Returning

Last week, in The Atlantic, Ellen Cushing wrote that “…the only thing better than being a genius in a pandemic is being intellectually unencumbered by mass grief.”   This has become the cliche du jour, that (essentially) after a year of official pandemichood in the US, we have all been changed in ways that we are only just becoming able to understand.  I have certainly found this to be the case; as I reread last week’s post I couldn’t help but notice the unusual (even for me!) number of typos and instances in which my brain, separate entity that it often is these days, decided to switch track mid-clause.   As I wrote last week, we’ve gotten this far in the pandemic relatively unscathed.  I’ve actually learned quite a lot, and am confident I’ll look back on the past year with trepidation and fondness, once a bit more comfort of distance is mine.  I am also confident that the fog of anxiety, which was so all-consuming a year ago, when we were figuring out how this was going to work, and this past autumn, when we were waiting to see just how bad things would get, has altered my thinking and functioning in ways that will never be fully fixable.

Friday, March 13th, was the last normal day of school for us.  It had been a good week, a busy week, full of purpose.  A sunny week, until Friday, when it snowed.  I went skiing with a client during the 6th grade field trip, excited that this young lady, whose life had in the past month revealed itself to me as marked by islands on hope amidst a grey ocean of trauma, was moving towards being able to build herself, towards giving herself convincing and sustaining evidence that she would be in control of her life and herself.  After lunch, we rode the big lift to the summit of the mountain and she fought her doubt back down.  Another client would, a month later and over Zoom, reveal his arm in a cast, a fracture sustained on that ski trip which had gone undiagnosed for weeks.   I will always remember leaving school that Friday, jovially wrapped in the ignorance I had pulled ever more tightly around myself in the month before, as the Europe showed the western hemisphere what it was in for, and M filled our freezer with food and our closet with yes, toilet paper.

Here in our middle schools we just squeaked in under the 1 year mark, returning to a somewhat normal schedule this week.   Middle schoolers have not had an easy time of it the past year, perhaps, as a class, they have been the worst off.  This years sixth graders got all of the academic demands, and more, of the move to middle school with almost none of the structural support, and none of the social inducements.  Seventh graders, and especially, eighth graders, are all to aware of what they are missing, and have been deep in mourning for some time.  I have deep theoretical and policy objections to middle schools as such, but putting that aside leaves the pragmatic fact of this deeply awkward developmental period being, insofar as our public schools are primary agents of socialization, predicated upon peers and socialization driving the process.  Middle schoolers struggle to find school relevant absent social exposure, and not just because lunch and social time is the sugar on the medicine of math and writing and sex ed.

On the other hand, 12 year olds are blessed with both a more plastic sense of the world, and being not yet inured to bullshit in the ways adulthood demands.  They are both more capable of moving on with change, and less likely to pass poor reality into the background as something to accept by ignoring.  I’ve been busy this school year, and have now refined using unspecified anxiety and depression as COVID-specific, insurance approved diagnosis.  Many of my clients, especially the newer ones, do best with understanding just how and why their lives are not ok right now, and that they will find it simplest to figure out how to accept, for the moment, the unacceptable.

Acceptance is not the same as forgetting, nor is it a passive process.  I’ve learned this year that streaming Fortnite or Minecraft is a perfectly adequate substitute for in person socialization, if done intentionally.  The same games, and especially the less inherently social ones, can just as or even more easily be numbing.  Regression to the bliss of elementary school, and pruning down ones life to the basics, are in the pandemic entirely healthy, so long as self-awareness becomes involved at some point.  So too increased sleep, though the line here between self-care and avoidance is pencil-line thin.

Big people would do well to remember these lessons.  There will be lots of reasons to be tentative about our exit from the pandemic, and fear and failure and fear of change are, especially after a year spent swimming in ambiguity, just as reasonable as concern that lax behavior will bring about a resurgence in infections.

4 Comments

  1. I’m curious what you think is the problem with middle school specifically (although I’m open to pretty much any ideas for improvement).

    1. I’m a big fan of the social dynamic at K-8 schools. Putting all the dumb (with all respect) 11-13 year olds in a building just begs for trouble. Really small K-8s can be stifling for older kids that don’t find the limited social options congenial, but with most elementary schools in the US not having that issue for me turning middle schools into K-8s is the obvious choice.

      1. Ah I see. I thought you were going a different direction but it sounds promising/interesting/can’t get much worse.
        As a side note. I mentored a couple kids in Alaska in my off time. I was rather surprised at how “little ” the teenagers could be. It’s not something I saw as a teacher but I see it more now in my new role. One was essentially scared of the dark in his remodeled house, another craved adult attention and so on.
        I wonder if such kids might appreciate a slightly “safer” K8 environment without the “Lord of the Flies” feel of a Middle School. And they might tone down the dumb behavior if their little siblings were around. Not always but maybe sometimes. At our K-12 school the wildest teenagers will go into full on nurturing mode if they see a young sibling or cousin.

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