A Report in September

Esther Meek once made an offhand comment I have always remembered. She said, “You can’t look into a human face and not be changed.” I think of this remark whenever I step through the door of the school where I work and simultaneously tug my mask up over my nose and mouth. Everything I believe about teaching leads me to say that a teacher’s face is his most important tool. A shift in expression can inspire, challenge, encourage, confront, or change a student. With half of my face covered, connecting with my students requires exponentially more effort. They can’t read my expression and I can’t gauge their reactions.

I have to remind myself that, even without masks, students rarely reveal what they’re thinking. In some ways, that’s the whole challenge of teaching: startling the student out of “I don’t care” into “But what about…?” I’d rather see a thicket of outraged faces than rows of listless blanks. The masks only make it more difficult. On the other hand, I’ve found that, in certain situations, I can use the anonymity my own mask provides to my advantage. Discipline, for example, is much easier when the offender can’t read your expression and projects his own guilt onto the judge. I may as well wear a mirror to reflect the student’s own conscience-stricken face back to him. But discipline is only one part of what a teacher does. The kind of change that goes down to the bones needs face-to-face interaction.

The other anti-COVID steps taken by schools in my area have revealed the arbitrariness of all scholastic practices. For example, the administration at my school has encouraged us to take the students outside occasionally to give them some fresh air and a break from their face coverings. This being Alabama, the weather isn’t always pleasant, but when it is, I catch myself thinking, “Why don’t we do this more often? Why teach seven subjects back to back with every student sitting at a desk?” I know that there are other schooling systems that are way ahead of me in this area (Charlotte Mason, Montessori, homeschooling). I simply mean that the pandemic has put up for discussion many things that were previously off the table.

It’s amazing to see how cleverly the students have adapted. Since the water fountains have been turned off to reduce the spread of germs, every student brings a water bottle. Students are not allowed to play games that involve physical contact, so they play kickball, using discarded masks as bases. I have noted before the level of creativity inspired by the coronavirus. In some ways, responding to such a bizarre September is an education in itself.

A Man is Outside Again

Yesterday, Birmingham asked residents to “shelter in place,” which means only leaving the house for essentials. I think the city gov does count exercise as an essential, but in any case, I’m glad we went to Sicard Hollow before the announcement was made.

Fat clouds, strong breeze, open space. Apart from the humidity, I could have almost believed I was back in Idaho.

A Man Looks Forward

Invisible, yet active, headless, crowned,
A microscopic devil holds us bound
Inside our homes, aflush with fear
And fever, waiting for the axe.
We dread as much the atmosphere
Of quiet thought as brash attacks,
For contemplation shows us that the soul
Is damaged. Splendid, surely, but not whole.

In lieu of sackcloth, ghostly masks are wrapped
Around our mouths as, gasping, we adapt
To quarantine, these forty days
Of washing, fasting, sacrifice.
Each of us in our closet prays,
Raw fingers gripping in a vice
The subtle heart that brought us to this end
We knew would come, but could not comprehend.

Is there no mercy tipping heaven’s scale?
If viruses and panic cause travail,
They further make us look inside
Ourselves, undrape the sheeted mind,
And recognize the gods we tried
To curry favor with are blind.
The firmament above burns brilliantly
When Easter dawns. Oh, give us eyes to see!

What a Man Recommends for Redeeming the Time of Coronavirus

Josh Gibbs has been posting daily updates over at the Cedar Room about filling your time while on break from school. Today, he recommends five documentaries. Documentaries aren’t my go-to, but hey, quarantine’s like Calvinball. The rules are always changing. We’ll give ’em a shot.

Yesterday, Josh tried to start an internet fight with this sentence: “For my money, Lewis was not a very good theologian.” It’s a sign of how serious our current situation is that no evangelical commentator had the energy to argue.

A Man is At Home

Yep. Me, too. School’s been canceled for T and Ph, so all three of us will be cozying up in our two-bedroom apartment. I do still have to teach remotely, which will be an adventure in itself, but if I can figure out a system for that, we’re in for a relaxing twenty-one days (and beyond!). Our shelves are stocked (with books). Our TP is plentiful. No one’s sick, as yet.

Still, seeing the same four walls every day gets old (gimme new four walls, please), so T and I have given ourselves a two-item daily checklist to keep us sane:

  1. Exercise
  2. Go outside

Day 2, and we’re going strong! Ask again in three weeks…

Vestavia Library hike

When I first became aware of the extent of the panic and despair surrounding the coronavirus situation and what steps might be taken in order to halt its spread, I immediately saw it as an opportunity. Not an opportunity for technological innovation, though, as many people have pointed out, this global quarantine (an oxymoron?) will be the first real stress-test of our much vaunted tools for remote working. Nor an opportunity for direct Christian witness, though Christians can and should be ministering to those around them during this dual-pandemic (a plague of flu combined with a plague of fear) in ways that are selfless and wise.*

The opportunity I’m talking about is captured in this short blog post by Kitty O’Meara (HT my brother Smith):

And the people stayed home. And they read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And they listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.

And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.

And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live, and they healed the earth fully, as they had been healed.

One Instagrammer suggested the earth may be punishing humanity for the sin of climate change. Another applauded the sentiment as though it represented all the justice in the world. If that doesn’t represent despair, I don’t know what does. O’Meara’s quote has a grain of that, but the substance of it is that when people are forced to stop hustling and be still, they are receptive to all kinds of things that they resisted before.

If you’re in the habit of creating stuff for other people, especially short bite-sized stuff (songs, poems, short stories), consider this an opportunity to share. People are cheered by beauty, as Malcolm Guite can attest, and in times of despair, they need it more than ever.

Consider this also an opportunity to create more than you normally do. The leaves of newspapers are sticky with panic over the various shortages we may or may not experience in the coming months. What the pundits fail to realize is that people, especially people who have the chance to sit still, produce wealth. And I mean wealth of all kinds.

*In an email to the congregation late last week, Pastor Lusk shared this quote from Martin Luther about Christian witness in the time of the Black Death:

I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.

A Man Panics Sensibly

Put on your best clothes
for the end of the world.
Wear mohair and gold
watches. A match
or two of tennis
wouldn’t be amiss
at the end of the world.
Plant a vegetable.
Fill a table to the edge
with dishes that draw
exhalations of thanks.
Pray. Play. Work. Eat.
Go to sleep asprawl
unlike a cowed goat.
For us humans being
at the end of the world
is the best time of all.