My education career started sickly.
First full week with students?
COVID-19. Mandatory five-day quarantine.
Back to work.
I’m the teacher.
I’m a learner.
Things I’ve learned so far.
I can make what I think is an eloquent point about Albert Einstein and people’s desire to make fun of other’s mistakes and I am most likely to answer one of the three following questions:
“What page are we on?”
“Can I get a drink of water?”
“Can I go to the bathroom?”
I refuse to be the grammar curmudgeon that says, “You may.”
I just hand out the pass.
The water thing is new to me. We got water breaks a couple times a day when I was a kid.
In middle school, we grabbed a few sips at the bubbler between classes.
Today, the kids come with big, heavy, jangly water bottles that carry enough water to hydrate a football field and make enough noise to compete for a remake of the Broadway show “Stomp!”
The hallways must’ve gotten longer and drier since my days traversing the corridors of schools in Winterset and Des Moines.
At least three times a class, one of these portable water clatters to the hardwood in my classroom with the sound slightly quieter than a wrecking ball smashing into iron girders and cement pillars.
I teach sixth graders. They sometimes remind me of Dug, the dog from the Pixar film “Up.”
With the aid of a device made by his genius former master, Dug can talk. He’s generally well-mannered and friendly.
But occasionally in the middle of an important piece of dialogue — SQUIRREL!
This joke works better if you’ve seen the movie “Up,” but I made that joke about “Stomp!” earlier and I’ve never seen any adaption of that.
Pop culture is a cheat sheet for metaphors. Watch more TV.
Back to the matter at hand.
I got seven consecutive, uninterrupted days with my students from COVID-19 recovery to whatever has malfunctioned in my lungs.
I hack into a tissue.
The doctor or nurse asks what color it is.
I walk about 40 feet and feel as if I walked in the shadow of the valley of death.
I’ve heard this vicious rattle in my chest before.
It came in February 2020, just weeks before coronavirus became a household word.
I got pneumonia.
And it knocked me out for a month.
I know I don’t feel as badly as I did the night I went to the emergency room with a cough so bad I would occasionally black out from lack of oxygen.
I remember staggering into the ER at Iowa Methodist Hospital and the security guard whisked me up behind me with a wheelchair as I leaned heavily on the check-in desk.
“That bad, huh?” I asked him.
“It wasn’t looking too good.”
I don’t have the machine-gun cough this time.
And my doctor, the angelic Shawna Basener of McFarland Clinic in Ames, put me on a steroid called prednisone to run the infection out of my chest as fast as possible.
Sounds great, right?
One problem: The steroids shatter my sleep schedule and drive my already amped anxiety wilder.
This is the trade: For eight days, I take the pills to knock out a virus that could very likely give me life-threatening pneumonia but go practically insane while I do it.
Or I hack, cough, sweat through however long it takes to beat the virus — if I can.
What a time to be alive.
I’m taking the pills, of course.
But I’m missing school.
I’m not building the relationships I need to build.
I’m an old newsman. There was no falling behind in that business.
My body feels terrible.
I’ve got no energy or wind.
I’m wired hour after hour.
I’m going to survive.
I’m going to get back to my class.
But in my head, all the little worries and doubts get louder.
You’re going to fail.
You’re going to get fired.
You’re a loser.
Nobody — and this is serious — that I work for has said anything to me other than get well soon, take care of your health, and “we got this.”
But I can’t hear positive mojo like that when my brain is around this terrible bender on medication and my body is broken down like a 1983 Buick on I-235.
But just like the coronavirus, algebra tests, and every other challenge in life: there’s the only way through — forward.
Middle school teacher Daniel P. Finney writes a column for the Marion County Express.
Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
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