COVID-19, Student writing, teaching

Pandemic Souvenirs

The last thing I ever need is more mugs. 

Well, maybe the truly last thing I need is more canvas tote bags – but mugs may come in a close second. I do have a lot of books also, but . . . I will always need more books, let’s be real. A mug is such a frequent prize or souvenir, a popular, inexpensive and easily brand-able giveaway in a goodie-bag. In spite of the fact that our cabinet is overfull of mugs (in further spite of my having done a couple of significant mug-purges in my mug-owning life), I still welcome mugs into my world. I don’t actively seek them out, though. I may pick one up from time to time, from the display shelf of the artist co-op, but I have trained myself to put them back again and walk away. I don’t buy mugs anymore. My partner doesn’t buy mugs anymore. They find their way to me, to us. Over this past pandemic year, three new mugs joined the exclusive collection in our kitchen cabinet. 

A brown coffee mug with a logo for Surly Brewing Company
Image by Liz Ahl

This first mug arrived in August 2020, with no indication as to who’d sent it. No note. Right from the brewery, which is in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was someone who knows that our home is called “Surly Acres.” Surly Brewing had to close their Beer Hall at the end of October, due to revenues being down 82% (compared with the same period the previous year) since the pandemic’s start. 

There was some speculation that they closed the Hall as a union busting move in response to their employees announcing an effort to unionize. The vote to unionize failed in early October, by one vote. The company is still brewing and selling beer, and the Beer Hall is still closed. I’m not sure what the status of the unionizing effort is at present. A more recent vote to unionize Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama also failed. I have served as a member of our university’s Faculty Union negotiating team this year – and it has been pretty strange and sometimes not so great trying to renegotiate a fair and transparent contract over Zoom during a pandemic, on top of the ongoing dismantlement and defunding of higher education, on top of everything else. 

The very notion of “working conditions” (“learning conditions!” “living conditions!”) has taken on new textures and urgencies — for our faculty, staff and students, as well as residents of the small New England town where our university has existed for 150 years. Since March 2020, the “work” many of us are doing — to learn, to live — has shifted profoundly, to varying ends. Much has been written by people smarter than I about all that has been revealed by both the pandemic and by responses to the pandemic.  And of course the financial “conditions” within which public higher education, especially in New Hampshire, has struggled to survive, already desperate in pre-COVID years, were further revealed, amplified, and, by some, leveraged as reasons to, oddly, cut even more deeply, as the pandemic’s conditions were added to the mix. 

***

When I received that Surly Brewing mug, I reached out on Facebook to see if I could get the secret gifter to identify themselves, but nobody ever claimed credit – so I still don’t know who sent it. It’s a good, solid mug. Decent size. You could see drinking beer from it, as it’s got a mild “tankard” vibe, though so far I’ve only had coffee. 

A white coffee mug with an orange handle, with the all caps text "YOU'RE ON MUTE" and a red microphone icon with a slash through it
Image by Liz Ahl

The second mug, sporting the text “YOU’RE ON MUTE,” arrived right around Christmas – again, anonymously. Again, I posted a photo on Facebook, with the caption, “I feel seen. (But not heard.)” Under the caption, I wrote, “THANK YOU to whoever sent this to me, possibly someone with whom I spent a lot of time in Zoom these last months, someone who has witnessed and can attest to my ongoing struggle with the un/mute function.” 

Teaching remotely for the first time over the last year, not by choice, to students who are learning remotely, some for the first time, some not by choice, has troubled assumptions or habits of my own teaching in productive, fascinating, frustrating, helpful and sometimes paralyzing ways. It has stirred up old insecurities and nurtured new ones. Some of what is being troubled by teaching online was already shifting in my third decade of teaching. Much of what is being troubled has needed troubling. 

I have been thinking about the myth (it feels like a myth) of “synchronicity” embedded in ubiquitous questions about “asynchronous versus synchronous online courses.” I have, perhaps more importantly, been reflecting on how that myth or set of assumptions has infused so much of my teaching in the physical classroom. I have been thinking about (a)synchronicity with respect to important (to me) pedagogical notions such as accident and improvisation and surprise and planning and emergence. I have also been wading a little further, if still gracelessly, into “ungrading.” 

