A Dispatch from the Field: Teaching During a Pandemic

On the opening day of the 2020-21 school year last month, the first student who signed into my virtual class was lying down sideways on a bed, hair uncombed, having just woken up and logged in. A few periods later, my entire class took a virtual trip to one student’s bathroom. This young person left the microphone and video on, walked through a living room and into a bathroom, got seated on the toilet and briefly looked around. We could only see the student’s face, but based on the unmistakable sound, it was clear what was happening.

It was then that I realized this year was going to be different.

“Guys,” I texted some friends, “I might not make it.”

The main drag at my school on what would ordinarily be a frenetic day — the day before school started

Mercifully, the video etiquette has improved since that first day, but there have been a host of challenges associated with being 100% virtual this year. The greatest challenge has been instructional. 

I have taught online courses since 2009 for a branch of my district called the Online Campus, so I arrogantly assumed that since I was familiar with the format, I would transition smoothly from full-time face-to-face instruction to virtual classes. However, everything feels different this year and I have found it surprisingly hard. 

One reason is that the circumstances are not the same. My 11 years of online teaching have involved a one-hour evening class each week with a group of students who have opted to take the course, using a platform that easily allowed for interaction with and among students. Now I am sitting at the computer all day with students who are taking online courses for the first time and not by choice, using a platform that has some major holes in its capabilities. 

I have gained a new appreciation for how much information I glean from visual, non-verbal cues. There is no substitute for the simple stuff like having everyone in one room, with the door closed, and being able to glance around and see who is following along. Students are not required to have their video cameras on, and even when they do, I find the multiple screens to be more of a distraction than a help.

There are a number of tools I can access to gauge whether students are “getting it” – I can ask them to type something into a chat window or use one of many other programs to ask them for feedback on their level of understanding, but the fact remains that I often feel I am teaching into a vacuum this year. It just feels like a gap that is hard to bridge. 

My current classroom

One reason for this is undoubtedly that students are distracted. Whereas a classroom setting allows at least some degree of control over cell phones and other outside stimuli, it is clear to me that many of my students are functioning in a beehive of activity. I am often taken aback by the amount of noise they operate through when they do turn on their microphones or cameras. People are walking around, they are in crowded spaces, there is music blaring, etc. I am sometimes amazed they can concentrate at all.

I have found that I have had to keep simplifying what I am asking students to do. Several articles have advised “fewer clicks,” less material, and more direct instruction, and this seems to be good advice. There are hundreds of computer programs available, but I am coming to believe that less truly seems to be more. This obviously suits my general approach to life, but it seems absolutely necessary now in my teaching.

Aside from instructional challenges, I’m deeply concerned about the impact the pandemic has and will have on many of my students. It is heartbreaking to know that Child Protective Services will receive fewer referrals because teachers are less able to see signs of abuse and neglect. And fewer students will have a reliable source of food in the meals that are provided at school.

Horace Mann called education the “great equalizer” and said it was “the balance wheel of the social machinery.” It’s not hyperbole to recognize that this stretch of time is going to serve as a period when the gap grows between the haves and the have nots. I don’t begrudge anyone who is making adjustments to their child’s education by having them participate in a “teaching pod,” where teachers and tutors are hired to supplement or replace the instruction provided by the school system; I simply worry that the others, the group I have been working with almost exclusively for the last 20 years, are going to fall even further behind. 

The simple solution would be to just bring everyone back in, and a lot has been said about opening our schools again. Like many teachers I know, I am almost desperate to go back to school. I want to get back to interacting with the kids in person, I really miss my teacher friends, I like leaving the house every day, my son and I over each other, and the list goes on. But I keep coming back to one thing: it just doesn’t seem safe to open schools fully in person.

The day before schools were shut down in March, I had three students come to class sick. One student had had a fever for two days, but was fever-free that morning so he came to school. Another student arrived at class with a blanket wrapped around her head, saying she hadn’t been feeling well for two weeks. A third student sat in class and coughed and sneezed and looked awful. That is a small sample of the judgement that will (or will not) be exercised when students return to their school buildings en masse.

My district is the 10th largest in the country, with more than 185,000 students. The footprints of most of the school buildings are just not big enough to have everyone present and adequately spread out. In most schools across the country, kids are squeezed into small spaces. I just don’t see how logistically we can have everyone back at the same time and enforce masking and social distancing.

