TUPELO • On Wednesday, Aug. 12, students will walk through the doors of Joyner Elementary School in Tupelo for the first time since the outbreak of COVID-19, just before spring break.
Allyson McGraw has been a second grade teacher at Joyner for 16 years. Like so many other teachers, parents, and children, the 42-year-old McGraw said she’s ready for the return of her students, and normalcy.
“I just want to pack my peanut butter sandwich and my chips and go back to school,” she said.
McGraw said the abrupt disruption of school left her feeling disoriented.
“I had already laid out and ironed all my spring clothes,” she said. “We had lesson plans ready, and leprechauns and bunnies up on the walls. I was ready to hit the ground running, but we never came back.”
McGraw, her husband Jim, and their two children are in the middle of building a new home in the country. She said her current living arrangements are less than ideal, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We bought some land and we’re in the process of building,” she said. “Right now we’re living in a 1,000-square-foot shop we built for Jeff. We call it our ‘shome.’ It has its good side and its bad side.”
McGraw said she misses being able to separate her work life from her home life.
“I’m used to getting to school early, just to get things done and be quiet,” she said. “When you’re at home you can’t do that. Everything runs into everything else. I remember one day I was holding a tape measure for my husband with one hand and talking to a parent on the phone with the other, and trying to listen to the governor’s announcement all at the same time.”
McGraw said while her situation has been challenging, she knows her students’ parents are having struggles of their own.
“We have a texting app, and a lot of parents have my number,” she said. “Some are worried their kids are falling behind. I have to remind them we were all in the same boat, and we’re all just doing the best we can.”
McGraw said some families have had even more immediate problems.
“Some kids have been hungry,” she said. “Some have needs that aren’t being met. I worry about them.”
While many parents have been concerned about academics, McGraw said most of her kids just want to feel connected to their teacher, even if only through a computer screen or over the phone.
“We’d get on Google Meet, and some of my kids just wanted to show me a soccer trick or a flip,” she said. “Sometimes I’d call them up and we’d just talk. That’s really all they needed; they just wanted interaction.”
McGraw said the pandemic has opened her eyes, not just to her students and their families’ challenges, but also to the compassion of her fellow teachers.
“I’ve seen so much grace being extended,” she said. “I watched at least one teacher take food to a child. You get to see the goodness of your coworkers; you get to see how people care for each other.”
McGraw said her forced hiatus from routine has been a mixed blessing.
“I can’t say ‘It’s been such a joy,’” she said. “There were mornings when I’d go out on the porch so my kids wouldn’t see me crying. I’ve been anxious. A lot. But on the other hand, I’ve gotten closer to my friends, I’ve gone on hikes and picnics, and I’ve been able to work in my yard.
As she prepares for the return of her students, McGraw said she’s cautiously optimistic about what comes next.
“I’m ready to go back,” she said. “I’m not quite sure what that’s going to look like, but I know I’ll be surrounded by strong, smart people who love kids and each other. I’m ready to get frustrated. I’m ready to struggle with those kids who are so fun to love--the ones who are a little spicy. They’re my favorites because that’s how I was.”
Hopefully, McGraw said, she’ll return with a new level of hard-earned faith.
“I know that I’m overly anxious,” she said. “But I just have to remember that phrase from Deuteronomy: ‘The Lord goes before you.’ I don’t have all the answers, At some point you just have to trust your life to the one who loves you most.”