The use of Zoom as the main way of connecting with students, advisees, colleagues, and friends, is exhausting. Zoom takes energy from me that it does not give back the way I have found that being in a live classroom gives back. The “option” (is it really an option if the conditions of the pandemic forced the choice?) to learn from a distance has been a real boon to some of my students, or so they tell me, and a real burden for others and, I think, a mixed bag for many. I’m guessing the same is true for some of my colleagues, but am curious to know more.

One Zoom boon for me has been a new degree of access to talks, seminars, workshops, and especially readings and Q&A’s with poets I’d not otherwise be able to hear “live” because of geographic distance. For readings I haven’t been able to attend, there are often (not always) recordings I can view later. I do occasionally feel strange guilt (?) for not taking even more advantage of the bounty that is available via Zoom, especially with regard to poetry readings — but I am spending so much time on the screen, I feel like I need extra or different “rest.” The bounty can be exhausting. 

An old, dear friend (also a colleague) did confess to having sent me this mug. It was a much needed and appreciated gesture and moment of levity. I haven’t used this mug as much as the Surly one. I should bring it into the rotation.

***

In the mid-Fall of 2020, I stopped making the trip onto campus to be Covid-tested – because – why bother? I was teaching remotely. True, it meant I wasn’t allowed on campus or in campus buildings at all, but I started to feel, as winter crept in, that it might actually be more risky to go in to get tested than to stay home and not be tested. For the most part, I wasn’t going anywhere besides the Rite-Aid drive through and the Local Foods Plymouth curbside pickup. The only time I entered another building besides our house was to go to my regular required blood tests at the health clinic, and a few times to the post office. Both of those experiences masked and very brief, in the five to ten minute zone. The thought of going to stand in line for a possibly longer time than that, and among a possibly bigger number of folks, many of whom were spending time in residence halls and classrooms together, just didn’t make sense. Also, I think it was making me increasingly sad and anxious to go onto the quiet pandemic campus, the masked and socially distant campus, the once-familiar-now-strange campus where I was only a visitor. Of course it was also making me sad and anxious not to go onto campus. It has been a sad and anxious time. Maybe mugs — with their attendant connotations of cozy warm beverages, steam rising, or maybe a mug of soup — symbolize for me a kind of comfort or deep, common familiarity.

At the end of February, 2021, a box arrived in the mail from a friend and colleague, Amanda. I opened up the box to find a blue #PanthersUnited wristband – which was how they were tracking which students had gotten a particular week’s Covid test on my college campus; a set of “honey spoons” (solid honey on the end of a stick so you can stir it into your tea); and a “First Fire” mug. And a very kind and loving note, so needed. I wrote at the time, “I have not once ever been so moved by the gift of a mug.” 

A photograph of a white coffee mug for "First Fire 2020 Plymouth State University," a package of clover honey "spoons", a blue "Panthers United" wristband, and an envelope with the word "Hi" written on it
Image by Liz Ahl

Amanda, who was being COVID-tested on campus, knew I would be especially happy to get one of the 2020 First Fire mugs they were handing out that day. On our campus, “First Fire” is a recent tradition, but already a well-loved one, during which the first fire of the fall is lit in the fireplace in our student union building. Folks come and enjoy donuts and coffee or hot cider in that year’s commemorative mug. And, most years, I write and recite a poem for the occasion. The poem is, I’m afraid, what you have to endure to get your free mug and donut. I try to keep it short.

A woman with long brown hair and glasses, wearing a purple shirt, speaks at a podium displaying four coffee mugs
Me reading a poem at the 2015 Plymouth State University “First Fire”

There was an attempt to hold a kind of socially distanced pandemic version of First Fire for this past fall, but it never quite came together. But they’d ordered the mugs already. Maybe far in advance? Ordering the mugs seems like an optimistic move. I did not start drafting a poem ahead of time for the occasion; I pretty much didn’t write a poem from May until December. Had I been pressed, I’m afraid I couldn’t have summoned the lightness or cheer such an occasion seems, reasonably, to ask for. But I was not pressed.

I haven’t had a drink from the 2020 First Fire mug yet. I need to remedy that. I’m more of a coffee drinker, but I should have at least one cup of tea in this mug, so I can swirl the honey stick in it, for the full effect. 

