On Grief, Burritos, and Teaching in a Masked World
By Gillian Kessler:
I had a dream last night. I walked into my house, and you exclaimed, “My girl!” I rushed to you and put my arms around your small frame. You smelled perfect. I held you tight, never wanting to let you go. I knew you were dead. I knew the other people in the room were watching me hug the air. But it didn’t matter. I know you appeared to remind me that you’re here. Because I need you more than ever.
I went back to work this week. I teach middle school English at a small private school, and one of the advantages of small class sizes in the wide-open state of Montana is that we can do in-person learning. We are one of the only schools where the kids are back five days a week, eight hours a day, just like before.
Last week, we moved our middle school to the third floor of an old theatre downtown. This would enable our whole school community to spread out so that the kiddos could socially distance themselves from one another, from their teachers. The rest of my campus, the school I’ve taught at for the past fifteen years, is in a quiet little neighborhood at the base of Mt. Jumbo. There’s very little traffic, and the only folks who walk by are the neighbors who I’ve known for years. There’s Bob and his long hair and Hawaiian shirts who is always walking at least a couple of rescue dogs. He’s married to Sheryl, who was the poet laureate of Montana at some point and can be found in wild frocks adding artsy items to her strange front yard display. There are mamas pushing strollers and college kids hiking up the mountain with paragliding packs on. During recess, we watch them soar over the playground, massive yellow and blue and orange birds searching for the sun.
Our downtown location doesn’t have this sort of flair. First off, the folks who work in the theatre don’t want us there. A bunch of tweens entering your work space during a pandemic? I kinda get it. Second of all, that part of town is a rendezvous point for much of our local homeless population. Two of my colleagues had three guys try to pick a fight with them, bottle thrown in their direction, glass shattered, cops called. This was at pick-up time when fifty-four sets of parents were trying to recover their precious children; after months of being sequestered in their homes, they are allowing them to spend the day, the very long day, being educated in person by us. The kids wait in a line marked by stakes that read "STAY SIX FEET APART!" The stakes are bedazzled with giant sequins and fake sunflowers. The folks in the costume shop of the theatre made them for us. Those folks don’t have much to do right now. I picture them bitching about us renting the space with giant glue guns in hand, bedazzlement a flutter.
But the thing about teaching during a pandemic—beyond the terrible WiFi in the old theatre and the fact that we have to teach kids at home on computers while we teach kids in the building in person; beyond the fact that we’re only allowed one key to the building and yet we’re supposed to be teaching outside most of the time to keep the virus at bay, so one of us is always rushing down the stairs to retrieve a class, reminding them to stand six feet apart, reminding them to walk quietly as to not disturb the theatrical folk; squirting their hands with another round of sanitizer; beyond the fact that we have no coffee maker/photocopier/desks/privacy/prep-time—is the issue of masks. The damn life-saving, absolutely essential use of masks.
I am hearing impaired. I have been since I was kid, been in hearing aids since I was eighteen. Most people wouldn’t know that I am deaf. My hearing aids tuck over my ears and are covered by my thick, curly hair. I don’t have any sort of speech impediment, and I don’t use sign language. I read lips. That’s my jam.
One of the earliest indications of my deafness happened at slumber parties when I was a girl. The posse would be up late gossiping, chatting about their new crush or something lame that someone else did. The mom or dad would come and tell the girls to go to bed, hit the light switch. The room would go dark. The conversation would end. Even though it didn’t; even though they kept talking. I could no longer hear a thing. The light switch would switch off both the visual and the audio.
I’ve had a few bouts of major anxiety about my hearing when I’ve been out and about this summer. But remember, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic. I don’t go out much. I had a breakdown in the car after my kids wanted me to stop in for burritos one late afternoon after their dentist appointments. That’s a whole other dystopian diatribe, what it’s like taking your kid to the dentist or ortho during the age of coronavirus. We might as well be wearing space suits. I might as well let them get sucked up into a white, sanitized vacuum tube where they are magically placed in the dentist chair and then ejected back to me when he claims they’re cavity free. I wait in my car for the text that they are fine, then they are ushered out by the nice lady in the space suit.
Anyway. The burrito shop. I left the kids in the car (virus), their very particular orders etched in my steel trap of a brain. Masked up, I entered El Diablo for the first time since last winter. I began with Solomon’s simple order.
“Hi, yeah, can I please have a burrito with steak, black beans, and cheese. No salsa or veggies. Just those three things.”
The cute millennial in the short shorts and hipster mask wiped her brow with the back of her hand.
“Mahumhahmum?” she asked me.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that,” I said with my usual pep.
“Mahumhahummmmmm???” she repeated, her eyes wide and already (prematurely) exasperated.
“Yeah, I’m not really able to hear you, but just steak, black beans, and cheese. That’s all I need on this burrito.” I breathed patiently. Only three more to go.
“Yeah, mahum or mahum?”
It was like I was with one of the grown-ups in Charlie Brown. Wah wah wah wah wah wah.