I remember when the drinking age varied from state to state, and in New York it changed several times when I was a teenager. Ultimately, a law was passed raising the minimum age because the statistics clearly indicated that fewer people died when the drinking age was 21. Many people felt it wasn’t fair or logical, but the fact remained that a higher drinking age saved lives. 

I feel the same way about having all schools open fully. No one wants schools to be closed, but I believe bringing everyone back means more people are going to be ill, and some of those people are not going to make it. I don’t envy the administrators of any schools who have to make these decisions; they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. 

In my district, we are starting a phased reopening this week, and my school is currently expected to return full-time at the end of January. In the meantime, I believe there will be an attempt at what they are calling “concurrent instruction” – some kids attend in person, and others watch the class from home on laptops. My teenage relatives who are already learning with this model have given it a hearty thumbs down, but I have a feeling this may be the temporary solution for at least a portion of the year.

This internet meme has it right

On a lighter note, there have been some small benefits to working from home full-time. I don’t spend an hour in my car every day driving to and from school. Also, as my co-teacher pointed out the other day, discipline is not really an issue these days. The students who have showed up have been very polite and respectful on the whole. 

Meeting Face

I am also happier attending meetings from the comfort of my own home. I have developed a reputation for impatience with meetings that run long, so much so that my friend and colleague sent me this sketch several years ago that bears an uncanny resemblance to my face and attitude. However, it’s a lot easier to be patient when I am not waiting to leave the building at the end of a long day.

We are all trying to cope with a surreal set of circumstances that are unpredictable and largely out of our control. The one thing I do know is that the teachers I am working with are working extremely hard to figure out how to help students get as much as possible from this strange period of their education.

Taken from my school’s Facebook page (photo credit: Cecilia Carr)

Tiny Bubbles

The day my brother graduated from college, my sister and I got into a car accident. 

We were driving through Connecticut on Route 84 when a tractor trailer traveling in the same direction struck our car twice – once on the front end when the driver accidentally veered into our lane and again after our car spun out in front of his truck. My sister managed to hang on as we spiraled across the road and eventually pulled our car over into the left breakdown lane. We sat there screaming for a few moments after the car had stopped, then realized we were both ok and got out.

We had been driving home from the graduation in tandem with my parents, who were in front of us when the tractor trailer hit us; my mother watched the accident in her rearview mirror. She told us later that she just saw blue smoke moving across the road and kept saying “The girls! The girls!”  

Right after my sister and I got out of the car, two couples traveling together in a car behind us pulled off, got out of their car, and came running over to us, shouting “Praise Jesus! You’re alive!” 

We told them our parents were in a car in front of us and had probably pulled off to call for help. One of the men immediately got back in their car to go tell my parents we were ok. He found them calling the police from a payphone off the exit and reassured them that we were not injured.   

While we waited for our parents and the police, we learned that the couples were from West Virginia and that one of the men was a minister. They told us that when they saw our car spinning, they were all praying “Lord, please save those people!” 

We were raised Catholic, and although we attended mass every Sunday, Catholic services tend to be much less effusive than services in other denominations of Christianity, with very little quoting from the Bible or emoting about Jesus. In our experience, church involved stoically standing up, sitting down, and kneeling, followed by a polite handshake with the priest on the way out and then a dog-eat-dog competition to get out of the parking lot. (Anyone who attended Transfiguration in the 70s and 80s will remember how many of the charitable thoughts from the service evaporated during the race to get up the exit ramp.)

The version of Christianity that these two couples practiced was clearly different and frankly, somewhat uncomfortable to us at the time. And yet, the truck driver who had knocked us across three lanes of a highway never stopped, but these strangers had prayed for us, then pulled over to see how they could help, offering comfort to my sister and me and as well as our parents. Regardless of the differences in how we expressed our religious beliefs, these people could not have been kinder or more helpful at a moment when we were all terrified, and my family has obviously never forgotten them. My mother exchanged Christmas cards with them for years after the accident.

It was a perfect example of the basic good in people. When there is a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, or an accident, people tend to turn towards each other, both on the giving and receiving end.

I know that when I am scared, I look to connect with others. It’s why I am very chatty whenever I have a medical appointment. I have a terrible and irrational fear of most things medical, and I’m always hoping a connection with a nurse or doctor will calm me down. It’s also why, when I was awake with insomnia last week and learned at 2 a.m. that the president and his wife had tested positive for COVID, my first instinct was to reach out and talk to people to make sense of this jarring news. 

The world feels scary to me right now, and not just because of the pandemic. There is a lot of talk of the potential for violence with the upcoming election. The toxic racial divide continues. Hate groups are blossoming. 