***

I have collected, not entirely intentionally, a number of souvenirs from this year, though to call some of them souvenirs feels a little strange. But also right. A small collection of cotton masks made by a local acquaintance, from different fun fabrics. The playlists of recorded Zoom poetry readings, many of which I’ve attended “live” through the screen. A year’s worth of the town’s weekly newspaper. A good deal of student writing about their pandemic experiences. The stash of letters and postcards I’ve accumulated since last summer, when I posted online that if anybody wanted me to write to them, they should message me their mailing address. I wrote and am still writing a lot of letters and postcards – and so many folks wrote (and still write!) back. 

With my students in Composition and Advanced Composition this semester, I did some brief in-class writing, discussion, peer feedback and assignment-prompting around totems, artifacts, and other significant objects. This was inspired in large part by the commemorative exhibition at my university, marking its 150th birthday with 150 objects. When I was thinking about how to spark conversation about how common, familiar objects might be made strange and powerful because of our own experiences and imaginations, I wanted to bring my own examples as a way of sharing a little bit of myself across the physical (and other) distances between me and my students. 

With my Composition students, I shared a twist-tie — you know, the kind that holds the plastic bag of a loaf of bread closed. By shared, I mean, I dug it out of the travel toiletries kit  where it has lived for years, biding its time. By shared, I mean, I held it up to the Zoom camera and told them how when we scattered my dad’s ashes into the Hood Canal five years ago, they were in a plastic bag, tied with this twist-tie, which, when I opened the bag, I stashed thoughtlessly in my pocket. Later, at home, getting ready for bed I guess, I rediscovered the twist-tie, and it was as if I was pulling from my pocket a different object than I had tucked in there hours before. Before scattering dad’s ashes with my mom and brother. Before coming home again to the house without him. Instead of tossing the twist-tie in the trash, I tucked it into my toiletries kit.  

In Advanced Composition, for one class session, I asked us all to check out the online “150 objects” exhibition and to bring to class at least one object of our own that held special personal significance. An object with a story, one we’d be comfortable sharing. I set up a Google document called “Museum of YOU” and invited students to share photos of their object(s) there. The Surly Brewing mug at the start of this essay was one of three objects I brought to our collective museum that day. I have since shared this essay (in earlier draft form, and now in this later draft) with my students. The insightful feedback I got from my Advanced Composition students in particular has really helped me continue to develop this draft, though it also still feels unfinished. As I type this, slogging towards the end of April, the semester is unfinished, the pandemic is unfinished, the essay is unfinished.

***

Many folks will have souvenirs from this time — and not just physical objects. Some of the souvenirs may feel like wounds, may be wounds. Some will carry and endure for the rest of their lives the deeply embodied and long-term physical and emotional consequences of “surviving” COVID-19. So many have died. So many have lost loved ones. Can an absence be a souvenir? Can a wound? I worry that it’s not the right word. Souvenirs not to “have” like one “has” snow globes or commemorative coins. Souvenirs not sought out but received nonetheless. There are probably souvenirs of my experience of this time that I will hardly, if ever, be able or willing to fully comprehend or claim as such. There are unfinished essays, unfinishable essays, essays unwritten. 

In terms of the physical objects that are named and kept as mementoes, there must be such variety out there. What are your souvenirs? What will you carry, willingly or otherwise, from this time? It is maybe too soon, maybe even too cruel, to ask. But I think there will be the obvious ones, the masks and hospital bracelets, but also the more personal and idiosyncratic and totemic ones – the pandemic souvenir that’s only decipherable as such to one person, but which, to the rest of us, is just a book of poems, or a single knitted sock, or a particular song, or a houseplant, or a twist-tie, or a sturdy coffee mug, one among many, waiting its turn in the cabinet above the coffee pot.

NOTE: I had thought I was going to write more, or revise further, or, I don’t know, have some kind of deeper insight or epiphany, before sharing this more broadly. But yesterday I came upon the photo of me reading at the 2015 First Fire, which reminded me that I had drafted this essay with my students, and that I had wanted to return to it/share it. I added that photo to the essay and changed two words, but otherwise, this draft is as it was in April. It still feels unfinished, but something about the photo made me want to share this essay here. So. Here.

