Monday, October 5, 2020

Raw Data: Shutting the Door (Grimm)

When we decided to start this blog in March, we didn’t have any ideas about the end date. Of course, then, everything was up in the air. How long would we be sheltering in place? Was the virus a real thing? Was it as bad as some people said? What could we do to protect ourselves and people we loved? 

This blog was a way to organize chaos and uncertainty, a little, to put an oar in the sea of statistics. It was Sue’s idea (she always has the best ideas). She emailed me and said, we should start a blog. It should be for everyone, not just us. It should be just what people are thinking and feeling. Not too analytical. Not about statistics. We called it Raw Data (the title was my idea, I think) because we wanted it to be unmoderated, uncurated. We decided that we’d edit only very lightly – copy editing, and maybe for length. We didn’t want to get in the way of our posters’ voices.

We’ve been overwhelmed in the best way by what people sent in. At this end date, there have been (including this last post) 190 posts from more than 160 posters. We had 34 repeat posters: the winners of repeat posting are Mara Purnhagen in first place, with 5; and Sylvie Newell in second place, with 4. Our oldest contributor is 87, our youngest 7.

We’ve published lists, recipes, poems, complaints. Songs, prayers, reflections, photos. Stories, comics, memories, advice. Our writers expressed fear, anxiety, love, frustration, longing, humor, joy. Our posters were mainly from Ohio, but also scattered across the fifty states – Florida, Arkansas, Colorado, Vermont, Washington (state and DC), etc. We had two O’Keefe/O’Keeffes – one with an extra F, and unrelated, and four Grimms, only two of whom are us. 

Yes, we said we were quitting on September 30. But we got several last minute posts that we didn’t want to shut the door on – thanks, beloved deadline-ignorers! We’re stopping because – six months! It’s a long time. And also because Susan likes to end things before they get stale, or before we get tired of them. Six months seems like a good place to stop, even though the pandemic is not over.

As I said in an earlier post, we're hoping to do something further with all this wonderful material – we’re not sure what that will be yet. When we decide what to do, we'll let you know. Thanks for posting, dear contributors, and thanks for reading, dear readers. This blog was one of the ways that we coped with uncertainty and sadness, and we hope that it has been helpful, maybe only in the smallest ways, to you all as well.

Mary Grimm has had two books published, Left to Themselves (novel) and Stealing Time (story collection). Currently, she is working on a novel set in 1930s Cleveland. She teaches fiction writing at Case Western Reserve University.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

30 Notes from September

Everything stopped in March

The first two months of quarantine are like the first pancake

We had traveled with King Arthur from the ninth century through the fifteenth when the university declared that we would henceforward meet remotely

There was an eerie Pompeii quality of suspended animation to the space. None of us knew when we left in March that we still wouldn't be returned there by September

They’re in their thirties, but I could do one thing for them. I could vaccinate them with casseroles so heavy I could hardly lift the pan

When we explained our purpose, he seemed surprised. “I didn’t know the Census counted the homeless” 

For epidemics are not only democratic/ But hail from the same word, δήμος,/ Demos, the people

I said to my independent study student at that first meeting, because we had to talk about the coronavirus before we could talk about anything else: all of a sudden, everything has stopped being modern

When I still my mind, take in breath, and allow it to release in rhythm with my surroundings, I cry. I am in mourning

We wake up every morning to Martian skies. The smoke is even inside our home, even though we haven’t opened a window in days

It’s a disturbance in the universe

I still want to hug, bump fists, pat backs, shake hands (will that ever return?) but those are in cold storage for now

“I’m going to keep a journal,” I said. “To remember these times.” “Don’t go overboard,” my patient spouse replied

Add to that that dogs are fuzzy, silly, warm when it gets cold, ridiculous, mostly wonderful creatures

“We are safe. Our family is safe. We have everything”

The pandemic is changing us, too, but not in the instant

Seventh-grade boys are meant to be like pinballs, moving up and down hallways and into classrooms, bouncing off walls, off each other

She doesn’t seem scared of the virus, any more than she is of death, though she knows what that is, too. “You don’t get up,” she says matter-of-factly

One advantage of growing a beard during an extended stay-at-home order is that no one except your family has to experience that agonizing time

"I am sorry to hear that the novel-coronavirus has spread in America recently. Don't worry. Let me give you some advice”

This morning social distancing appeared in my dreams

Because of these female writers, I came to know a woman inside of me that frightens me and intrigues me. She has wild dreams

I want to change the station, change my mood, change my story/ Go back and rewrite my past

We wash/ each day our dirt/ again and again/ and again/ we wake and sweep the front porch

Sending you all a peace sign today. And praying we get some of that love and kindness back

So what’s it gonna be like, universe

We’ve taken a sentence or two or some lines from each blog post in September to create a quilt, a cento, a mini-collage, a fringe of whose story is this? We hope it’s ours, in the same way that holding hands can help (although we can’t do that now).