There is also a level of vitriol on TV and social media that I find disturbing. There seems to be little thoughtful discussion and mostly people separated into clearly defined groups who rage at each other. 

Though I shy away from discussing politics on social media – I don’t see that it changes opinions, and I don’t care for the spewing of bile that often comes with these conversations – I’m also not sitting silently on the sidelines. I tend to stay in a closed feedback loop, watching one cable news channel and bashing politicians in conversations with like minded friends and family.

But between the state of affairs with politics and the pandemic, it’s getting to be too much. It’s been one tumultuous event after the other for a long time now. As a group, it seems increasingly obvious that we all have a need to return to some semblance of balance, calm, and community.

This is probably why a conversation between Trevor Noah and Alexandra Pelosi on The Daily Social Distancing Show resonated with me the other day.

Pelosi has just released a documentary called American Selfie: One Nation Shoots Itself, which deals in part with how Americans view each other. “The conversation has gone to such low points,” she says. “And everybody’s gone so tribal and into their own bubbles. There’s all this hate speech.”

(In fact, it’s gone so tribal that I wondered if the fact that the speaker was Nancy Pelosi’s daughter would cause some people to roll their eyes and discount what she was saying because her mother is a political lightning rod.)

Trevor Noah asked Alexandra Pelosi if she had been able to create her own filter and lens on how she saw the world, in spite of her mother’s position.

“I’ve gone out of my way in the last 30 years as a journalist and filmmaker to go into what they call ‘real America.’ And it was really important for me because I grew up in San Francisco, in sort of the liberal bubble,” she told him.

“The only way I can stay sane is by talking to people who aren’t like me, that don’t believe anything that I believe in, and just trying to give them the benefit of the doubt. I think there are more purple people out there than we’re led to believe by cable news because cable news is in the business of just making us hate each other. Social media is in the business of making us hate each other. So it’s good to go out there and meet people and try to understand where they’re coming from.”

The idea of leaving my bubble – and I own that I exist in one – and trying to understand where people are coming from makes sense to me.

I don’t know exactly how we got to this place in our country where we have split into sides who scream at each other, and there certainly isn’t a simple answer as to how and when things are going to improve. Whatever led us here, it seems to me that talking with people who hold different views from our own and trying to figure where the common ground is instead of avoiding hard conversations altogether is a start. Assuming the other side is the only one who has to examine their views is like agreeing to go to marriage counseling as long as the other person is the one who has to do all the changing. 

There seems to be a need for healing right now. Many people are worn out by the turmoil. I know that when I have been in scary situations, turning to other people, especially people who are not anything like me, has reminded me of the kindness people are capable of and helped me through moments that would otherwise have been so much harder. 

At the risk of sounding trite, lecture-y, or like I have it all figured out, I am thinking that if we could all leave our bubbles, even just a little bit, things might get a tiny bit better. It feels like we need to start somewhere if we are ever going to return to a place where there is less animosity and more connection.

The September Slide

Every September, darkness descends on me. I’m generally not a person who suffers from depression (anxiety tends to be my mental health issue of choice), but for as long as I can remember, I notice the world looks a lot more somber when fall begins. This September has been no different. Limited social contact for the past six months, navigating full-day virtual teaching, and the fact that the world is literally and figuratively burning down around us have been weighing heavily on me. Actually, I’ve been feeling much of this every calendar month — especially the issues connected to the pandemic — and I’d be surprised to find many adults who have not found themselves overwhelmed at some point.

But September is special, and I find myself swimming in a daily dysphoria that I seem to save only for this month. It feels wholly biological, starting with a sense of dread before my feet hit the floor in the a.m. Even the recognition that many of the issues I struggle with are first-world problems doesn’t seem to lessen a physical sensation that things are not good. It is well documented that the diminishing light in the fall affects some people more than others, and I count myself among those who really feel the impact of the increasingly shorter, darker days. 

To offset all of this, I’ve been following a self-care routine that any mental health professional would likely encourage. I meditate. I write. I exercise outside. I eat lots of vegetables and fruits. I maintain contact with friends and family. I play my musical instruments. 

What’s left, you ask? Well, this fall, I’ve turned to a tactic that lacks any professional endorsements but is nonetheless wildly popular: old school binge eating.  

