As real fall approaches and the air becomes crisp, I peer out at my lawn’s trim lines and think how amazing it looks. And then I realize that is because no growth is taking place. Winter is approaching, and though I won’t have the problems of weeds and bugs to contend with, the fact is that everything will be dead.
What a metaphor. I have spent this year trying to reign in the out-of-control weeds of life brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. There is the weed of classroom management, now having taught three semesters with some form of Zoomania, the latest of which is a hybrid classroom divided relatively equally between images on a screen and a room of people I know only by their eyebrows and foreheads. One fun outcome of doing a Zoom dinner with my students recently was seeing the entire faces of my classroom students.
All I can think of is that I want this long, hot summer to end, and the weeds to go away. I want my classroom the way it was. But it’s not just the classroom management weeds that bother me. I always expect to wrestle with dollar weed in my yard. Many of the weeds that have sprung up remind me of what happens when I neglect the “weed and feed” fertilizer that I regularly apply to my lawn. They are strange in a variety of ways. Some are like vines that stick to everything. Some prompt a flower, but break off at the surface of the ground. What is clear is that I have no idea what to do about them.
Prominent among the emotional weeds has been the feeling of loneliness and separation that has accompanied the pandemic. Even when I am on campus, the largely empty halls and sidewalks remind me that something is seriously wrong. Almost no one comes in my office door; the student workers are even reticent to poke their heads in. There are almost no faculty members in my hallway, though there are many in other parts of the department. But the big thing missing is students. The feeling of isolation extends to home as well. Though I am fortunate to be sequestered away with my favorite person on earth, eight months of separation from children and grandchildren is taking its toll. Only in the last couple of weeks have we been able to see our parents (for an hour a week) in assisted living.
What we have never experienced before is the prominence of invisible safety concerns. I have never been one who thought twice about touching a doorknob or a gas pump. Now, it seems, everything outside our home is a potential carrier. This level of preoccupation is emotionally unhealthy, regardless of where you stand on the issue of its necessity. I am given to restraining myself and masking to protect my wife’s and my health, but also because I consider others’ interests important. But the mental gymnastics I do on a normal day just to get from Point A to Point B are exhausting.
Along with these things comes the economic uncertainty attached to a world where everything is potentially dangerous. While a few companies have capitalized on this market opportunity, so many businesses have succumbed to the reality of having no solutions to overcome the reticence or inability of people to simply show up. While today it is a long string of restaurants, bars, and other small businesses, colleges and universities have quickly recognized their own vulnerability should the plague be prolonged.
The level of self-control necessary to get past this is difficult to maintain in an emotionally stable world. And this is not an emotionally stable world. My Auditing classes have done a project this summer and fall examining restaurants’ safety protocols around ordering and delivering food, among other things. What surprised me the most in comparing the two classes’ projects is how much restaurants have relaxed their safety protocols in a few months. No one sees this as normal, or preferable. And it is hard to keep doing it.
Despite all this, what has heartened me most has been the sheer delight of being with students, and of experiencing with them this deep need for connectedness. I tell them, as an auditor and a classroom teacher, that facial recognition is critical to me in understanding my environment. It seems to be for them as well. But all semester long, until our dinner, they have only seen me behind a mask. Yet I have seen them invest heavily, not just in the course requirements, but in truly being present in the classroom experience. I will always remember them for this.
So here’s to the weeds that show that growth is still taking place, even at this stage of my career. I would never ask for them, and if I could spray Round Up on them and make them go away, I probably would. But my hope is that the experience will give me the wisdom I need to finish well, and to be there for those who are in real need right now.
Because they are all around us. And they need to know that they are not alone.
Categories: Bottom Line Ethics