I’m sucking at life right now. There. I said it. Not that I had to, because I feel like it really is the world’s worst kept secret that I am floundering in pretty much every aspect of adulting at the moment. Don’t believe me? It took an hour to come up with that last sentence. Clearly, I am off my game.
I wasn’t always like this. Don’t get me wrong, I have always been a bit of a hot mess, but more in the fun-at-parties sort of way. But on the other side, I have also been very focused on my achievement, both professionally and personally. Back in 2005, when Oprah said to live your best life, I took that shit to heart. Since then, I have gone to grad school, moved to NYC to pursue an acting career, moved to Berlin in search of new adventures, and had many celebrations along the way. I took the road less traveled, and more often than not, I have enjoyed the journey.
But as I sit here in my room, on the verge of a second full COVID-19 lockdown, that life and the person who lived it seem awfully far away. My current reality is a lot less lively and not nearly as fun. When I first started teaching English here, my classes were a lot more fun. Since my students were so young, most of our learning was through games and play. We played tag, held hands, and sang songs. That is not the case now. All three of those things are off limits in these COVID times. So, I did what teachers do. I improvised. I came up with new games that didn’t involve physical contact. I adapted existing games to make them safer. I figured out movement activities that could be done while physically distant.
Beyond that, I also accepted my new roles as Social Distance Monitor and Hygiene Czar, which could each be their own full-time job. For anyone who has never tried to get 7-year-olds to social distance, they’re small, they’re fast, and they have WAY more energy than the average adult. Believe me when I tell you that herding cats is a far easier vocation. And don’t even get me started on the hand washing. Some of these kids have their fingers in their noses so often, I think there really must be gold in them there hills.
Additionally, I have been jumping through more administrative hoops than a trained monkey at a bureaucratic circus. Since August, I have meandered my way through a sea of changing regulations, constantly changing start dates and class times, and a myriad of other organizational problems. But I went with each alteration and as Tim Gunn would say, I made it work.
On top of all that, I have had to deal with my very real fears of this disease. Being an expat, I am in a precarious situation. I don’t really have a safety net if the unthinkable happens. If I’m hospitalized or can’t work for an extended period of time, I’m pretty much screwed. That’s why I was EXTREMELY careful when COVID-19 hit. I didn’t even meet people outdoors until halfway through June. So, when they announced that the schools would be open for face to face teaching in August, I was scared. For me, teaching in person means that not only am I trapped in an enclosed space with my little germ factories for hours at a time, but I am also out in these COVID streets six days a week, spending up to four hours a day on public transportation, commuting between schools. So, in addition to my concerns about my students’ lack of personal hygiene standards, I have had to worry about my fellow commuters who don’t understand that the mask goes OVER your nose.
With all of this on my mind, it’s easy to imagine how it could take a toll. A few weeks ago, when I was perilously close to ending a work email with “Full disrespect intended,” I realized that my patience might be a casualty of the added strain. This feeling was reinforced when my supervisor popped in a week later for a surprise evaluation (like…really? REALLY?!). I managed to keep my inner monologue at bay and put on a smile…at first. While the review was positive overall, he did note that as the day wore on, I became noticeably stricter with the children. I use a strike system, and by that last class, I was tossing those bad boys out like Oprah giving away cars. “You get a strike! You get a strike! You get a strike!” This would’ve been a great time to make a baseball reference, but y’all know I don’t get down with the sportsball. My athletic failings aside, I had to take a moment and consider what my supervisor said. Sad to say, he was right.
I have to admit, the lack of patience is just the tip of the iceberg. For the most part, I have lost the ability to focus on anything. Before school started back up, I was studying German daily. At the very minimum, I would study vocabulary for an hour a day. I can’t tell you the last time I did that. It’s been so long, my language app has started sending me “Hey stranger” messages. I also used to write all the time. During the summer, I would normally produce an essay a day. On a good day, I could crank out two. That is no longer the case. In fact, I have one article that I have been working on since the election that still isn’t finished. Hell, I have putting this piece off for the last four days. Procrastinating writing a piece about how you can’t get things done is the height of irony, but it is an accurate illustration of my current lack of focus.