I’ve become a frequent visitor to a pizza shop in a section of Arlington just a stone’s throw from the parking garage where Deep Throat revealed the secrets that brought down a president. It’s called Wiseguy Pizza, and it’s the closest thing I’ve found to New York pizza in the D.C. area. In my opinion, the mark of a legit pizza joint is whether it sells pizza by the slice. It’s a bonus if you can find customers inside employing “the fold,” the proper, one-handed way to eat pizza – the antithesis of using a knife and fork. Wiseguy passes both tests.

Wendy’s has offered me quite a bit of solace this month as well. I had always planned to detour off my new vegan diet on occasion, but I’ve surprised myself at how often I’ve turned to a Dave’s Single with Cheese and a Frosty to pull me up out of the dungeon lately.

And let’s just say the cashiers at The Sev (aka 7-Eleven) and my local Sunoco are familiar with my fondness for double Snickers bars. Where were double Snickers when I had a faster metabolism? Who cares? They’re here now!

Some level of shame is obviously involved with this gluttony because I tend to do most of my binge eating in my car, by myself. Am I embarrassed to eat a couple of candy bars in front of my 18-year-old son, who can literally eat two or three meals in one sitting? Hard to say.

I’m often speeding down the road at 70 mph on one of my gtf out of the house drives with one hand clenching a fast food product, so keep your distance if you see me on Route 267 headed west. When I want to be more dedicated to my meal, I park somewhere. I still walk near Iwo Jima from time to time but have also discovered that it serves as an excellent place to discretely consume high-calorie fare. The trees provide privacy. I worry that I am probably on a U.S. Park Police watch list because of my frequent comings and goings there. I do throw my trash away neatly in the garbage bins, so they really should delete my license plate number from their database.

Iwo Jima parking lot, where I make sure to drink only the teeniest, tiniest Diet Coke so I can preserve my girlish figure
Pizza Toast Tartare

I eat some homemade creations on my own property as well. A new item on the fall menu (for one) at my house is something I have dubbed “Pizza Toast Tartare.” No, you won’t find expensive undercooked meat on this pizza. It’s simply Trader Joe’s Rustico bread, a dash of Prego, and shredded mozzarella that I am sometimes too lazy to put in the toaster oven, so I eat it uncooked. Delicious!

(This is not to be confused with another delicacy I used to make regularly when I was in my twenties, Frankfurter on a Bed of Shredded Mozzarella. That’s mozzarella melted into a hot dog bun and topped with a Ball Park frank. Again, delightful!)  

The good news is that all this disordered eating is not an unknowing reaction to sunken moods; it’s a conscious choice. There is ample research showing the connection between sugar, salt, fat, and feelings of happiness. My field study work can confirm that connection. A friend suggested recently that my two years of meditating have helped me to “witness” my moods these days instead of blindly reacting to them. As such, I’ve “witnessed” myself feeling a whole lot better immediately following a trip to Wendy’s. 

Happiness is their recipe

Sometimes I worry about how much weight I will gain during this September Slide. This worry is usually followed by the delusion that my exercise regimen is counteracting my binge eating. Then the My Fitness Pal app sets me straight, classifying my trips to Gravelly Point as “Walking, 3.0 mph, mod. pace, walking dog.” I don’t own a dog, but if I did I imagine it would register as middle-aged on My Fitness Pal. And a 34-minute walk at 3.0 miles per hour isn’t going to offset much.

Last week I started mowing my own lawn again after a four-year hiatus (long story) and figured that this chore would at least be decent exercise. Then I got behind my self-propelled lawnmower and realized I was really just supervising the machine instead of burning a ton of calories pushing heavy equipment around. However, by some miracle, my weight gain has been pretty mild.

Mercifully, in previous years, at least, my body seems to adjust to the waning light and to accept the fact that winter is coming sometime around November. I have never loved winter, but I at least feel back to myself by Thanksgiving or sooner. In the meantime, I thank the man upstairs for Wiseguys.

Summer 2020: Crab Apple Pie, Eufy, and Frank Sinatra

Today is the unofficial end of summer, and I couldn’t resist the chance to do to myself what I have asked my students to do each fall when they return to my high school English classroom – write about their summer vacation. Here are a few highlights from my COVID-tinged time off …


Crab Apple Pie

When my local pool announced they would not be opening this summer, thereby squashing my annual summertime lap swimming routine, I felt panicked about not having any outside time for several months. I did a lot of walking this spring, but exercising outside of a pool in Virginia in the summer is out of the question for ladies like me who can’t stand feeling overheated. I realized I needed to find a reason to be outdoors, albeit in short spurts. 

