I said good-bye to MacKenzie in the hallway. She had just been released from the hospital the night before, having had an emergency appendectomy. MacKenzie was a favorite of mine. I know, I know, teachers are not supposed to have favorites, but this girl had an infectious smile, and simply refused to be one of the bunch. One of the hundreds of college freshmen I encounter every day, every semester, every year. She said “here I am world” with each breath. I just loved her.
I didn’t get to say good-bye to any of my other students. The next day the university was shut down, students gone, dorms shuttered; a ghost town.
On Monday, the edict came down from the administration. I was supposed to finish out teaching this semester online, a web class. A web science class, a web lab class. For six hundred students. I was overwhelmed, paralyzed by even the idea of it. I am serious—I couldn’t wrap my head around the how of this, let alone begin to plan out the what and the when. And I don’t just teach anybody—my students are future health care professionals—they were going to be the nurses and doctors and respiratory therapists that needed to have the knowledge and skills to fight this new disease. The idea that I was one of the teachers going to send MacKenzie and her friends to the frontlines armed with how to make it was just too much. I was frozen.
Throw into the mix the thoughts that maybe this was that bad, maybe this was the Next Plague, maybe this did mean the unexpected and far–too–early end for me and for people in my age group. And how did I get to be that old anyway? I have sons to see, I have a granddaughter to play with, this cannot be the way things end for me. I have more and more been faced with my own mortality—creaky knees and grandchildren will do that to you. But then I shook myself—I was lucky. I got to make a real decision—something a lot of people don’t have a chance to do. I decided that I was going to continue to make a difference, I was going to break out of this depression—and that’s what it was, I don’t kid myself—and make sure that I was turning out the best–educated nurses I possibly could, that MY students were going to be prepared to face this disease and come through it as professionals. But first, I had to be one.
So, I gathered my resources. In this case, that means people. I tapped into as many nurses and doctors and teachers I knew. I asked for help. I think sometimes in college education we become so isolated, so really stuck in our Ivory Towers, that we forget how it was to be a new teacher. Back then, I welcomed any help, no suggestion was too mundane. I was a like a dog after a run, lapping up advice in the teachers’ lounge without any pride at all. And that’s what I had to do—let go of my pride and say, “I’m not the expert here, I need help”. Hard to do after so many years as The Expert, but here I was, a newbie again.
The lines of communication were thrown wide open. High school teacher with a lesson plan idea—I’ll take it. Youngest child knows how to WebEx and make YouTube videos and post them—come on home, I’ll do your laundry. Oldest recommends a new laptop that I can afford and purchase-here’s a lifetime of free babysitting and a loaf of homemade bread. Bestie was an ER nurse for years-tell me what my ‘kids’ need to know, because the rules have changed, and I am sending them off to battle and they have got to survive. I was shameless, and I did not care who knew it. I would steal ideas from anybody.
But most of all, I grew to rely on those kids. Not the two I gave birth to, but my other kids. I found that we were communicating—differently, better, on a more personal level. Students who I had never heard from were reaching out to me, asking questions that I knew they could answer better than me, just to touch base, to check in. I learned who had siblings at home and had to share Internet access and a computer and couldn’t meet deadlines because of that. Who had parents with COV-ID 19 and just needed someone to talk to, some reassurance. Most of all, I learned to let them in.
New territory for me, being a real person to my students. I am a very private creature, but now there was no time for that. My students had to see me, in my home, without makeup, with a hat on because there is no hairdresser! I found myself giving out my cell phone number to the girl whose dad was in the hospital—call me anytime, even if you just need to dump on someone, especially then. I called my kids at home when I saw they were not doing their work-what’s going on, yeah, we can fix that bad Internet connection because you live in the sticks, but I cannot take your three brothers on, sorry.
I never started or ended an email without asking how they were. And a funny thing happened—they started to do the same. How’s the grandbaby? Or ‘is your husband working?’ Or—my favorite— ‘no, that hat looks good on you, I wouldn’t lie’ which is always a red flag that it is, in fact, a lie. But we started to care about each other on a deeper, more human level than we had earlier. Before, to them I was a facilitator, someone who had something they needed (knowledge) to move through and get on with their lives. I was a required course, a gatekeeper, a ticket to be stamped. Now, I am a mom and wife and grandma who sews and has a craft room with a pristine white baby crib. I am a person.
I always like to think that there are no coincidences, that everything happens for a reason. Even this, this terrible time. And I like to think that I learn from experience. So, for these last few weeks to have meaning for me, I need to have discovered something. I am a changed person, a better teacher. I have come back to my roots, to the real reason I went into education in the first place. I am here to change lives. I am here to help my students, my ‘other kids,’ become the best they can be, to live their best lives. I realize now that I had lost part of that equation—the part where I am an authentic soul to these students, where I am willing to expose the very human side of myself to them and share that part of me that has a deep knowing of what it truly means to take care of someone, whether it is in a healthcare setting—where they will go—or in teaching someone, on in my home, where I live. Not just to care for them—but to take care of them. They are going to be the ones going forward who will hold their patients’ hands when it is time to go on to the next place, they may be the only ones there. I need to show them that it is very desirable to expose that soft underbelly to the world. It may get them hurt sometimes, but the risk is so worth feeling that deep human connection that we cannot get anywhere else.
I miss my MacKenzie. But now I also miss my Brian and Katelyn and Caitlyn and Kaytelyn. I know them now; more importantly, I let them know me. I hope that years from now, should they be the ones gifted to hold a hand as its soul passes over to the next place, they are able to feel that they truly communicated love and a deep caring to that person. That’s the lesson I want to make sure I share with all my students from now on, for only then will I really be a good communicator, an authentic educator, and the most genuine self I can be.
Jo Rogers teaches at a large, midwestern university. She resides in Northern Kentucky with her husband, Jon, supporting a largely uninvited, ragtag group of wildlife. She is the proud mother of Rob, Kilee, and Will, and the doting grandma to Isla. She comes from a family of educators. This is her first foray into non-scientific writing.