When I Used to Know Things: Pandemic Uncertainty and Looking Toward the Future

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pandemic uncertainty and now knowing the future

Pandemic Uncertainty and the Past

I’ll admit it from the get-go: I live in the future, more often than not. Sure, I have those amazing moments of clarity when I realize the moment I’m in is important and I take that snapshot in my mind to remember for later. I try. I really do. There are some people who can ground me, root me, to the moment, and I love them for it. But it is my fatal flaw—the one that, if my life were a novel, would lead to some epic failure and then I’d learn to “just be.” But this is not a novel. This is a pandemic.

I’m a planner. I love to know what to expect. I love to know what we’ll be doing a month from now in my classes. I am—I mean I was—that teacher who, when you said you were going to miss a few weeks of school, would hand you the packet and a set of handwritten notes. Because I knew what was going to happen next in my classroom.

I love to know things. I love to write things in my planners—plural, yes—because I like writing down what I know about the future as a panacea for my problems, and sometimes once just isn’t enough. Because, as I’m using the purple pen for a family event like “Erway’s for Christmas Tree” on the Friday after Thanksgiving, I’m marking time, announcing to myself, that is going to be one of those days, one that you’ll want to be present for. And as I’m using the green pen for a school event like “Utopia presentations,” I’m validating the work I do now for the results I’ll see later.

 

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Today, Sunday, is the day that I watch football and grade papers and think up new ideas. Some of my best ideas occur to me in these minutes where I’m not really here (in the present) or there (in the future) but instead just drifting between the two, enjoying the now and reveling in the future. But today, where I live, the COVID-19 infection rates are going up again, and I have a feeling that by the time you read this, I will be teaching remotely. I don’t know that, of course. I don’t know things anymore.

I don’t know things like whether I should start a new unit tomorrow or send novels home with my students. I don’t know when I might see them again. I don’t know if we’ll be able to sell our house. I don’t know if my daughter and I can take our trip to Paris that we’ve been planning since she first chose to learn French in sixth grade. Heck, I don’t even know if we will be allowed to go to the grocery store. I used to know things, and it was very good.

 

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Pandemic Uncertainty: What Does the Future Hold for My Students?

This uncertainty is making me feel powerless. It is making me not enjoy the moment, even the ones I know I should be fully present for. It is making me not believe in a future at all. I know it is there, yes, because it always has been.

This is how so many students feel all the time. Those students—who live with food insecurity, who don’t know where they’ll be living next month, who are uncertain of everything—are in my class every day. They show up, which I admit is harder and harder for me to do lately. I need to check myself when a student can’t do the cute activity I have contrived on my comfy couch in my cozy and cluttered living room. The uncertainty that so many students feel is paralyzing them from seeing beyond the very moment they are in. They are existing in the opposite of my normal state of planned and orderly. They are so very untethered, not rooted, and are simply unable to plan when I ask them to write essays about their future or beg them to care about good grades. They don’t know things, things they need to know, to be able to learn.

I wish this stinging lesson came with an answer, but it doesn’t. All I know is this: Before this pandemic, there was another hardship that never touched me, and it was called uncertainty. With this new experience, I’m spinning, doing what I do, thinking: What plans can I make to save these students from this? I used to know things, and I’d have a plan about what to do, but right now, like my students, I am not able to see very far ahead.

The only certainty that I can provide for my students is me. I’ll be there, wherever there is—in my classroom, on a Google meet, on a message or a phone call. Teachers, we need to know, we are the certainty, and that is enough for right now. Because this is not a novel with a tidy ending. This is a pandemic.