I wanted to buy a puppy for my daughter's third birthday, but didn't have enough money. The year was 1990. As o exited the store and made my way back to my car, I noticed an older woman struggling to gather the puppies in her yard. They had somehow managed to escape the cage that was now dropped to its left side in her yard.
"Cute doggies," I said admiring the way they frolicked and scampered over each other.
She rolled her eyes jokingly and shouted, "they're a handful!" Her blond hair outlining her tiny face beneath its curls.
Giggling, I responded, "I'll take one. I'll take one now if you'd let me."
She turned her entire body towards me and said, "I'll give you that one," she said, pointing to the puppy covered in light brown fur.
"What's wrong with that one?" I asked, moving closer toward the gate to observe the puppy sitting alone in the corner while the others play.
"Don't know. Seems he misses his mother the most. He was born last. And when his mother died, he just stopped playing altogether. He needs extra love."
My heart melted. The pup's eyes met mine, and as if he knew he was wanted, he slowly got up and walked towards us. The aged lady gently picked him up and said, "Okay. If you're up for the challenge, he's yours."
I thanked her and walked briskly to my car and went to the nearest pet store. I bought food and filtered water. I wondered what name I should give him. Then decided I would ask my daughter. I drove cautiously and spoke with him throughout the journey. The time seemed to go slowly as I sat outside my daughter's school waiting for her dismissal.
It seemed forever, but finally the time read, three o'clock and I saw my daughter running towards our car. She could not contain her excitement the minute she saw the pup in my car. She immediately called him 'Lucky'. They bonded. Lucky became her bestfriend. Lucky received that extra love he needed.
This Fall as we return to schools, we may be challenged in finding the right balance for our students, post COVID. Whether it's our 42 year old college student, or our 17 year old senior in high school, they’ve experience a moment in our history that before, they’d only read about in a History or a Health class. One thing is for certain, we all came to understand pandemics are real.
As I began to write this article, I realized that I had learned about plagues such as the Bubonic plague. I read the Bible and learned of the ten plagues in Egypt. I even taught my students lessons on pandemics and epidemics. However, I came to realize that I've never fully discussed possible ways these plagues socially affected the people experiencing the plagues, until now. I've discussed plagues from a healthcare point of view.
The more I thought about students returning to school in only a few days, the more I wondered about their thoughts during COVID. How they coped? These questions influenced further questions on past pandemics and plagues learned in History and Healthcare classes. How did children function during the plague of water turning to blood as detailed on the Bible? How did parents cope when the water turned foul knowing they lacked the basic resources for their children? What was it like living through the bubonic plague? What societal norms were interrupted?
As I wrote, so many thoughts ambushed my mind. One thought that repeatedly governed my mind was, how did our students cope during the COVID pandemic? Their once routined school year, was not just interrupted, but dismantled, however short lived, still dismantled. The familiar faces became unidentifiable by masks that occupied nearly half of our faces. We lost our familiar identify. Our usual hugs became replaced with elbow touches and fist bumps. Visits to Grandparents' homes, the usual barbecues, the swimming lessons, the Boys and Girls Scout meetings, or the teacher who made school fun while learning and never forgot birthdays, faded into the abyss of despair.
Now, here we are, approximately two years later. Fall is here, and students are returning to school. For some students, maybe not much have changed. For others, they've lost loved ones, parents have lost jobs, friends have moved away, or they never really got to say goodbye to their classmates who went off to college during their senior year. Here we are, teachers and professors, getting ready for that curtain call. But all students lost a piece of the memory quilt that makes up their academic journey. What was the grieving process like for our students? Were they even afforded a process to grief?
Most scholars identify the stages of grief with death. While that may have been Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' intent when she introduced the model in 1969 in her book, On Death and Dying, I believe the model is applicable to anything loss. During the pandemic, students lost their identity hidden beneath the necessary mask, family members, society's connotation of normalcy, sense of freedom, security, and liberty, and time in school. These losses can have adverse effects on students and their social skills. Even home schooled children felt the wrath of COVID, unable to attend activities and school trips.
What are the expectations for students who may still be in one of the stages of grief? Are we prepared to provide a safe space for our students? When a student is asked to read a segment of a lesson or text, and that student responds, "I don't want to!" Are we prepared to acknowledge that the students' response may not be a personal attack, but a student who may not have had the needed family support to process their loss?
There will be challenges for both teachers and students. The good news is, most schools have hired Behavior Specialists to help students process their grief. During the usual back to school professional development for teachers, most schools reminded teachers of the pitfalls of modifying work, and reminded teachers of the benefits of scaffolding, a better option in presenting topics in chunks rather than presenting content to students in overwhelming whole.
In a few days, we will officially welcome our students. Decorating rooms are great. Excited announcements set the tone for the engagement each teacher desire from each student. Our actions in difficult times are what will matter. Our responses and our body language should speak love. Set standards, and expect compliance. In between both, show empathy, and understanding. Hold each student accountable for high standards of work. But if a student shouts, "I don't want to", before taking it personal, remember, without embarrassing the student, pull the student aside, at the right time, and as if speaking with the child of your District's superintendent, ask, "Is everything okay?"