To My Students

“Comfort me!!!!!!”  -Bono (intro to “Until the End of the World”, Paris 2015)

Dear Students of Mine – and your respective families,

(I was going to call this blog “You are Going to Break My Heart”, but that was too depressing, and it was a Wilco rip-off. I don’t need the heat of winding up on Jeff Tweedy’s radar for copyright infringement. I heard he’s nice enough…)

This has been building for a little while, and I wish time would have allowed me to write earlier. Sadly, I’m under the same pressures you are. Writing for leisure – or to make a point in something not directly school related – is almost an impossibility. But this can wait no longer.

Last week, you made me cry on camera. Twice. It wasn’t your fault. Between the hours I put in and individual situations I’m aware of, exhaustion, and you know the drill – it just finally got to me. I just want good things to happen for you. All of you. And lately it seems like that if one of you improves, two more go the opposite direction – one step forward and three steps back. I want to fix things for you – and I’m beginning to realize that a full fix during online learning is probably beyond my control. (I’m an old pediatrician. You don’t go into medicine if you don’t want to FIX things. That part of me hasn’t died since I started teaching. I’ve told a few of you that I see myself more as a professional helper than a teacher. Anyway, back on point). For the record, my allergies are acting up in November, as I type this.

I started to come to the realization that a full fix isn’t what I can do, and it isn’t my job. And it isn’t what you need. Rather, what I’m about to suggest is something smaller – and maybe it’s something you can put in your back pocket for use after you are done with me (and I know some of you can’t wait for that.) Heck, I wake up in the morning, and sometimes I can’t wait to be done with me.

I want to pose this to you: I want you to entertain the idea that if you are struggling, that maybe it’s time to be open to some new ideas. Maybe, there’s a better way. I’m not promising radical improvement. I’m not that stupid. But sometimes, a little more better is good enough – so we’d best take it. It’s ok for things to be good enough in the short term. Sometimes, it’s all we’re going to get.

(When my son was 3 or 4, we were at my parents for dinner. My Mom made a chocolate cake for dessert. He got offered a slice. He turned to me and said, “It’s not enough.” We had an impromptu and impassioned talk on how “some cake is better than NO CAKE.” He got the picture rather swiftly. Perspective. He’s never living that down.)

1. As long as we’re together, I’m taking the words “self-care” out of your vocabulary. They are B.S. words made up by H.R. people that almost make us feel guilty for doing something simple: having fun. You are teenagers and it’s called having FUN. For the record, I don’t do “self-care” – I have fun (although as an adult, it’s not allowed as often. And you may not believe me, my fun is working with YOU. Again, former pediatrician here, so this is a true story). “Relaxing” and “goofing off” are also allowable terms – these are things that you are SUPPOSED to do.

Yes, it’s hard to have fun during Covid. But you have to do it. Selfishly for ME, you’ll do better with my stuff. Unselfishly, you’ll just feel better, and interactions will brighten up A BIT. Not a lot, but a bit. I can’t give you specifics on how to have fun during coronavirus. I struggle with that, too. Lately, it’s hiking when I have time and listening to comedians (I’ve been re-watching Jen Kober’s bit on Girl Scout cookies – a lot). If I catch any of you mentioning “self-care”, you lose points – and I’m vomiting just a little bit off camera.

2. Communicate. Yes, communicate with me. It’s not always what you think, however. Yes, if I send you an email to check on you, I actually want to hear back from you. Yes, if I call on you while online, you actually need to respond (proof of life?) But, there’s more…

There are times I stay on after class – during my lunch – to chat. I’d do this if we were at school. It takes two or three minutes to TALK. Birds. The weather. Where one can find a decent burrito in St. Louis. Why Beyoncé is overrated as a songwriter. Who CARES? It’s a semi-normal interaction, and it helps. (And I do enjoy this, a lot.) Heck, you can come and ASK questions during asynchronous (another TERRIBLE, makes-me-want-to-gag term) learning time. You don’t have to disappear completely. Come back, ask a question about what we’re learning – something that’s normal. And then talk for 2 minutes about non-school things. See how you feel. But there’s more…

Communicate with each other. I’ve had more students come to me about how many people / friends they HAVEN’T HEARD from. The school – for better or worse – is a social place. It’s been taken away from you. So – take a little back. Check in with your friends. You HAVE to do it. If you haven’t heard from someone, it’s on you to reach out. Break the ice. You have to force yourself to make contact with the people you care about when the typical methods have been taken away from you.