A friend told me that for a small fee, a local garden center would send a landscape designer to my house to advise me on what kind of garden I might be able to plant. What a great idea! As a new vegan, I could grow a vegetable garden and supply one of my main sources of food simply by turning 1/8 of my suburban back yard into farmland! Now I would know where some of my food was sourced, and I could continue my march towards being off the grid. Or something like that.

A few weeks later, I set up the appointment and a landscape designer came to show me how and where to plant some tomatoes and cucumbers, or so I thought. As it turned out, she had something more elaborate in mind, dropping words like “espalier” and “small boulders” as she conveyed her vision. I realized this was going to be more involved than I had originally planned.

I told her what my budget was, exaggerating by double in hopes of impressing her because I thought she was attractive. She proposed that what I really wanted would cost double that figure (if you’re doing the math, you realize we’ve now quadrupled my actual budget). She did say I could cut out any of the plantings she was going to include in her quote if I didn’t want to spend that much. 

The proposal she emailed a few days later confirmed that she wasn’t kidding – her plan was going to cost one-third of my paycheck for the summer school class I was teaching. Well, I told myself, I didn’t expect to be hired to teach the summer school class, so this garden could be a bonus expenditure for the summer. In a moment of whimsy, I opted to go ahead with the whole plan. Or, as Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote would say (the character poised to order every item on a French restaurant menu), “I’ll have the lot.” 

A bunch of men came over a few weeks later and spent the better part of a day digging stuff up and hauling things around. The cute landscape designer had moved out of town just before the garden installation and never came back. So much for impressing the lady.

Here’s the backyard makeover.


Slide the screen to see the before and after

Jack and the Beanstalk action going on as of today (two months after the install):

When I told a friend who is an avid and talented gardener how much I had spent and on what, she could barely contain herself. One of the things she yelled was, “An apple espalier??? The only thing that’s going to grow is crab apples!” 

I said, “Well, then I’ll be happy to have you over for crab apple pie. A la mode.”

I did end up growing one edible tomato, a boatload of rosemary, and enough basil to supply all of the Olive Gardens in Northern Virginia for at least a week. 

I also got my very important outdoor time. I would say I spent an extra 48 minutes outside (total) this summer, mostly turning the sprinkler on and off. No, I didn’t bother to water the garden by hand with the new hose I purchased, or lovingly putz around pulling weeds and fluffing things up. Instead, I mostly dragged that sprinkler around and then came inside feeling annoyed that my flip flops were wet and grassy.

Definitely a win.

The Incredible Edible Tomato
Can you pronounce espalier?
Neither can I
Tower of basil
Now … if only I liked rosemary or used it in my cooking
Dwarf blueberry bush. Only missing one thing: blueberries
A lonely cucumber in the corner on a makeshift brace. I’m rooting for this underdog

Eufy

Summer highlight #2: getting a robot vacuum.

I began coveting robot vacuums a few months ago after seeing an ad for one. I love a neat home, but I hate to vacuum. A robot vacuum seemed like a perfect solution – a machine makes the room tidy while I watch Hulu.

I only hesitated to buy one because they aren’t cheap. However, after filling out a health assessment survey for Kaiser Permanente for the sole purpose of earning a $100 Visa reward card, I felt justified in buying a Eufy. 

“It’s practically free!” I told myself.

A friend who has owned both of the leading brands (iRobot and Eufy) told me Eufy was the better choice. I followed her advice and ordered one, and in early July, the nice people at Amazon delivered the new addition to my family. It was love at first sight.

All I have to do is move any cords or small objects off the floor and turn the Eufy on. It does the rest, efficiently working the room to restore order.

Cue the Jaws music

I love this photo of the vacuum in action found on the Eufy website, www.eufylife.com. (It’s not just a vacuum! It’s a lifestyle!) Presumably, the point is to reassure you that Eufy won’t inhale your ukulele-playing three-year-old as it quietly cleans your rug. Having watched this thing operate, though, I promise you that it will wake her up. Maybe she shouldn’t nap in the middle of the living room floor?

But I digress.

I started noticing recently that I feel something oddly akin to parental pride when Eufy successfully cleans up some crumbs or cleverly turns away from the edge of the stairs. 

I was disappointed the other day when Eufy tried for the millionth time to climb over the wooden border around the fireplace. I wondered why there wasn’t an algorithm or something that helps the vacuum remember it’s been down this road before and it doesn’t end well.  

Remember? You’re going to get marooned again!

Climb Ev’ry Mountain

I walked over to the fireplace and said out loud, “You know better than that, Eufy!” before gently helping it off the ledge and back onto solid ground.

