The intercom sounded overhead. Students recited the pledge of allegiance and remained standing afterward, heads bowed in a moment of silence. This community is a religious one; we are a Christian majority. We are also unabashed in our rural identity. Another notable fact is that Adair County is the only minority-majority county in the State of Oklahoma. Our population largely descends from Trail of Tears survivors. As a proud borough in the Cherokee Nation, our suspicion of the federal government and its motivation lingers.
School staff members gathered beneath stately pine trees at the beginning of August. There, masked in a socially distanced circle, many of us prayed together. We were one of the few Oklahoma schools to open in person on the first scheduled day. The school board made that decision, prompted by an overwhelming majority of political will from the community.
My faith wavered that day. I stood just outside the circle, unnerved by the real plausibility of exposure. My husband, a diabetic and a heart patient, is at high risk for complications from Covid 19. Almost a year ago I said a vow to honor and keep him, in sickness and in health. I meant what I said. Some of our most highly skilled, veteran teachers are high risk, too. They show up anyway.
My other confession is that I never believed there was a chance, not a single chance in hell, that we would make it past the first three weeks of school in the midst of this pandemic. I anticipated a massive outbreak in the beginning. That did not happen. I was wrong. For that, I owe some people an apology, including my colleagues and the administration.
One of the arguments against coming back to school was that it was ridiculous to expect high schoolers to wear masks every day. Guess what? They did it. These students, when presented with an optional quarantine, did not choose to exercise that option. They want to be here. They need to be here. They will do whatever it takes to have a routine, to experience some semblance of normalcy in a time when there just is no such thing. Two of my advanced creative writing students recently appeared on a statewide news program for an interview about their political views. One part of the poll asked about their hope for the future. These two students happen to be on opposite ends of the political spectrum but they engaged each other with civility and respect. They recognize the dignity inherent in one another. The journalists remarked that the students conducted themselves with much greater decorum than the presidential candidates during recent debates. What a statement. Res ipsa loquitur. The thing speaks for itself.
I prayed in July that school would not resume in person until a vaccine was available. It was a selfish prayer because I knew without a doubt if school officials voted to return, I would report back and finish my obligation to the school and the students. There was no way I would bail on these people, my people, when the deal went down. The school feels very much like a microcosm of society right now. Some of us believe wholeheartedly that a mandatory mask policy is the only way to sustain this remarkable feat and then safely return home to our families at the end of the day. Many others remain equally convicted that masks are a blatant political infringement upon fundamental freedoms. They wear their masks and show up anyway. Unspoken tensions exist. We don’t discuss politics in the hall. It feels a bit like whistling past the graveyard. Yet we come together day after day for the students and do what has been asked of us.
My reverend explained it like this, “ask yourself one question. Are you willing to die for your students?” It’s that simple. Every person I work with made that decision, although many would never frame the issue in such dramatic terms. Whether or not we agree politically, that is the one place where we stand united. I would stand shoulder to shoulder with these people to defend our community. But what do you do when the invader is already on the inside?
Am’re Ford, a teacher in a metropolitan area on the other side of Oklahoma, wrote this last week:
“Things I’m juggling as a teacher rn:
My mental health
Students mental health
Coworkers mental health
Canvas not working like it’s post to
6th graders who are adjusting to middle school and online learning
Hella missing assignments
Adults concerned about aforementioned missing assignments
Remembering there’s a pandemic and that I need to extend grace
Planning content to teach
Making orchestra fun
Students that still don’t have materials
Prolly 4 other things that I can’t remember becaws all the things
It ain’t a pity post but some folx don’t realize all the stuff we be doing”
Mr. Ford nailed it up there on the wall for all to see; everything in one post. Back here at home we are about to enter week thirteen of in-person instruction and it appears the viral surge is upon us. Many people in our community have comorbidities. We’ve lost elders. Is it survival of the fittest now? Are we ok with applying that concept to our fellows? On the other hand, are we ok with sending students home, knowing full well that some will receive neither adequate nutrition nor instruction? Our people are extremely resilient. Yet in a community that is already at war with poverty, addiction, crime, and associated health issues, an education is one of the only sure tickets to rise above it all.
Another colleague of mine is a rare gem of a human being. He is one of about 2,000 living Cherokee speakers. His life is dedicated to teaching the language to our students, the population of which is 82% indigenous. I knew at the beginning of the year he would be especially susceptible. I confided my anxiety about him early on. About a month ago, my nightmare came true. He was walking across the parking lot and I was leaving for the day. He said, “Ms. Phillips, I had a sniffle so I went for a test. Now they want me to quarantine.”
Not long afterward he wrote to say his test came back positive. I feared the worst and prayed for the best. He suffered at length with Covid and later explained that in the most frightening moments of the virus, he sensed a dark presence in his home and hallucinated, alone. Everyone who lives through Covid has a different experience. Already, as we enter the fall, some of us in the community have not made it out alive.
The word “fear” gets tossed around like a hot potato just lately. We’ve used it as a weapon against each other. I’ve been guilty of saying “no fear” to insinuate that I operate my life without ever experiencing the chains of that basic human emotion. But that was a facade. I do feel fear. Fear for my colleagues, fear for my family, fear for my students. I read somewhere that courage is feeling fear, knowing something is more important than fear, and taking action anyway. I hope that’s true. I desire so much to be a courageous woman.
It feels trite to say it out loud, yet the question remains, have we passed the point of no return? For the sake of these students, we must say no. Won’t we unify for each other? The ultimate test should be this: will we be able to look each other in the eye when all this is over? Did we love and look out for each other? Did we fulfill the promise?
Yesterday I heard the most difficult question of my short tenure as a teacher:
“Ms. Phillips, is this the end of the world?”
My student was dead serious, in search of comfort and assurance. It’s past time now to step up, show leadership, provide real hope, and bandage the wounds of our fellows. The election happens in two days. Our young people are looking to us in this moment. I don’t feel safe at school right now. I don’t believe we should be there. But we are there and we will continue to be until we get sick or officials say it is time to go home. I’m grateful I don’t have to make the call and I pray for the ones burdened with that heavy decision. It’s time for empathy now. It’s time for hella grace. We are all in this together and the time is now.