Student writing, teaching

Shifts

MaineVacationJune2007 124When Plymouth State University switched to online learning right after spring break due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my students found themselves thrown into not only the traumatic disruption of their schooling, but into unemployment, extra/new employment, stressful or precarious living situations, housing and food insecurities, stress surrounding seeing (or not being able to see) loved ones, sudden childcare responsibilities, isolation-related mental health struggles, illness or illness of a family member, and/or so many conditions and circumstances that seemed bent on keeping them off-balance, exhausted, pulled in many directions.

When I invited my Composition students to take a pass at writing something about their experiences during the pandemic, if they wanted to, a few took me up on it — “C.S.” not only accepted the prompt, but really ran with it, and kept running. We talked on Zoom a few times in addition to exchanging drafts, talking not only about her writing process, but life at home, the strangeness of physical and social distancing, and what her education was feeling like these days. I share her essay here with her permission, because her voice is important and her story illuminating, one that will resonate with many readers. It’s an essay I’m grateful to read, one I learned from.

SHIFTS

MaineVacationJune2007 124

by C.S.

Spring Break

Being away from home and living on a University campus can sometimes feel like living in a bubble; I say this because my main concerns while living in the bubble are school and social life. The campus bubble is a curious concept, one that both connects and disconnects a person from the world. While I am advancing my studies, making new friends and living on my own, there are a few disconnects as well; for example, I no longer tune into local news on the television or pay too much attention to an ‘outside world’ only what is in the bubble around me.

Spring break was finally here, the second week of March. I was so excited to see friends and family, and it would be a perfect time to pick up a few shifts at the nursing home.  During my junior year of high school, I obtained my Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) license. I have been working as a CNA for almost two years now, so coming home and picking up a few shifts was nothing new to me. Since I no longer watch news broadcasts on the TV, I relied on what I saw on social media, but just a few posts here and there across social media mentioned that Coronavirus was starting to spread and filter around the United States, I did not think it would come to affect the world around me as much as it would.

I decided to pick up a twelve-hour shift on Sunday, March 11th. I can never seem to sleep the night before a long shift. So when my alarm rang at five fifty in the morning, it was not a surprise to me as I was basically already awake. Groggily I put my scrubs on, clipped my badge reel and buckled my watch. I scanned my badge to get into the building and headed up to the assisted living floor. I was the only day shifter to be there on time. The night shift nurses sipped the last of their energy drinks and cold coffee. The halls were still dimmed. I walked over to the nurses’ station and read the staffing clipboard. Call-outs on every floor. Taking my assignment list of residents who I would care for, I read through them and passed by their rooms to see if any of them were starting to wake up.

As the day started to roll and the hallway lights shifted from overnight to daytime bright, all the residents, nurses, and nurses assistants like myself were glancing at the televisions in the halls or listening in as we busily passed by. The virus dubbed Covid-19 was spreading across the United States rapidly. Local, state and federal officials were giving speeches on every news channel. I was assigned to supervise the elders’ breakfast with another nurse. She was the definition of a mom-friend, nurse, and boss lady. I guess one could say I looked up to her. She and I walked around and checked on the residents, but I wasn’t prepared for what the overhead speaker would say next.

The mystery voice announced there would be an emergency supervisors meeting shortly. I looked at her confused. She is a floor supervisor and also one of the nurse educators, so she was required to go. I sat on a rolling stool, watching the news. I collected most of the meal trays and started to help residents pack up, passing back walkers, canes, and pushing those in wheelchairs. I was having a very typical day, nothing was out of the ordinary. Influenza type B was going around the nursing home and that explained a few of the call outs. All and all, it was a very typical day. The overhead speaker came on once again, the disembodied voice said all floors were to host a mini-meeting at the nurses’ station.

This is when things got real. No visitors allowed, No activities for residents, No dining room socials. All residents were to stay in their rooms and were to be limited when visiting each other. All non-essential employees were to be dismissed. We were going into some sort of facility lockdown. The regular seasonal flu itself is enough to knock an Elder down, but this new virus would be fatal.

We talked for fifteen minutes, watched a personal protective equipment donning and doffing example and then reviewed what each level of precaution is and signed inservice papers. Then the conversation we had next scared me and that’s when I realized how real this could be.

