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.