I don’t live in the same city as either of my siblings. I have to call them, or they have to call me. Do I hear from them as often as I want? No. But we reach out – or it would be forever and a day before we saw each other.

3. Sometimes, you have to make yourself do things you don’t like or that are uncomfortable. Turn on your camera every once-in-a-while. It brings me JOY to see you. I can read a little emotion on your face (don’t worry, I won’t make you keep it on for 90 minutes, I’m not THAT mean.) But the few of you that do turn it on occasionally – thank you. It has helped ME – and it has seemed to help you. A smile, a laugh, and a genuine shared moment that “for this brief second, my student is OK.”

But it applies to other things as well. It’s easy to retreat into your own world and not come out. It’s easy to put things off and then you avoid other important aspects of your life – your work, your teacher, your friends.

Act old – get a schedule, stick to it (I know, it’s hard. But there’s a reason I’m still wake up at 5 AM… it’s not completely paranoia and insomnia. Although I did have a dream two weeks ago that I was being attacked. In my dream, I was kicking my attacker. In my LIFE, I was falling out of bed at 3:30 A.M. with my right leg extended and landing on my butt… see, I’m off topic again.)

However, this “situation” that we’re in likely isn’t going away quickly. If we can’t avoid our way through it, sometimes we have to adapt to doing things. We have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. We have to try to create some “normal” in this abnormal. You can do it, but you have to be willing to step out of your shell a bit. Take that leap just a bit.

4. When someone offers you help, take it. It’s not a sign of weakness on your part. It’s intelligence and something that we should never be too proud to do – even as adults (I know, I suck at this. But I’m better than I used to be.) Corollary to this: you can ASK for help. Better to learn at 16, 17, and 18 than at 39. Not that anyone is teaching high school after learning THAT lesson the hard way.

5. Be kind to yourself. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t need to be 90%, or 80% of your best. Do what you can – and don’t apologize for it. I’ve gotten so many apologies from you. It’s ok – I get it. There seems to be this young adult tendency to put yourself out there ONLY when you can give 100%. That has to end now. Give it your best shot – if it’s 100%, great. If it’s less, I’m truly grateful for that, too. We can’t always function at 100% – especially not now.  Give me what you have – and I’m thankful for it! I’m the adult; let me adapt to you.

By the way, your “best” will come back to you. I’m sure of this – I’ve lived this, too. The frustrating part is that you just don’t know the timetable of when it will come back. Add that to the list of all the things we don’t know right now. Relax – and I’ll take what you can REASONABLY give me. It’s one less worry on your plate.

6. Above all, know that I miss you terribly. I miss the fun of being in the room with you. I miss stupid jokes (and getting heckled for them), throwing markers and dancing (horribly) in the classroom when I get excited because you got something right, pouring a little instant hot chocolate when needed, providing snacks during tests, and all the things that make working with you fun. You make teaching enjoyable – you make my LIFE enjoyable. I’ll keep working my ass for you, I promise. And until we’re back in the room together – you have to find a different way of taking care of yourself. So please, consider a slightly different approach, or at least listening that there might be another way. If you can’t help yourself – it’s alright. You should consider taking a firm grip of my outstretched hand. The offer is sincere, and we’ll figure it out together.

Goddamn November allergies…

Respectfully submitted,

Doc

PS – I think I should have ripped-off a Wilco song title for this blog. If Mr. Tweedy had wanted to fight me, I think I could take him. He doesn’t look THAT tough. Maybe his lawyers are…

Author: Jason Kesselring

I am a 42 year old high school chemistry teacher (and former pediatrician), happily married, and a father of two wonderful children.

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