The nurse that I trust the most, my mother-like figure at work went on to say that face masks of all sorts would now be limited. Gowns and other personal protective equipment would now be restricted. We were directed to use clear vinyl gloves and leave the blue latex alone. They were cutting and limiting resources to save and store. This left me very uneasy, and I still had seven hours out of my twelve-hour shift left.

After I spent all morning showering, bathing, and assisting my residents to prepare for their day I had to tell them all activities were canceled, and no visitors were allowed at this time. It was very hard to explain to grandmas and grandpas that they were not allowed to have visitors come and on top of that afternoon, coffee social was canceled. Every room on the seventy-bed floor had one news channel on or another. All of us were watching the school closure updates, the social distancing lectures, and being reminded of proper handwashing. Residents became scared and stressed. Family and friends called the nursing station non-stop. I was growing nervous as well. When I went to take my lunch break, I walked by the front lobby and administration offices. Family and friends were arguing with administrators over not being able to see their loved ones. Beautiful bouquets of flowers placed on office desks with well-wishing cards and thinking-of-you notes. My heart started to ache. I went about the rest of my shift as normally as I could.

I will never forget how serious the day turned as things worsened on the news. Being told we had to restrict and minimize personal protective equipment usage to avoid wasting could not be more frightening. Telling residents that their daily activities, like crafting hour or afternoon coffee would be canceled until this is resolved was heartbreaking to me; it was so hard to explain to them what was going on without instilling a panic or fear. Seeing the family members argue with directors and administration, seeing flower bouquets clustered on the secretary desks, seeing the activity ladies pack up and go home without employment; it seemed like something only a movie could portray, yet I just lived through it.

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Second Shift

Originally my scheduler could only give me one twelve-hour shift during my spring break, but once things started to change, so did the staffing plans. I agreed to work the day shift on the Wednesday following that Sunday shift. Two days. Only two days passed in between my last shift and my next one. Two days. Things at my facility have changed drastically. Some staff were so scared they quit, more people than usual called out, residents were sad and fearful. Orange and red signs posted everywhere, No Visitors and No Vendors. Another sign posted, that I wish I never read, said, “No Entry Unless Actively Dying Hospice.” That policy made me wish I never learned to read, something about it shattered my heart and kicked my morale in the teeth. We were required to wear a face mask and gown when providing care to a resident. The gowns make you hot and the mask makes you think that stale hallway air is the purest oxygen you will know. The nurses’ station was clear of coffee and energy drinks. It was the cleanest I’d ever seen. Hallways were empty, any activity or social event for the residents were completely canceled, residents were restricted to what neighbor they could visit and when. Residents were to stay in their rooms.

During this shift, residents asked questions and my answers were hard to give. They wondered why they could not have visitors, they wondered how their friends next door were doing, they asked why I was covered with a blue plastic sheet and had a mask covering my smile.

One resident teared up and said to me, “I am not dirty, I am not infected, please let my husband come in.”

It was very hard to answer these questions or respond to their pleas. Each question and person who asked or pleaded with facility policy is burned into my memory. I will not forget how emotionally charged this shift was.

I thought about my residents who have dementia or memory impairments and needed routine, structure, and visitors to help them get by. It made me think about how having a loved one visit, gathering in the main dining room for coffee hour, sitting in your friend’s room and other daily activities were taken away from these residents. It made me think about how stressful, lonely, and challenging it must be for them all. This shift made me realize more than ever how my residents need me; they need a friend, an ear, a caregiver. The nursing staff was not just their caregivers but their family.  I guess I always take my job as a nursing assistant for granted. I always tell myself it’s just a stepping stone for my nursing career and that I just need to do my time in assisted care, but it is times like these where the elders need us more than ever; even to just sit, listen and care for them.

This shift was very hard on me emotionally to get through, the world was changing and a virus was spreading rapidly. The cutback and supply limits frightened not just me but my co-workers who have been in the healthcare game for a while. I watched my co-workers steal boxes of gloves, shove extra facemasks into their purse, build their own first aid kit in the supply closet; all in fear for themselves and their loved ones.

I was the youngest one working, nurses and aides I looked up to were now panicked and worried.

The whole shift was nothing like one I’ve had before. I will never forget these two days.

