If someone had asked me back in January about corona, I would have immediately assumed they were referring to an adult beverage often served at a Mexican restaurant. But then, one day in mid-February, one of my more inquisitive students called out at the beginning of class, “Hey! Ms. C! Whatcha think about the coronavirus?”
I thought for a moment and said, “I really haven’t given it much thought. Is it kinda like the swine flu?” I told the class I had lived through SARS and H1N1. Oh, I think we’ll be fine.
Then on my way back from a school trip to Washington, D.C., my oldest daughter, who just finished her first year of college at the University of Alabama Birmingham, began to text me from her dorm room. I thought she was just texting me to tell me about their spring midterms. Honestly, I didn’t look at the messages right away. When I did glance at my phone, there was a steady stream of messages from Nora saying she might be headed home early. Not for spring break, mind you, but for something I never even considered.
The University of Alabama was closing due to a public health threat caused by a virus known as COVID-19, or the coronavirus.
A juvenile response, I admit. But thinking back on it, that’s the absolute first thought that popped into my mind upon hearing the news. My colleagues and I began scanning news outlets and social media trying to glean any information we could. That was on a Wednesday. By Saturday, all classes in the State of Mississippi were closed, and spring break was extended another week.
I wasn’t complaining at the time, but during the days that followed, churches closed and proms canceled. My students looked to me for answers, and I didn’t have any. I tried to reassure them via the Remind app that we were all in this together and I missed them. Privately, I was overwhelmed and uncertain.
Thomas Paine once said, “These are times that try men’s souls.” I was certainly being tried by the current state of affairs. My youngest asked almost daily if we’d ever go back to school or if we could go to the park. We in no way sheltered our children from the reality of the situation, but as parents we chose the stance of cautious optimism. Our family has been fortunate: We have stayed healthy and gainfully employed. I was so grateful to be home with my children.
But while I got the luxury of staying home with my kids, I wondered if my students were faring as well. Although teenagers may claim to hate school, that serves mostly as a screen to save face with their friends. The majority craves the structure and routine. I had parents of my students contacting me to tell me how much their kids miss school, a declaration I hadn’t heard before.
The whole quarantine situation left me with a great deal more free time. After tackling my expansive to-do list and more Netflix than is healthy for human consumption, a funny thing happened: We began eating meals as a family again. And get this – around a table! I guess that’s what happens when everybody’s over-scheduled calendar has suddenly been wiped clean. Thanks to Zoom, I could celebrate a cousin’s 50th birthday with most of my extended family. I regret to report, the last time I saw their sweet faces was around Christmas.
Social media has given us a false sense of connectedness. Likes and comments can never replace real face-time, digital or otherwise. I missed my coworkers. I couldn’t wait to see them on my computer screen. Members of the Cipkowski clan reinvented their days. For the first time in a long time, we put down our phones and picked up hobbies: cross stitch and watercolor (an homage to Bob Ross), puzzles and books. We played board games and actually talked to each other as we cooked meals together. When the time for prom came and went, the girls dressed up in full hair and makeup and dance around the living room with the brother to a Spotify playlist. Their dad presented the girls with corsages, and he even had a boutonniere for his coat. Something wonderful happened when I remembered to listen to what my children had to say: They started confiding in me more than they ever have. I had to get off Facebook Messenger long enough to actually get the message God had been trying to send me for way too long: Everything I need to be happy can be found in daily gratitude for the things I have already been given.
I think I have been so busy venting about everything that was wrong, I forgot to honor and cherish everything that has gone right in my life. It’s one thing to say “XYZ are important to us.” It’s quite another to live that way. Words are cheap; creating lasting relationships with people that matter costs us. We have to give part of ourselves to other people and trust they’ll love us anyway and be willing to do the same. Meaningful connections must be reciprocal. Seeking to understand other people before we are understood ourselves takes work, but it’s a labor of love that is time well spent.
We may know the lesson. We may intellectually understand the lesson. We may even value the lesson. But it is only when we live out the lesson in our daily lives that we have truly learned the lesson. Only when we have fully learned the lesson – in this case, of what’s important to me and how I choose to spend the rest of my time on this Earth – that we earn the privilege to teach the lesson. I could have never imagined that a pandemic would have sent me on a search for my soul and, in staying home, allowed me to find myself again.