just have to do our best and be patient.
I could get bent out of shape over losing that planned, calm and easy journey to retirement, but there are far more serious things to consider. Every one of us is putting our lifestyles and our plans on hold. Right now, the most important thing we can do is protect the health of the most vulnerable in our community, maintain the integrity of the healthcare system and try our best to maintain our own health and the health of our loved ones. Agendas and schedules don’t matter much in the face of mortality.
My friends, Danielle and Roger, asked if I would consider writing something for The Madawaska Valley Current. They suggested something light, maybe even humorous, a distraction to help people cope with the pandemic. I am anticipating a poor grade on this assignment! Maybe I can regain that A-average on my next one.
My English students are just finishing Shakespeare’s King Lear. An interesting piece published last week in The Guardian posited the Bard may have been in lockdown when he wrote it. While we can’t be certain of that, we do know that Shakespeare was no stranger to the bubonic plague. His hometown lost a quarter of its population when he was a child; theatres were frequently closed throughout his career; and in 1606, the year King Lear was first performed, London experienced a major outbreak that was especially virulent in his neighbourhood. Despite the suffering and despair in this particularly bleak play, Shakespeare ends with hope. After experiencing rapid, drastic and tragic changes in their lives, the surviving characters, Edgar and Albany, gain greater appreciation for life and humanity and they re-order their priorities. That makes them better people and better rulers. By extension, it makes their country stronger.
Folks here are facing drastic changes too. However, all the people who shelter in this valley among the hills, wherever they are from and whenever they arrived, have experienced and survived adversity before. And they have always maintained a hopeful attitude. Things are difficult; they are not going to get better for a while; and they may even get worse. But we also know that Valley people are generous, hopeful, strong and (here I draw on a lifetime of experience) stubborn.
Sincere thanks to everyone who is taking social-distancing seriously to flatten-the-curve, and to all of the essential service workers in our community. I especially highlight those who are keeping our grocery stores and pharmacy open, stocked and safe; those who are working in our clinic, hospital, nursing and retirement homes; those who are providing home support or work for community living; and those who are maintaining our essential municipal services and public utilities. I am certainly not the first to say it: they are heroes.
Hang in there, folks!
photo Mark Woermke