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Finding Voice (Holden)

I have been forced in this Pandemic Period to think about voice and its power or lack thereof. My new retirement job (yep, I couldn’t go cold turkey after forty years of being busy) relies solely on phone communication and I am not talking Zoom. It is all about the old-fashioned connection via phone between two people who have never met and may never meet. I am a part-time case worker for a group of men who are currently homeless in downtown Cleveland. How to establish a mutual level of trust, respect, and connection with just my voice has been a new, interesting, and challenging puzzle.

Jobs I’ve held have always been intensely social: bookselling, teaching, workshopping. I have seen and been seen.  We don’t normally pay conscious attention to body language, eye contact, appearance of the other because it’s automatic; it’s all part of the interaction.  But now that there are no visuals, it’s as if I’m wearing a mask over my eyes instead of my mouth. Let’s up the ante of our already off-the-charts anxiety, right?!

I am cold calling each client to introduce myself. “Hello, my name is Annie Holden and I am your case worker. In twenty-five words or less please tell me your life story, okay, and we’ll see what we can do for you…”  That’s not my actual approach but it is essentially what I am doing. There are a lot of men to assist and time is critical. Each person requires a distinct set of responses tailored to his situation. This is true anytime, but in Covid Time, it’s audio first and last, and it has to be absolutely accurate. But the telephone is notorious for miscommunication, is it not?

I am older and my hearing not so keen. Wireless connections are not as solid as the old land lines. Then there are all the quirks of the human voice: mumbling, softness, the intensity of anger, anxiety, and distrust that creeps through. The other day, a new client said, “How do I know if you’re male or female?” That knocked me back a step. I know I have a low voice but…

With the multitude of barriers on both sides, we still manage to find common ground much of the time. I can be grandma wagging her finger; world-weary broad who’s seen it all; business-woman; tough talking mama; pesky little sister. I am pretty shameless at using any tactics that seem to work.

You might say it is because they find themselves in desperate circumstances and will reach out to any lifeline. You could also say that being men, they are more likely to respond to a female voice over the phone. And I know from experience and my passion for this work, the essence of my motivation gets transmitted through my voice. Or at least, that’s my hope. I still want to hug, bump fists, pat backs, shake hands (will that ever return?), but those are in cold storage for now. In this weird time, I am depending on my voice and theirs.

Annie Holden is a full-blown Clevelander. She tried to escape in the ‘70s but was unsuccessful. Born and raised on the far west side, she has spent her adult life on the east side. A “book person” by trade -- from Publix Bookmart to the Cleveland Museum of Art to Borders Books & Music. She reinvented herself out of necessity in 2009 and joined the non-profit community of Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry to work with men who are homeless, incarcerated women, and developmentally disabled students. Not a poet, she ecstatically runs a poetry workshop at the men’s shelter, currently via Zoom.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Top of the Food Chain (Pressler)

Back in late March, when I met my independent study student for the first time on Zoom, after the college shut down, after the scrambling, seat-of-the-pants way we all ended up reconfiguring our courses, I told her I was throwing the last part of the syllabus out, and we were just going to read Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. The course was British Literature I, so it fit perfectly. As it turned out, I was not alone in my choice of readings that March. To turn to Defoe was, I want to say, an ordinary thing to do in the circumstances we found ourselves in, though “ordinary” is a grotesquely inappropriate word to be using, given those circumstances. So, perhaps I should just say that I found that I had done what many people also did.

I have never thought of myself as an unusual person, particularly. My age puts me right in the middle of the Boomers. My annual income, before I retired in July, was just about exactly the median household income for Americans. I did have a full-teaching, college-level teaching job, something that has become increasingly scarce, and I have some modest accomplishments on my curriculum vitae, but it hasn’t been an outstanding career. In retirement, I should have a sufficient income, if I really watch my pennies. 