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Welcome to Zoom University, an Online Learning Experience

By the last day of spring break, my in-person higher education would be switched to online courses for the upcoming two weeks. At this point, my phone buzzed and dinged with calls and texts from friends, family, and the nursing home. The nursing home was short-staffed on every shift basically each day. I had to respond politely that I was no longer on spring break, I was back to school, making me unavailable for shift pickups. It did not take long for the spring semester to be fully transferred online; it was my next learning journey.

With shifting to online courses,  I was presented with another round of challenges. Some of the main challenges included the lack of in-person learning through gaps in communication with some educators, students also lost on-campus utility access like a printer and courses had to abruptly alter syllabi in which corners were cut in education by removing lab work or skipping chapters. As a nursing student, we have labs to take along with lectures. Since we were no longer on campus and class could not be held in the lab, my fellow students and I missed muscle twitch and stimulation projects.

Another issue that arose with shifting into remote learning and the idea that students are being confined to a home, is that some professors have taken this idea as a way to assign or create a heavier course load to keep students engaged or involved under the assumption that students are doing nothing while at home has freed time to complete a different workload and by becoming unsympathetic to the challenges outside of schooling one might face. Some students are more comfortable or even luckier than another student; one may have returned home to an unsteady income and have to enter a job deemed essential during this time to help their families, or someone who now has to take on another role for their siblings as caretakers or early educators,  or even those who might live in a heavily affected area causing them to have more invisible alterations to their life.

Though this shift is flawed, I have noticed some positives as well.  Even though there were significant communication losses, there were some communication gains; some professors were now being more thorough with directions, more timely with email responses and some even lessened required projects. I think this has also been a good way to measure if online courses could be something a student might consider or not in the future.  A more personal positive that was brought to my attention was my ability to have more control over my personal learning and could implement specific learning needs, such as the advantages of  having access to power points or presentations, or having the ability to rewatch or re-listen to lectures that were not recorded before.

Though my focus shifted back into more studious tasks, my nursing home would call; they needed me to come in. I could not pick up shifts, I had Zoom classes to attend, textbook excerpts to memorize and news reports to watch. Learning from home has been an impactful life shift and challenge, not to mention outside factors that may worsen a student’s capability to focus on or complete work, considering the state of the world right now. This has been a challenging learning curve, one that I had never seen coming.

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Guilty and Fearful

I have thought about working every day. I think of my residents. I think of my co-workers. I think about the stress, the fear, the sickness. I have had my facility message me for shift pick-ups nonstop and coworkers messaging me asking why I am not working and how selfish of me it is to stay home.

I have guilt. I think about it constantly. I don’t want to feel this way, but I do. I am an aide, I am a nursing student; I want to help, I want to provide care. I am still a kid, I am still in school. I am conflicted, I have a fall semester to pay for but I am more afraid of getting sick.

Guilty thoughts fill my mind. My facility sent me a letter in the mail, reminding me of my per-diem duties scheduling me for the end of May without my input. It was a threat and served as a reminder not to abandon my commitment to the facility.

Weighing even heavier on my shoulders was fear, the fear of falling ill under the sickly grasp of Covid-19. Throughout my time being quarantined, I have lived in an anxiety-induced state, like many others, over my chronic illness, Asthma. Asthma has plagued my lungs since the day I entered this world. During Flu season, I caught Influenza B, which took a huge toll on my health. This had required me to visit the Health Service office on campus. These visits were daily, as I was subjected to having my breathing monitored. Seeing as a common cold could hit me hard as it could, I can’t imagine putting myself at risk against this all-new virus. This provided me a fork in the road, should I continue feeling guilty and selfish or play it safe and lock myself at home?

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Concluding Thoughts

Almost two months have passed since that first shift. The world around me has been tested and challenged like never before. My learning has been altered, going to the store to pick up a missing recipe item has now become a second thought, seeing friends and family has been turned virtual. No one could have foreseen such drastic alteration in such a short period of time. Uncertainty, worry and fear are now feelings to be felt more than usual. I harbor guilt, stress for school and often worry of what might happen the next day. This situation is so surreal it almost feels like a sick joke on me and the rest of the world. I still find it hard to believe the world is under lockdown, but I truly believe that if we all work together and stay home, we just might possibly slip through the cracks of Covid-19’s grubby paws.