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General News    H4'ed 6/1/21

Tomgram: Belle Chesler, Living in Pandemic Purgatory, Up Close and Personal

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I've thought about my situation more than once (who hasn't?) in these pandemic months. As it happens, I was in the equivalent of a work lockdown for years before Covid-19 hit our shores. I deserted an office setting early in this century and I've been running TomDispatch, while editing books from the small office in my apartment in New York City, ever since.

Nonetheless, that was a voluntary act. My choice. As soon as the pandemic hit big-time and President Trump began to blow it even bigger time, I felt imprisoned in a way I never had before. It was eerie, really. And the moment only got worse in the many months it took until I got vaccinated. The masks went on, the bottle of hand sanitizer slipped into my pocket, and my friends fell away. Their apartments became half-remembered zones in a forbidden universe. (Two of them, even older than me, got desperately sick from Covid-19.) The restaurants we used to visit - not that we would have eaten in them in those pandemic months - largely became empty holes in a neighborhood filled with closed shops and vacant storefronts. Zoom and FaceTime were new and, for me at least, uncomfortable realities. The phone became my lifeline to the world. It couldn't have been eerier, all in all, even if my wife and I didn't face the full-scale suffering of so many Americans, from essential workers to those in danger of losing homes, livelihoods, everything that mattered, even their lives, in the pandemic moment.

It's strange when you think about it. For all of us, this has been our year-plus personal nightmare, so who doesn't have a story? How could we not? TomDispatch regular and public school teacher Belle Chesler (the daughter, I might add, of my first friend on Planet Earth) was one of those Americans locked into an all-too-essential occupation and yet locked away herself. What a tale of what a year she has to tell! Tom

My Covid-19 Teaching Year
A World Unraveling Amid Smoke and Death and How One Teacher and Her Students Dealt With It


It seems appropriate that the 2020-2021 school year in Portland, Oregon, began amid toxic smoke from the catastrophic wildfires that blanketed many parts of the state for almost two weeks. The night before the first day of school, the smoke alarm in my bedroom went off. Looking back, I see it as a clarion call, a shrieking, beeping warning of all the threats, real and existential, we'd face in the year to come.

On that first day of what would be that fall's online version of school, I was still reeling from the loss of one of my dear friends. As wildfires approached her remote Sonoma County, California, home, she chose to end her life. She'd spent the initial months of the pandemic isolated from friends and loved ones, her serene mountain retreat no longer offering solace. She left no note, only a tidied kitchen and, according to those who'd attended a virtual yoga class with her on the last day of her life, a peaceful smile. She was my friend and I loved her.

Marooned inside our house, all the windows and doors tightly sealed, I stared into the grid of black boxes on Zoom that now represented the students in my high-school visual arts classes. I wondered how I'd find the strength to carry us all through the year.

As I greeted them, the air inside my home was stale, smoky, and distinctly claustrophobic. It was becoming harder to breathe. I struggled to find words of uplift. What do you say when the world is burning up all around you?

Ad-Hoc Childcare

Unable to find solutions to the larger and more menacing threats outside my door, I shifted my focus to managing the chaos inside. My first and most pressing concern was what to do with my nine-year-old daughter during the school day. My husband, who works outside our home as a studio artist, was under contract for a job that would last much of the year, ensuring us needed income at a time when so many had none. However, it also left us in a new type of childcare bind.

Last spring, a few friends, also teachers, realized that it was going to be next to impossible to juggle parenting and homeschooling, while simultaneously running our own classrooms. In the spirit of self-preservation and of maintaining a shred of sanity, we decided that three days a week we'd set the kids up, masked - and with blankets and heaters once it got cold - on our porches or in open garages. We decided that, at the very least, left largely to themselves they'd develop skills of resiliency and independence, and learn to navigate their fourth-grade year together.

We put our trust in our kids and gave up control. In truth, we had little choice. We all felt lucky and incredibly privileged even to have such an option. No matter how imperfect, at least it was a plan. Our kids were old enough to make our ad-hoc solution work and they seemed desperate enough to socialize in the midst of a pandemic that they were willing to tough out Portland's cold and rainy fall and winter outdoors together.

And so, until they resumed in-person learning in April 2021, our kids spent a majority of the school week together outside. When it was our day to host such a gathering, my husband set up the heaters, made sure the kids could log on, and left for work. For the rest of the school day, I would rush out to check on them between my classes, delivering food, warm tea, and more blankets if needed. I couldn't, of course, monitor their classroom attendance or help them with their work, but at least I knew that they were together, and could rely on one another. I'd then retreat back to the little room that I'd converted from an art studio to an office/classroom in order to teach my own students.

Going It Alone

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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