AND ONE MORE THING

Teachers– If you are one or know one, we can unanimously agree that teachers are both warriors and worriers. We bring work home in the form of ungraded essays or soon-to-be neatly traced construction paper animals. We think of our students before the first bell rings and long after dismissal. We commit to memory the names of students who improved, students who bloomed, students who moved away, students who received specialized help due to our advocacy, and students who fell through the cracks no matter how much we tried. We transform school from a workplace for adults and children into a home away from home, a source of warmth, routines, and love.

On Friday, March 6, 2020, I stood in the hallway saying goodbye to my class at the end of the day. We were set to leave for Spring Break, and Covid-19 and coronavirus were simply two new buzz words circulating on the news. We stood in a straight line, and I shared, “Have a good break! See you soon! Listen to your mama! I’ll miss you, too.” Little did I know that we wouldn’t return after Spring Break. Little did I know that by April, educators would pivot en masse and take our skills to Google and Zoom. Little did I know that I wouldn’t even step into the classroom again until June, sadly packing up alone, trying to stuff all personal belongings– storage tubs full of books and toys, wooden shelves handmade by a friend, colorful stools bought for computer area, all kinds of knickknacks– in the trunk of the car.

A silent, unidentified emotion lingered in my chest. It didn’t feel like anxiety or depression. The rising number of cases in Texas alarmed everyone, but we were healthy and safe, working from home. In August our district chose to begin the new year virtually, bringing another challenge to the table: starting kindergarten on a computer. My previous students would begin first grade in a similar way, meeting their new teachers on Zoom. We never went on a field trip. We never completed spring reading assessments to confirm they learned to read. We never made our colorful kindergarten yearbooks, cut from scraps of paper, words printed carefully with their little pencils. We never said goodbye. My son, also a kindergartener, missed these milestones with his teacher and friends. We longed for a season that was stolen from us. At that time, I realized the emotion was grief.

Teachers do not idle. We show up everyday. The hours hum with an ebb and flow of expectations, conversations, assignments, timeouts, forgiveness, and laughter. We run like waves on shorelines. As back-to-school preparations were finalized, I began to dread the words, “And one more thing…” Our campus To-Do List kept growing and growing, including tasks such as: Figure out how to set up a computer and iPad for Zoom. Get ready for four to five live-streamed lessons each day. Call families regularly. Make your own lesson plans. Record your Zooms. Set up appointments to get to know your students then set up more appointments to assess them. Be available to assist with technology questions. Come in early. This meeting won’t last long; Wow! It’s five. Four weeks into virtual learning, a handful of students were cleared to return to each classroom along with more tasks: Make a seating chart and place students six feet apart. Make individual baskets for students. Label everything. Use the pink spray for cleaning the table but use the white spray for cleaning toys. Don’t share toys. Keep doing Zoom lessons like normal with the kids in the room. Don’t stay on the Zoom too long because you have to help the in-person students. Don’t get off the Zoom too fast or the virtual learners miss the lesson. It was one more thing, followed by another, and another. And one more thing.

Machines don’t run forever. They eventually require a tune-up, replacement of parts, or a new, improved substitute. We love our students. We know some families need their children at school, especially those who work outside of the home and lack childcare. We know other families prefer virtual learning. Providing two different types of instruction wears on us. With limited people power and resources, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. I see teammates’ flushed faces or tears. I see neighbors trying to multitask and use every second of our precious conference time. I hear elevated, stressed voices asking questions in staff meetings. I used to enjoy staying after school, tidying up and working on projects. Now my bag is packed at the end of the day just like the children in the room (which have grown to ten). I’m an introvert, least likely to ruffle feathers in public, but I made my concerns clear on campus and shared them with our teachers union. Unions have limited power in Texas but they encourage us to speak up and amplify each other.

I am running and running like a motor, running away at 3:30 p.m. each day, close to burnout, carrying grief from a school year that never ended and a school year that no one knew how to start. I began this post mid-September just to finish it at the end of October. This week, after days of opening, editing, and deleting, something clicked. After supper I sat and read the latest issue of Magnolia Journal, and Jo’s words resonated.

There is peace in rhythm. There is security and predictability. Not a stagnant sort of predictability, just enough to make us feel like everything is going to be okay, just enough to give us something to look forward to. Because while there’s a lot of rhythm, there’s also a lot of chaos… But then there’s the sun, rising again. And then there’s our lungs, exhaling again.

