If a student asks for poetry…

If a student asks for a poetry book that’s not in the library, you buy it.

I didn’t know this rule existed, but as soon as she asked, I realized it was clearly a rule. After all, how often does a student ask to read a book of poetry? How often is the poetry by a poet I don’t know, a poet the student discovered on her own? How often is that poet a refugee, born in a camp as her parents fled the Khmer Rouge regime? How often is the student who is asking a newcomer herself?

After class, we looked up Lang Leav so at least I would know a little about what we were getting into – but, to be clear, I was always going to buy the book. Leav’s style reminds me of Rupi Kaur, whose books are so popular that they regularly disappear from my classroom, leaving me to buy them again. (It’s ok; another unspoken rule seems to be “If a student needs a book of poetry to become theirs, they should probably have it.”)

In April – National Poetry Month – I usually read a poem out loud every day. We don’t study it or anything fancy like that: we just read it. For a few minutes, the poem simply exists with us; the students simply meet it. I choose all sorts of poems, often with the students in mind but sometimes just because I love them. Usually a few students will start to share poems they love after a week or two. Often someone brings up something that a poem reminds them of. Sometimes, like this year, we find ourselves talking about one poem, which leads to another and – oops! – we’ve read four and are accidentally talking about Robert Browning’s Meeting at Night and Parting at Morning and somehow we’re talking about sexual imagery and I’m blushing and then… well, then class continues. And the next day we read another poem.

On this day, the student wasn’t sure which of Leav’s books was “best”, so we looked at the covers and the previews, and then I bought two. Thanks to the miracle of modern shipping, I will put them in her hands tomorrow. I cannot wait.

Two books of poetry: the lefthand one is red and is entitled "Love"; the right hand one is cream and we can see the word "September" in the title.

Because you know what? If a student is reading poetry and falls in love with a poet – well, I buy it.

(Also, I just realized that Rupi Kaur is missing again. I know I spend too much on books for my classroom, but how can I say no?)

The Dilemma

My test is positive. Again. Unquestionably, undeniably positive. Despite my best efforts to prevent it, I have covid. Today is day 8 since my symptoms began and, while I feel much better – only a cough and runny nose linger – my RAT test insists that I am still highly contagious.

I’ve already missed five days of work, so my self isolation period is officially over. According to both Public Health and my employer (the entity, not individual people), it’s time for me to get back to the classroom. Public Health’s official policy is that people can go back five days from the date their symptoms started if their symptoms have been improving for 24 hours and they don’t have a fever. This is me: fever is gone, symptoms are improving. My employer offers five days of “quarantine” leave, but after that I am using my sick leave. I am an employee, and I am supposed to work. Did I mention that I am still testing positive for a disease that may be more transmissible than measles and which, while it can be mild, can cause unknown amounts of long term damage to vital organs?

Nevertheless, the expectation is that I go to school – masked – even though both the tests and the science say that I am contagious and that the mask will not prevent me from infecting others. And I want to go. I’m so eager to return that this morning I even contacted a physician, just to double-check. Her response was unequivocal, “The RAT means you are still contagious. You shouldn’t go to work. Even in an N95 mask. Your students aren’t in the best masks. Just staying 2m away doesn’t prevent others from getting sick. Covid is airborne. I’m sorry.”

Each day that I stay home, the pressure to go in grows. Each day I’m out, the students lose out on effective instruction. Our school board, like so many others, is struggling to find supply teachers (substitutes). My colleagues are stretched thin, covering classes that are not their own; if we’re lucky and the school finds a supply teacher, that person is unlikely to be able to deliver a lesson; increasingly, we cannot find coverage at all and the students have (another) study hall.

But if I go in, I put real people at risk. Real people. People like you or your loved ones. Even as I type, researchers are trying to figure out the complications of covid, and we know they’re more likely if people aren’t vaccinated. Maybe you think that everyone should just get covid and get it over with. Or maybe you think that covid isn’t really that serious. Ok, sure. But what if I go in, coughing, masked and infect your child or your sibling? I don’t know if the students are vaccinated. I do know that one of my students is just out of the hospital. I do know that some of my students have younger siblings who cannot be vaccinated and others have family members who are at risk of complications if they get covid. I know that my friend’s child attends my school. I know, too, that my colleagues have people in their lives who are at risk. Who am I to decide that they should be exposed to covid?

Then, as my father (who is an infectious disease doctor) points out, I am lucky enough that I don’t *have* to go to work. Perhaps instead of being upset that I am still sick, I should be grateful that I am able to protect others. In that case, I can choose to be particularly cautious to protect others who don’t have the same luxury.

While I try to balance all of this, I must continue to plan my classes, even though I am not there to teach. Tomorrow will be day 7 of students following instruction from a screen. They are trying; they know that I, too, am trying. They really are the best. Still, some of them have thrown in the towel. Attendance is dwindling and fewer and fewer assignments come in. I don’t know what they have actually learned or what they need next to support their learning. I really want to be in the classroom.

And yet: I am so much more than simply an employee, merely human capital. I am a friend, a mother, a teacher, a colleague and so much more; much of my identity is wrapped up in caring for others. If I go to work, even though I am “only” coughing, even if I am wearing a N95 mask, even though Public Health says it’s ok and my employer (again, as an entity, not as individual people – my administration is lovely) would prefer that I return, I am denying the human-ness of all the people around me. I am deciding that my choice, my freedom is more important than they are. I can’t do that.

I love my work and my students. I miss them. I want to be there. Precisely for those reasons, I look at my RAT, look hard at those two red lines, and know that I am about to call in sick for tomorrow. After that, I’ll get to work on another lesson plan.

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#SOL22 5/31

It was only the beginning of second period, but all of us were already over this day. Before classes had even started, a few teachers had received an email threatening a school shooting. The actual threat level seemed low, but just in case, the police had been called, the doors locked, a “shelter in place” instituted. Then, the internet went out. And it was Friday. We wondered if the universe was laughing at us: “Good luck at school today,” it snickered.

The grade 12 students were unimpressed. Someone had flicked off the lights as they entered the room – “Hope that’s ok, Miss” – and most people were slumped, exhausted, onto the tables. So much for any lessons I had planned. On the other hand, thanks to the power of routine, almost everyone had a book out.

“I have an idea. You read, I’ll plan something that makes some sort of sense.”

“I can set my watch for 15 minutes,” one student volunteered.

“Miss, can it be 20? Please? I mean, the internet is down and…”

I looked around the room. Heads were nodding. “20 it is,” I declared.

They read; I planned. Then I read, too. 20 minutes passed. C’s watch beeped. An impassioned “NO!” slipped out of a student as she turned a page. “I’m so close to the end of the chapter!”

“Me, too!” “Yes!” “Please, just a few more minutes…”

Of course I said yes. And we all read just a little bit more. And our Friday was just a little bit better. Not perfect, but better.