All my life, I’ve found myself trudging along with the broad middle. It was something of a joke between my former husband and myself: if we bought a washer-dryer pair one month, for example, the Commerce Department would announce, next month, that sales of major household appliances had risen. If we bought a car, car sales rose. I said they should fire their statisticians and just follow us around to see what we did. In the 1980s, in the Volcker Recession, when interest rates soared, I put my savings into a money market account. In the 2000s and the 2010s, I had a retirement investment account. In the ‘70s, I had a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress. I dabble a little in genealogy (of course), and what I have learned is that my ancestors have been middle class people trying to get into the upper-middle class for at least the past four hundred years. I am made from the same mold as them.

Now I am finding that I had been at the top of the food chain, all along.

British Literature I had to be an independent study, because at my small community college, just one student wanted to take the course. In exchange, and to do a favor for my department chair, I agreed to take over a developmental writing course in the second half of Spring semester. It would be the first time I’d ever taught developmental writing, but the syllabus and exercises were all laid out; all that I had to do was follow them. I had a light teaching load that term, the last full term I would ever teach, and I looked forward to coasting into retirement. I would train my replacement as Honors Director, get the house in shape for sale, and prepare for an extended period of travel in Germany. If all went well, I hoped to apply for permanent residency.

My first hint that things would not go as planned came in March, when the European Union shut its borders to American citizens. (They are still not open, as of this time of writing.) My next hint came when I lost one-third of my retirement savings in two days, as the country locked down and the stock market crashed. Then my college shut its doors. No one was allowed on campus. We were all to shelter in place and teach our classes using Zoom.

I read Defoe in long stretches during those first two weeks of lockdown, when I had, perhaps, one good day, followed by two or three days when I stared at the walls and couldn’t account for the passage of time. My mind was like sodden wool. I fed the cats and took the garbage out. That felt like an achievement, each night. My sleep was disturbed, and often I lay awake until three or four in the morning.

When I met my student again, we threw away the norms of literary analysis, because, we agreed, it was all in Defoe, everything we were going through.

There was the wishful thinking: It’s in Holborn and St. Giles, said Defoe’s Londoners, but it won’t come here to the City. It’s in China/Washington State, said the people around us, but it won’t come here to Florida.

Then the magical thinking: Maybe it will just disappear. The cold weather / warm weather will make it go away.

Then the upwellings of hatred: It was brought to us by foreigners, let’s keep those foreigners out, by force, if we must.

And then the lockdowns came, and the numbness and terror. People tried to isolate themselves, but the poor had no choice, and had to keep on working. The court, on the other hand, had left London at the first sign of the plague, leaving the local authorities to figure things out for themselves as best they could. People tried to evade health regulations, lied about their symptoms, and broke their quarantines. Other towns barred Londoners from entering.

The Londoners elaborated conspiracy theories about the plague, followed half-mad “prophets,” and swallowed the poisons of quack doctors; they ran from each other, screamed from upper-story windows, and danced naked in agony in the streets. Then suddenly the curve began to flatten, and people rejoiced. They threw away their caution with their fear; though there were still as many new cases as before, the daily new case numbers had stopped rising. That caused a kind of second spike, but then it was all over. The plague was gone. “And I alive!” cried Defoe’s narrator, “H.F.” “And I alive!”

I said to my independent study student at that first meeting, because we had to talk about the coronavirus before we could talk about anything else: all of a sudden, everything has stopped being modern. Do you know what I mean? Yes, she said. Good, I said, I’m glad, because I don’t think I know what I mean by that, and as I write this six months later, I still don’t think I know what I mean by it. But I stand by the truth of the statement.

For one thing, humanities classes seem much less useless; there seems to be a point to reading earlier literature, after all. Ten or twelve years ago, despite the Great Recession, the emphasis was, still, always, on the future, which was widening out, becoming ever brighter, ever more abundant. Of course it would; we were Americans. There would be continuous improvement and worldwide connectivity. The world would become ever flatter, one big libertarian social network powered by freedom of choice. Already our bodies no longer weighed us down. The acne-pitted faces that had been common among students in my high school were long gone, airbrushed away by doxycycline and face peels, to be followed, in the life cycle, by cosmetic surgery, Botox, vein removal, hip replacements, and of course mood stabilizers, performance-enhancers, pills to improve focus and endurance, all to make us bright, productive, optimistic achievers. Our generation, said my students then, will achieve human immortality. The body will never again be a locus of suffering and limitation; what good could it do, then, to read Dostoevsky?