If you are wondering why I’ve grown so attached to a small appliance and/or why I view buying a vacuum as a highlight of the summer, you have company. I think I need a pet. Stat.

Frank Sinatra

A highlight of the summer that was more meaningful than apples or vacuums was taking a creative nonfiction writing class. Pre-pandemic, I would have searched for an in-person class somewhere in the D.C. area; however, because that wasn’t an option, I took an online course with Gotham Writers Workshop, a group located in New York City.  

It was a six-week course that offered an overview of various types of nonfiction writing: personal essays, memoir, travel writing, profiles, feature articles, and reviews. The class met on Zoom every Wednesday night for three hours, and while most of my 11 classmates were in the New York City area, there were people taking the course from all over the country.

Unlike in college, where I Cliff-Noted my way past many of the traditional readings that did not hold my attention, I found the reading assignments for this course extremely interesting. My two favorites were On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a memoir by Ocean Vuong, and “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” a profile article by Gay Talese about Ol’ Blue Eyes.

Fly me to the moon

The readings were compelling and the discussions thought-provoking; I also felt I learned a lot about writing. The 500-word limit on each assignment challenged me to hone the skill of packing more description into fewer words. Turns out the “less is more” philosophy I employ in other areas of my life (home decorating, for example) is necessary in my writing as well.

But I think the bigger takeaway in this experience came in the reminder that for me, in order to “live” and not just “endure” life as a middle-aged single mom sharing space with an often-times irritable teen, I need to continue to learn and grow. 

So there it is – my summer vacation. No swirling romances, no European sojourns. Just me, my tomato, my over-achieving vacuum, and a newly found creative itch that I’m scratching. More to come…

So long, summer

Ode to My Hometown

The village now known as Sleepy Hollow, New York, is an interesting place.  It was settled in the 1600s, but it was Washington Irving who put it on the map in 1820 when he made it the setting for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” his tale of a pumpkin-throwing headless horseman and a skittish schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane. 

Metal sculpture of the headless horseman and Ichabod C.

When I grew up there, it was called North Tarrytown.  In 1996, residents voted to change its name to Sleepy Hollow in an effort to drum up tourism and offset the loss of tax revenue brought on by the closure of the General Motors plant in town.

The rebranding effort seems to have worked – it has become a popular day trip destination for New Yorkers, with an estimated 100,000 visitors between September and November each year.  When you Google “Sleepy Hollow,” there are a number of websites and YouTube videos assuring you that the town is an actual place and encouraging you to visit. 

For $24.99, you can take a two-hour walking tour of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery on a Friday night and hear about the famous people buried there, including Washington Irving (of course), two of Alexander Hamilton’s kids (interesting!), Andrew Carnegie, and in the funnest of the fun facts, IMO, hotel tycoon Leona Helmsley, one of Time magazine’s Top 10 Tax Dodgers, who fittingly used some of the little people’s money to erect a mausoleum complete with Roman columns and stained glass windows.  Talk about a home in the country.

Who knew this place could become a tourist trap?

When I hear the cemetery is now a tourist attraction, it makes me feel nostalgic.  “Aww!  That’s where I smoked cigarettes for the first time!”

All this newfound tourism does not exactly jibe with my memories of the place I still consider home, even though I haven’t lived there in more than 30 years.

There have been times when I’ve told people I’m from New York and they have assumed I’m talking about New York City, with its mass of people, noise, and excitement. The truth is that I’m from a small town measuring only five square miles. The tight-knit community that I was a part of when I was young was anything but bustling and impersonal; it was a place where I felt safe, included, and cared for, and it provided a foundation that has stayed with me all these years.

As a kid in the 1970s, I felt free to explore my neighborhood and have adventures without adult supervision.  One of my earliest memories is being allowed to walk more than a half mile with the “big kids” to the penny candy store just off of Route 9, a very busy road. 

Shirts were optional

We rode bikes all over our neighborhood and played down by the train tracks.  We would put coins on the tracks and let trains run over them, keeping the flattened versions as treasures after the trains had passed by.  Mercifully, no one I was with ever got stuck on the tracks or stepped on the wrong rail. 

There were endless games of kickball, stickball, and tackle and touch football.  We played Ding Dong Ditch (ring the doorbell and run like hell) and Hide and Seek, where people could be tucked into spots anywhere along the street.

Much of this unsupervised time with peers was not unique to a particular town.  It was part of the era to let kids out in the morning on summer and weekend days and call them back in only for lunch and dinner.  Still, there was something magical about spending so much unstructured play time outside with friends.  It is part of what I remember most fondly about my childhood.