My attention to detail is slipping as well. I used to be on top of every work email, every piece of paperwork, every bit of admin. Not anymore. I forget to respond to things, my paperwork is sloppy, my home office is in such a state of disarray that trying to find any kind of paperwork is like playing the worst round of Where’s Waldo ever. At one point, I received an email, replied to said email, and then a week later sent another email, stating that I had never received the original email. Obviously, I’m not at my best.
Not only that, but I am in a constant state of exhaustion. For at least the last month, I have woken up before my alarm and been unable to go back to sleep. My normal morning routine is to pour myself a coffee the size of my head as soon as I realize that sleep is not an option and spend the next hour sipping it and slowly assuming my human form. In the last couple of weeks, I have graduated to two of those giant cups, just to be able to function. No matter how much coffee I have, as soon as that last class ends, it’s like all of the energy is just sucked out of my body, and all I want to do is lie down. My normal after school activity these days is sitting on the couch drinking beer while mindlessly scrolling through social media and not watching whatever’s on tv, until it’s time for bed. The three-hour nap after my last class on Saturday has become a cherished ritual. And while there are plenty of things that I should do, I completely lack the will or desire to do them. As a matter of fact, I have needed to buy new socks for over a month, and I just haven’t managed to get myself off the couch long enough to do it.
Even at my best, I am easily distracted and forgetful. I will be thinking of something, and suddenly- SQUIRREL! I consider it part of my charm and joke about these lapses being my rocketsled to senility. After all, a beautiful mind is a terrible thing to waste. Usually, it’s little things like opening the stove to get a glass of milk, but it really feels like the current state of affairs has kicked things into high gear. Every day on my way to school, I have started playing a game called “What Did I Forget Today”. It’s a really fun game, because the answer is different every day. Not only that, but every time my electric toothbrush dies, it takes me at least four days to remember to recharge it. Today I took the linen off my bed, with the intention of washing them with my laundry. About four hours later, I walked past my stripped bed and wondered where the sheets went. A short search later, I found them in a corner of my room. Why were they there? I don’t know. Ask them. They won’t answer me.
I tell you all of this for one reason: I want you to know that whatever you are going through right now mentally or emotionally, you are not alone. 2020 has kicked the entire world squarely in the ass. We are ten months deep in a pandemic that could very easily go on for another ten. With the possible exception of Oprah, nobody is living their best life right now. Even those of us who are lucky enough to not be worried about things like eviction or food insecurity are struggling. Be easy on yourself. Allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling right now. If you need to cry, do it. If you need to vent, reach out to a friend. If you need to scream, maybe go somewhere remote and then let loose. (Sorry. I live in a city with really strict noise ordinances.) My point is, whatever you need to do to keep going, do it. It doesn’t have to be pretty or perfect, it just has to help you feel better.
For my part, a change of focus helped. After my evaluation, I had an epiphany. I realized that with all the new protocols, I had been so focused on how the pandemic was affecting my daily routine, that I forgot that my tiny humans were also going through a trauma. I had been so obsessed with maintaining strict boundaries and order, that I overlooked the fact that in March, their little worlds were turned upside down, and they haven’t been normal since. Of course, kids would be acting out more.
I affectionately refer to my classroom management style as a benevolent dictatorship. This is most definitely a moment where I, as a teacher, should be leading from a place of benevolence. So, that is what I did. I decided to use more positive reinforcement than negative. I now give them the chance to earn extra stickers and prizes through good behavior. Is it perfect? No. But it’s okay. The overall behavior is better, and I am less stressed out at the end of the school day.
I have taken that quest for the positive into my daily life, and it’s helping. I’ve had to let go of my normal expectations to make room for my reality. Is it perfect? No. But it’s okay. I’m not writing as much as I used to, and that’s ok. I’m not studying German right now, and that’s ok. I don’t have the energy or focus to do everything, but I will do the things I can, and that’s ok too. I have embraced the search for victories, no matter how small. I’m looking forward to my Christmas break, even though I can’t travel. I plan to cook my favorite foods, write, and learn German. These are all things that bring me joy. In these uncertain times, that is our quest: To find the joy, wherever we can.