But we’ve learned that the burden of the body is still with us.

Four weeks into the lockdown, I’m attending a Zoom meeting of the Southwest Florida regional group for co-curricular and service-learning opportunities. The meeting facilitator asks us to start by thinking of one good thing that’s happened to each of us since the lockdown began. We each gamely offer something, but this attempt at mobilizing professional optimism falls apart pretty quickly. All of us report a sense of sudden disconnection from our colleges, our administrators, and, of course, our students. No one has any real idea how an internship is going to function when everyone involved is confined to their homes. No one at our colleges besides us seems particularly concerned about developing new community partnerships or scheduling visits to the local field research station, which is in any case also shut down.

I’d spent a fair amount of time on co-curricular activities as part of my work as college Honors director, without ever quite realizing how fragile all these programs were. My takeaway from the meeting: (which fortunately they did not ask me to give) was a picture of my professional life as a small, delicate structure perched on top of a huge system of supports, invisible to me because I had never thought to notice they were there. They made their existence known to me only when, in a matter of days, they crumbled. What I had spent my life on was ceasing to be. There would be no in-person conferences, no travel for business, few in-person classes, too risky in any case for a person my age. Student research opportunities would vanish with campus labs. Of course I wasn’t alone; I was like an actor or musician realizing that there weren’t going to be any live shows to try out for, no cruises offering a paycheck in exchange for playing boring old standards with a smile on your face, no showcases, no church orchestras or children’s theater, not even the chance to play a department-store elf, the role that launched David Sedaris’s career. The department stores are gone now too, aren’t they?

I don’t, in all honesty, know how or when we’ll recover from this. It seems we’re likely, as a society, to bumble along as a stripped-down version of ourselves, dealing with a Covid-19 that has become endemic, something like malaria, dragging down young people’s chances along with the economy. But I don’t know. No one knows. We all know that we can’t see the future and don’t know what it holds for us – except that, whatever it is, it probably isn’t good.

So is that what it means to say that everything has stopped being modern? That the future has become opaque and unreadable; that its eyes are blank?

My plan for retirement now is to move back to the city in which I was born, where some of my ancestors have lived for nearly a hundred and fifty years, and most of my relatives still live. Those who left are slowly filtering back. My niece is abandoning any further thought of a career with the airlines, something she had given twenty years of her life to, and settling into a home and a modest job a few miles from where she was born. I’ll try to travel in Germany, if the borders ever reopen, that is. I suppose they will eventually. But I don’t think there will be many grand travels or adventures in my life, or in most other peoples’ lives, anymore. We’ll be born, and live, and die, most of us, in the same place, because it will keep us safe, and we’ll scratch out whatever living those places can offer, because there won’t be much chance to grow.

For my students in the developmental writing class, getting used to Zoom teaching was painful. I wasn’t, of course, alone in having students who were under severe, multiple stresses, often struggling with poverty and inadequate computer equipment. There were many students like them in every community college. On the other hand, these were my students, and I felt their struggles every day we met.

There was a young woman, for example, who did all the shopping and cooking for her multigenerational household and held down a job as well. Four weeks into the lockdown, she was already panic-stricken and confused, twisting her strands of hair, chewing her lip, picking at her bangs obsessively during class. I gave her the number of a counseling service the college refers students to, “in case she wanted it.” There were others who needed help of various kinds. I was meeting with these students for several hours after each class and dealing with constant e-mails from some of them. They were frightened and miserable. I was not much better, but I had to do my best to reassure them. I might have helped them, sometimes.

And there was, finally, the young man pretty far along on the autism spectrum, who had “aged out” of the system and was, I think, taking my class so that he could continue to qualify for “services” as a college student. His family was supportive, and wanted the best for him, and he tried hard, but his language difficulties were simply not going to be helped by learning the textbook rules for writing topic sentences. It was a sad mismatch, but Florida has very little to offer people who are poor and disabled except workarounds like this, so I did what I could.

Before lockdown, when the class was still in person, I had noticed that he had great difficulty concentrating in class. Another student seemingly had volunteered to sit next to him and show him, one on one and step by step, what to do with each assignment. Without that help, he seemed to have no idea what to do or how to do it. He couldn’t pick it up from a lecture-demonstration or a video. With a great deal of in-person coaching and help, he might have been able to produce enough work to make it through the class.