Living in a small town also meant being able to participate in a variety of activities.  Before high school, there were town sports leagues like the North Tarrytown Girls Softball League (Honeybees rule!), and during high school, the sports teams and clubs were open to everyone for the most part. We were encouraged to try activities we thought we might like. I started playing field hockey in the fall.  In the spring, I played softball for two seasons, then switched to soccer as a junior.  I ran winter track during senior year.

The idea of picking up a sport in high school or changing sports during junior year would be very unusual now, especially at one of the bigger schools.  We didn’t have to choose one sport when we were 10 or 11 and excel at it in order to participate through the end of high school, and we didn’t have to play that one sport year round.      

Being able to try different activities was important for me. I discovered some interests that I wouldn’t have known about and learned that taking chances sometimes had a big payoff.

Perhaps the most important part about growing up in Sleepy Hollow was the sense of continuity and connection. When I look at my kindergarten picture, I realize that I ended up graduating from high school with the majority of those kids.  Many of the teachers stayed in the district for years as well.

This sign was a generous gift from the Class o’ 1986

The schools were small even though North Tarrytown (aka Sleepy Hollow) and Tarrytown were a combined school district, and many students from Pocantico and local parochial schools also came to the high school. Enrollment at Sleepy Hollow High School was somewhere around 800 students when I was there, and my class had about 160 students.

There has been a great deal of research about the academic and social benefits of small schools, and much of it has concluded that kids feel safer and happier when they feel seen and known, both by their peers and by the faculty. I know this was true for me.

Even though the schools and the town are small, the population is very diverse. The town website refers to the “vibrant mix of cultures that characterize Sleepy Hollow,” and this was one of the best things about growing up in this community.

There are also many shared memories with people when you go through school K-12 together. There were seasonal rituals in town, like skating at the Tarrytown Lakes when it was cold enough to freeze over, trips to Ice Cream Villa after sports games, Memorial Day parades through the center of town, and Saturday afternoon football games at the high school.

There were many local businesses that were around for years whose proprietors were well-known and well-liked throughout the community, like Fleetwood Pizza, Shanghai Inn, Mory’s Army & Navy store (where I got some of my first lesbian outfits without realizing it), and Uncle Jerry’s Deli.

One other aspect of Sleepy Hollow that I have always loved is the location on the Hudson River. I find myself drawn to water. Even now, when I go home to visit, I am struck by the beauty of the views and the sunsets.

There is a saying attributed to everyone from Jonas Salk to an anonymous “wise woman” about how the best things parents can provide are “roots and wings.”  My mom and dad certainly did; my hometown did too, and this is part of why I have such a deep appreciation and affection for the little village where I grew up. 

A very old church with an updated message
Drive by shot of Fleetwood on one of my trips home years ago
Pat! (Now closed, this picture was posted on Yelp by the most recent owner)
A look down Beekman Avenue — the main drag in town that leads to the river
This eagle was originally in Grand Central Station and moved north in 1910
Great place to catch a ride to NYC and also to flatten pennies
My old man and my young man talking things over in 2012
Unfiltered shot of the Hudson River
Leaving town on the new Cuomo bridge
A closing shot of the Tappan Zee Bridge back in the day

Gratitude and “The Great Pause”

One of my students wrote something last week that got me thinking.  She said that her family was actually doing much better than they had been before the pandemic; they have more time together to talk, and she and her mom have been making masks for hospitals – something that has drawn her closer to her mom and made them both feel like they are part of what she called “change” during the pandemic.

It was a reminder that perhaps something good could come of all of this.  When a catastrophic event happens, in an attempt to make things more bearable we often look to do something life-affirming. It’s interesting how when a catastrophic event is brought on most of the world, more than a few of us are collectively doing some long-neglected self-reflection.

This brings to mind an article I read in April (along with more than 20 million others) called “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting” which touches in part on the same concept — that something good should come from the shutdown caused by COVID-19.  Writer Julio Vincent Gambuto calls it “the greatest gift ever unwrapped.  Not the deaths, not the virus, but The Great Pause.” 

Gambuto discusses how the treadmill we have all been on for decades has come to an abrupt stop and forced us to take a look at our lives.  He encourages people to not just mindlessly return to business as usual after the pandemic ends, but to think critically about some of the new behaviors and thought patterns that we want to hold onto, those that “make our lives richer, our kids happier, what makes us truly proud.” 