“So, I’m super deaf and because of the masks and how far apart we are, I can’t really hear a word you are saying. So how about I just tell you what I need on the burritos. Don’t worry about asking specifics. Thanks so much for your help.”
“Mahumumum mah mah, mahum.”
“Um, did you ask if I wanted lettuce or cabbage? He just wants steak, black beans, and cheese. Thanks.”
“Um, yeah, no salsa.”
Now the two dudes who work at the other end of the burrito bar are looking at me like I’m crazy. One of them chimes in.
“Um, yeah, I don’t really know what you’re asking. But the burritos are fine as they are.”
I could literally continue like this, as they never seemed to get the fact that I couldn’t hear a damn word that they were saying. When we finally got to my order, I was ready to blow. I told them to put whatever they wanted on it, to make what they would make for themselves. I paid my $36 and gave them a nice tip. It was like I had somehow done something wrong, somehow made their day so very hard and I wanted to pay them extra for all their effort.
I got back into the car and just started bawling. The kids, who were in the backseat with the dog raucous as ever, were suddenly silenced. “What happened, Mom? What happened?” I launched into the Charlie Brown reenactment, their ceaseless questioning, the way they were just trying to do their jobs but I just couldn’t play the game.
“You guys,” I bumbled through snot and heaves, “how am I going to teach school if I can’t even understand the people in the burrito shop? There was no background noise, I was the only one in there, and you would think I could figure out if they were saying ‘lettuce’ or ‘cabbage.’ I’m never going to be able to do my job.”
My kids calmed me down, reassured me, reminded me of how I freaked out after our first day of online learning, the first day I taught back-to-back classes through the screen of my computer.
“You totally learned how to do that, Mom. You can do this, Mom. Don’t worry so much. We love you.”
So, my kids are sweet, and I’m an optimist. I held on to their faith in me. And suddenly, it was Monday morning, and the head of school was checking each kid’s temperature before they were allowed to leave their cars, all of us masked and ready for the BIG FIRST DAY. I brought my group of sixth graders up to my room. The first day of middle school is hard enough as it is; now couple that with a pandemic—with masks and distancing and incessant hand washing. Add leaving your family for the first time in six months and having structure after months of running around feral in the Montana suburbs with the deer. My students needed me to make them feel comfortable, to make them laugh, to see my pretty and reassuring smile.
None of these things could happen.
Because I couldn’t hear one single damn word they said. Not one. Not even half of one.
The first thirty minutes or so of the day, I felt myself go into a strange stupor. It was like the stretched out gummy feeling of being really stoned, of the world feeling far, far away, of being an observer in your own, surreal reality. I didn’t have my spunk, my punch, my flair. I was just a bumbling bunch of confusion. See, I was supposed to be standing in my little six-foot circle while they are all in their perfectly marked quadrants. No more chats on the rug, shoulder to shoulder and laughing at the book I read aloud. No more spontaneous dance parties. No more pats on the back, high-fives, knucks—nada. Just me at the front of the room and them all spread out, old-school style.
I explained to the kids about not being able to hear, and they began to write their answers on their individual whiteboards. It didn’t exactly help the class flow, the vibe of settling in, but it worked a bit. As the week wore on, I’ve learned a few tricks—my best one is kneeling down to their level after entering their little “bubble” and putting my ear to their mouth (not six feet apart at all, maybe two? At best, three). I can maybe hope to hear a bit then. Hope. Work. Pray.
Our brains are amazing things. I had no idea how reliant I was on lip reading until I entered the masked world.
My sisters and I have talked about how, in some strange ways, we are glad that our mama died the November before the virus struck. We were able to be at her side for the week she spent in the hospital before her death. We held her, one of us always squeezed right beside her in the skinny hospital bed, sang to her, told her weird stories. We cried and cried and cried, our snot and germs and heaving, heavy breaths spraying droplets like a sprinkler of love and loss. If her stroke had struck a few months later, we wouldn’t have been able to be in the room, she would have been alone. I can’t imagine anything worse.
Or there’s the alternate world where she didn’t have a stroke but was still living in the retirement home where she spent her final years. The home that is slow like molasses, slow and stale and trimmed in gilt and framed sepia prints. Our mama would have hated being in the middle of the fear factory that is this pandemic, stuck inside of a place she already didn’t want to be a part of. She’d have been glued to the news and numbers, constantly on her phone, so very frustrated and sad to not have any of us visit her. I would have been trapped out here in Montana, scared of stepping foot on a plane, scared of big-city germs. In that alternate universe, she’s another thing that makes me sad for the world.
But this week, this morning, after the dream where she was sitting in my living room waiting for me when I walked in the door, all I want is her. I want her empathy. I want her questions. I want her long sighs of, “Oh, honey.” I want someone I can just moan and mope and be totally frail and scared and vulnerable with. I want her to hold me. I want her understanding as one of the only other human beings in my life who wears hearing aids. I want my mommy.