But then came the lockdown, and Zoom class, and this was brutally hard for him. During class, he sat in a room where his younger brother and at times other family members also gathered. It was noisy and there were constant distractions. Sometimes he had a laptop to use, but sometimes he had to use his phone, and neither worked very well with the class learning management system. He constantly moved the phone and/or laptop up and down, back and forth, so the camera image on Zoom bounced around too. He complained he couldn’t get what was going on. I met with him after every class; I talked about him with the college disabilities specialist. It got worse.

Then, in the middle of Zoom class one day, he began to have a meltdown. He talked, at length, about how frustrated he was. He wasn’t understanding anything, and he wanted – he demanded – to be able to get in-person tutoring. He couldn’t learn, he said, except when someone was there with him to show him what to do. It was his learning style. He needed in-person help. He wanted to come to the college campus for tutoring. It was in his IEP.*

I tried to explain to him that there was a worldwide pandemic now, and that the college, like every place in the country, was in lockdown. And he kept saying, but I’m supposed to be able to get in-person tutoring. I have an IEP! I have an IEP!

And I finally said to him, the campus is locked down, there is no one there, security will stop you if you try to come onto campus. There is no one there to give you in-person tutoring. This is a worldwide pandemic. Everyone has to quarantine now. And there isn’t an IEP in the world that can do a thing about that.

*An IEP, or Individualized Educational Program, is a document developed for each student who has a disability and requires special education. It outlines what accommodations and services the student is to receive and is reviewed each year. However, an IEP does not follow the student to college, and colleges do not develop IEPs. Students in need of accommodations see the disabilities specialist, who notifies instructors if certain accommodations need to be made, but the process is very different.

Charlotte Pressler is originally from Cleveland. A graduate of Cleveland State University, she earned her PhD in English literature from the University at Buffalo. She retired as Honors Director at South Florida State College, where she taught English and philosophy, at the end of July, 2020.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

At School (Oberndorf)

“How are you doing?” I ask Lorece, who teaches eighth-grade English.

We are on break, standing outside. We are in the eye of multiple storms. There is the pandemic, with Cuyahoga County rates of infection dropping each week, and Whole Foods ripping up tape and bunching people up around the fresh fruits and vegetables as if there were hardly anything to worry about. The second storm is the running of students. It’s their break. Lorece and I have paused for a moment to chat before resuming the task of chaperone and lookout. We have to be hyper alert and remind kids, who are tossing balls and throwing frisbees and tackling the football dummy, to keep their distance.

And rather than reply, Fine, tired, Lorece says, “I’m overwhelmed.”

It’s hard to read people above a mask, but the look in her eyes and the crease of her brow make it clear that at 9:40 am, after just homeroom and a one hour-class, the burden has become too much.

We move on to manage our separate groups of children.

After break, we head in, eighth grade going in first, seventh grade filing in two minutes later, sixth grade two minutes after that.

Students are filing into my classroom. It had been two rooms for the past thirty-five years, but this summer they tore down the wall between them so that the expanded room could contain eighteen desks, the students' chairs six apart from each other. The math teacher is heading in, pushing a cart with his laptop and document reader. My room is no longer my room. I have a camp chair, and I will sit out front, take a mask break, and work on school stuff. When it becomes too wet or cold, there’s a small classroom which is no longer used for teaching where I can go and hang out with whatever local germs aren’t wiped clean by the electronic breathing of HEPA filters placed in each of the many classrooms that don’t have central air and heat.

Since I don’t teach period four, I cross the hall to Lorece’s room. She is hooking up her laptop to the smartboard while students file in. This is my lightest day. I won’t teach period six, which today will start at 2:00, our last period, so I can go home early. For the past few years, when Lorece taught a section of seventh-grade English, she had that period free.

“Which blocks do you have free?”

“Three and five,” she says.

The pandemic has made many of us selfish. Part of me is relieved that I can still leave the building at 2:00 pm.

I’m about to say something else when she says, “I can’t. I’ve got to teach.” I see it clearly. She’s about to cry.

I’ve worked with Lorece for over ten years. In the past, when she’s frustrated, she’s ended such conversations with a joke and a laugh.

I head down the hall to find Kelly, who’s our middle school English chair. She’s teaching, too.

I open the door and look in on the class. Several students call to me by name.

“What’s up?” Kelly asks.

“Do you have fifth period free?”


“Can I send you an e-mail?”