In an interview after the article went viral, Gambuto suggested people consider this question: What does your new normal look like?

For me, the answer is clear: I need to continue focusing on gratitude and I need to keep writing.  

In her book This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett writes, “There can be something cruel about people who have had good fortune.  They equate it with personal goodness.”

I am a person who has had more than a little good fortune.  I have a wonderful family and an amazing group of friends, I have always been relatively healthy, and the list goes on.  I don’t equate my good fortune with personal goodness, though.  One of the things I have always liked least about myself is that I have always been a complainer when I have had no business complaining.  

And so I’ve noticed that over the last ten weeks, something is happening naturally to me, for reasons I don’t yet fully understand but I think is occurring as I realize that while this pandemic is robbing so many of their economic security and threatening the health of essential workers daily, I have been spared.  And I’m spending more time with gratefulness, a feeling which has been a stranger to me most of my life.  

I am definitely a glass-half-empty person, I’m almost ashamed to say, especially given the abundance in my life (truth to tell, not only is the glass half empty, there’s usually a cigarette butt resting on the bottom). I’ve come to recognize that some of my negativity is connected to anxiety.  My anxious brain churns over possible calamities.  I am a professional catastrophizer.  But all of my negativity cannot be chalked up to anxiety.  Much of it is just because I have not been in the habit of appreciating the good as opposed to searching for, and dwelling on the bad.  

Since we’ve been home, though, I find myself noticing things big and small that make me feel thankful.

One of the biggest things I’ve been grateful for is a shift in my interactions with my son.   He’s a senior in high school this year, and although missing some of the cornerstone rites of passage – prom, graduation, etc. – has been a huge disappointment, many of the stresses of senior year have now dissipated with the move to virtual learning, especially because we live in an area where there is a lot of pressure and comparing oneself to others.  We are both more relaxed and I feel as though I got back the kid that I used to know. 

I have also been feeling grateful for the time I’ve had to get outside and explore.  When the shutdown first began, being inside made me feel stir crazy, so most days, I spent at least an hour walking somewhere, some days even in the rain.  That led to discovering new places and appreciating some of the sights I already knew.  

I love parking at Gravelly Point right across from Reagan National Airport and walking along the Potomac; I also love exploring Roosevelt Island nearby. When the parking lots were closed for both of those places in early April, I went to Great Falls Park.  When that got shut down, I started walking near Iwo Jima and around the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial. I also discovered that there is a very pretty walking path near Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home.  The habit of getting out and being active almost every day (a pandemic-induced new habit) has been so good for me physically and mentally, and I know it would be good to continue.

You can almost reach up and touch the planes at Gravelly Point
Bridge to Roosevelt Island
TR doing his best Mao Zedong impersonation
Great Falls
Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool living up to its name
Iwo Jima
George Washington probably walked here (pre-asphalt path)

In general, I hope that making a habit of appreciating all of the good in my life ends up being one of the legacies of this pandemic for me.  Studies show that gratitude increases happiness.  And it feels right for me.

The other thing I hope to keep in my life after the pandemic ends is writing regularly.  

In March, in the days after I learned that school was closed for the remainder of the year, I realized that I would be in my house for at least five months before I went back to work.  I noticed I was having sinking, anxious, depressed feelings about having entire days to fill for months on end.  I knew I needed to do something to keep myself mentally occupied.  

I had just finished an eight-week comedy writing class that I loved and had talked with my teacher about the possibility of writing a blog.  I decided to give it a go, even though I wasn’t sure exactly what I would write about.  

As the blog has evolved, several great things have come from it.  Being in touch with friends and family far and wide has truly been a gift and has made me feel connected at a time when I would otherwise feel very isolated.

My writing cove

I have never written this much before, and find that I thoroughly enjoy the process.  I set up a little writing cove in my room.  I love it.  I want to learn to be a better writer.  I’m not sure exactly where this will lead or what form my writing will take, but I know that starting a blog has given me something enjoyable to do with my time and has kept me mentally occupied while giving me purpose.  

Working towards becoming better at something I love has been healthy for me, and something I never approached with such fervor while on life’s treadmill.  I want to continue this long after I return to a school building.

Years from now, I wonder how COVID-19 will have changed us.  Arguably the biggest impact right now is psychological; I am guessing most people have experienced significant anxiety and/or depression.  There has been such suffering, and knowing that everything could change overnight, possibly permanently, if a family member or friend became ill has been incredibly jarring.  I just hope that something good can come of it for each person, whatever that looks like.