Joanna Gaines

I am fortunate to have a job and I am healthy; the fact that I worry about doing my job effectively, is a minor challenge compared to what others may be facing at this time. I keep telling myself, This is a season. Save room for joy. I try to lift coworkers’ spirits with little gifts: handmade soap, baby succulents from our original wedding centerpieces, masks sewn out of pretty fabric, and candy. I hug and kiss my son and husband each day. We spend most of our weekends outdoors, riding bikes, gardening, and chopping firewood (after I use Saturday morning to set up new Zooms and schedule assignments). My friend Indiana Adams advised in her podcast, You are allowed to rest. These acts balance the weight of work; they don’t eliminate the To-Do List entirely but they make it more bearable. These acts remind me that I am not a wheel– I am water. And hopefully the days will return where I can run like a river or a brook, at a pace I choose.

And one more thing– thank you for being here.

Please support the teachers at your school. If your kids are in-person learners, send a friendly note to their teachers. If your kids are virtual learners, write an email sharing something they are enjoying in class. If you can (depending on local regulations), volunteer to make copies or prep activities or cut paper. If your kids will return to school soon, ask questions: How will the classroom look? What safety measures are in place? What is the daily schedule? What is expected of students? Will the teacher and students have appropriate support? Be a voice or an ear. Be kind.

THIS IS THE END (JUST KIDDING)

Last year I opened up Little Tin Soldier and all of my images had turned into broken links. Unbeknownst to me, Tumblr had updated its range of themes (website designs) and most of them were no longer free and the oldest of them (like mine) were outdated and unavailable. The support staff said I could fix the problem by manually updating each image on the site. With the blog sitting at over 1,000 posts, I didn’t have time for that. Ain’t nobody got time for that!

I haven’t blogged regularly since Henry was born. He’s five now. Our weekdays are full of work and school (or technically school and school because I’m a teacher). In the afternoons we walk the dog, wash the dishes, and prep supper. Henry is entertained with Legos, washi tape, and outdoor bug hunts. When Michael gets home, we eat and and then he’s usually roped into acting like a pony or building a fort. In the evenings after Henry’s asleep, my creative outlets include taking a shower and occasionally painting my fingernails.

Before I became a mother I dreamt of balancing it all— working full time, raising a happy and healthy child, nurturing a marriage, having meaningful hobbies, and making a difference in the world. It didn’t seem like that much; who was I kidding? I struggled with postpartum anxiety and guilt over not being who I wanted to be (or who others wanted me to be). I realized that the more things you try to juggle, the more likely they’ll fall down. I didn’t need to be a performer for others to oooh and aaah. At the end of the day I was simply a woman reading Crazy Rich Asians and blowing on my nails so they’d dry faster.

I loved blogging and missed it tremendously. I loved drawing and doodling and sharing recipes and crafts but I couldn’t keep up with daily cycle of a  drawing, outfit photo, and editing, the rigorous sort of work Little Tin Soldier deserved. My posts became more and more intermittent before morphing into non-existent. The lovely project— launched over nine years ago— neared the end of the road.

When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.

Helen Keller

An open door. Maybe these last few years I’ve stood on its threshold. I overcame depression. I felt strong and wise with clear eyes and a full heart. Ideas were flowing. I learned how to garden. I taught Henry how to draw. I passed down my affection for thrift stores and libraries. We finally finished decorating our own room (ten years after moving here) with Ikea lamps, new blinds, and nails for my hats. I bought lots of ankle boots. Instead of thumbing through my dresses in the morning and saving them for another day, I wore them.

In April 2019, I reunited with my best internet friend Indiana Adams and we ate queso and hit up Austin’s best vintage shops. Indi blogs sporadically, works on her own podcast (Today By the Way), and shares some of the funniest Instagram stories. We talked about Texas Style Council and its lasting impression. We rattled off “Wouldn’t this be a great idea?” over and over to each other. We debated whether she needed an oversize bronze seahorse and should I buy another midi skirt or not. We spoke about our children and wondered how long we could pick out their clothes. After the trip I came home and felt that funny, ticklish itch that authors know well, the spark that gets in your brain and doesn’t leave until you grab a pen or punch the keys as fast as you can. I missed blogging, but more than that, I missed writing.

I titled the story, This is the end (just kidding). It’s a farewell to something old, and it’s a hello to something new.