It’s fifth period. Students file into my classroom. There are two doors. As they come in, they press the heel of their palms against a dispenser, and sanitizer glops into their hands. They pull a sheet of paper towel from another dispenser. There’s a bleach-based solution that has been sprayed on their desks, and they have to wait a few minutes before they can wipe their desks and chairs and sit down.

“Stand to the right of your desks,” I say, as I keep saying at the beginning of each class.

One boy starts to head over to another boy to say something.

I call him by name. Ask him to remain by his desk.

Seventh-grade boys are meant to be like pinballs, moving up and down hallways and into classrooms, bouncing off walls, off each other. Everything is about being close, wrestling or putting arms around each other’s shoulders. Asking them to demagnetize this impulse is a strain. We nag against what’s natural. But we have no choice. We want them to be healthy. Staying in the building for the year depends on these reminders and their willingness to go along.

Before the pandemic, I could step out of the class and take ten steps down the hall to the faculty workroom to grab something from the photocopier. During the five minutes when kids changed classes, I could chat with one or two colleagues. If the class was reliable, I could walk farther down the hall to the faculty lounge to get a cup of coffee.

Now I’m confined to the room, to watching the boys. During the first week, I slipped out to get a photocopy I’d forgotten, and when I returned, six boys had surrounded another to look at what he was showing them on his calculator. If I need to leave, for a photocopy or a pee, I have to wave down a colleague, call someone in administration, to make sure there’s an adult presence when I slip out.

The students don’t fight the reminders. They go back to their places. They understand the arrangement. They accept the terms of engagement.

I start talking. There’s a line of blue painter’s tape on the floor that marks off my boundary. When I step beyond that line, I stand less than six feet from my students. I start to feel the rhythm as I talk with them. I walk back and forth in my metaphorical cage. But then I remember: there’s a student sitting on the laptop screen on my desk. “Did you hear me, Fred?” I call out.

A tiny, tinny voice from my laptop: “Yes, Mr. O.”

I return to the space behind my desk. I guess I won’t be moving with my energy.

“Sorry about that,” I say to my student, who has opted to study from home through our first trimester. The Zoom window is open. I see myself and above my image is a smaller square containing my student, the open window of his bedroom behind him.

Later in class, I assign them to small groups. All of them but Fred are in the classroom, but all those things that make contemporary education work--group work, peer conferencing, sitting together on the floor for a mini-lesson--can’t take place during the pandemic. So they sit six feet apart, wear headphones, and talk to other boys on their screens, occasionally looking across the room to one of their partners.

They’re so eager to talk with each other, that this part actually goes better than when, in previous years, desks of four made for islands and they could face each other as they spoke. The masks cover up the interchange of smiles and sarcastic glances. Accompanied by the distance, this makes for the longest honeymoon period I’ve experienced with seventh grade in my thirty-seven years of teaching.

Class finally ends.

Boys pack up everything in their book bags. They don’t go to their lockers during the day. Class ends at 12:15, but that’s when eighth grade heads to their homeroom to get lunch. We wait another five minutes. I’ve started to let class run over rather than have boys sit around.

Now another student and I split the room, each of us sanitizing our hands, grabbing a spray bottle, spraying the bleach-based solution on empty desks and chairs, but often waiting for a boy to get up, pack his bag, and stand up so a breeze through the always-open windows doesn’t carry the spray into his eyes.

Then I let them out, person by person, trying to space them out as they leave. They sanitize their hands at the door.


During that same fifth period, Kelly and Lorece take the chairs they’d ordered online. They sit outside. They are six feet apart. Alone outside, we can take off our masks; together, we’re not supposed to. They chat. The burdens seem to lift for now.

Later, Lorece tells me about the curriculum discussion the day before, the one that caused her that night to sink to the floor in tears. “I didn’t cry that much when my parents died,” she says. “Not really. But it felt that way.” The next day, the day I walked into her room and she sent me away is the day she cried at least five times, each time because someone was kind to her.

Everyone seems to have a moment. It might not be tears. It may be anger with each new tweak to the schedule. It may be sitting the entire day in a room and not talking to the colleagues you used to always speak with. It may be the simple reply to “How are you?” I can’t take this anymore. And then carrying on with the day’s business.

Education is built on intimacy and trust.

But there aren’t five of us gathered in the faculty lounge or the hallway telling jokes or chatting about a problem.

We have to keep an eye on the boys to keep them safe.

I go home each day exhausted.

The twenty-five-minute cat nap no longer works.

I just want to sleep longer.

Today, I check Facebook on my cell. A video of John Cleese in an old skit called “The Bookstore” comes on. Then a video of a song I like. Then a stand-up comedian.

I get up, thinking I’ll feel refreshed, but my body catches up with me by the time I reach the kitchen and see the dishes left to be done.


I hate underlining mistakes on papers--each error marks a way I may have failed my students--but my students hear me energetically talking about how standardized spelling and mechanics make reading easier, more fluid. I know how to take what I don’t like and offer it enthusiastically to those who might lean into that particular passion. I can insist that we spread apart so we can share the same rooms with each rather than sit distanced in our homes, longing for all those things that can be brought about only when we are in the presence of others.

I don’t have moments of crises in the building.

At home, tonight, however, I keep revising this essay because I’m too exhausted to do anything that has to do with school.

Charles Oberndorf teaches seventh-grade English at University School, an independent boys’ school in Shaker Heights, Ohio. He is the author of three books and five stories.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Tale of Lord Tennyson and the Pandemic (Kapelle)

We had traveled with King Arthur from the ninth century through the fifteenth when the university declared that we would henceforward meet remotely. My Arthurian literature class (whenever we were “hole togyders” there were eighteen of us) would never gather around its U-shaped table again. While material like the plague scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail suddenly had new significance, I wondered whether my students would maintain their interest in our readings while experiencing new and frightening circumstances. Next up on the syllabus was the Victorian era, and I sat down to design an online lesson about Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott.”

The Lady of Shalott does not currently feature in many adaptations, as she is perhaps the least active Arthurian character in the roster. The Lady is trapped in a tower because she is subject to a curse imposed on her for unexplained reasons. If she looks directly out of the window towards Camelot, the curse will take effect. Her only views of the world are provided by a mirror that reflects the road beneath her window. She occupies her time with weaving the images that she sees, and she naturally grows discontent: “‘I am half sick of shadows’ said the Lady of Shallot.” This stasis endures until Lancelot, who, this time, ruins somebody’s life without even realizing it, rides by singing gallantly. He is, it seems, irresistible: the Lady walks to the window and gazes out at him. Her mirror and her tapestry suddenly rip apart. The curse having activated, the Lady leaves the tower and drifts down the river in a boat, singing while slowly dying. In Camelot, everyone gathers to wonder at her. Lancelot gets the concluding line: he admires her beauty and calls for God’s blessing upon her.

Many Victorian readers enjoyed the pathos of the Lady’s plight, and, as a result, numerous artists depicted her weaving at her loom or dying in her barge. My students, in contrast, have not found the poem appealing. The situation is too mysterious; the Lady is too powerless. I suspect that they are, moreover, disturbed by the poem’s aestheticization of death. It is, frankly, not my favorite poem either. This spring, however, I was compelled by the stanzas describing the Lady’s isolation. My window did not look out on willow trees or curly shepherd lads. But I was nonetheless trapped in my dwelling place, under the threat of forces beyond my control. Direct exposure to the world could be fatal. Instead of immediate contact with others, I viewed their images on a computer screen.

This was not, I will admit, my first Lady of Shalott moment. A few years ago in Oregon, I endured a very slow haircut while a rare snowfall took place outside. I sat facing the wall, impatient to know if the snow was continuing but unable to move my head. Then I noticed that a hand mirror hanging on the wall was tilted so that it reflected the winter scene outside the window. “I realized that I was doing the Lady of Shalott thing,” I told my class later. “Wow, you could have died and floated down the millstream and we could have come out of the cafeteria and looked at you!” a student responded. Everybody flinched a bit. Clearly, parallels with this story must not be pushed too far.

I am predisposed to find mundane world echoes of the texts that I teach. This spring, however, my students noticed the parallels too. Their reflections on the poem included statements along the lines of, “I am totally half sick of shadows” and “we are confined like she is.” Amid the fear, sorrow, and frustration of those days, I was encouraged to see these comments. Having read works full of charismatic knights and imperious ladies, the students identified with a woman who, like them, was trapped and unhappy. I decided that if they could emerge from the pandemic with more sympathy for those who are imprisoned, confined, or powerless, I would thank whatever aventure, fortune or chance led Tennyson to coincide with Covid-19.

Rachel Kapelle is a lecturer who teaches writing and literature at Case Western Reserve University. Her scholarship focuses on Arthurian literature and medieval romance.