Education, health, teaching

Sick again? Can this new teacher catch a break instead of a virus?

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.

Oh well.

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’m sick.


I got seven consecutive, uninterrupted days with my students from COVID-19 recovery to whatever has malfunctioned in my lungs.

I wheeze.

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.”

It wasn’t.

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 behind.

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, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.

humor, Iowa, life, mental health, People, Unemployment

Anxiety over a new job is a weird game of ‘What’s in the box?’

Anticipation used to be joyful.

I remember being so excited for Christmas Day that I would go to bed and try to make myself sleep at 4 p.m. and magically make Christmas come faster.

It never worked, but the strategy seemed solid at the time.

In middle age, anticipation is dreadful.

Every unknown carries a harbinger of doom.

I’ve anticipated becoming a teacher since I started graduate school in the fall 2020 semester.

By the time these lines are published in the Marion County Express, I’ll have been through two days of orientation.

I’ll at least be on the way.

But right now, three days removed from the job that will likely define the next 20 years of my working life, anxiety tangles my guts in so many knots I can barely cope with even the simplest of daily tasks.

I live with general anxiety disorder.

That’s a fancy way of saying my brain takes all the possibilities of any given change and creates a hypothesis that ends with me dying broke and alone.

When the anxiety really gets a chokehold on me, I’ve already failed at teaching even though I haven’t stood before a class for a single minute.

I’m already evicted from my apartment and begging for temporary housing at the YMCA downtown even though I haven’t missed a rent payment since I got laid off in 2020.

I know why I’m like this.

Some of it is genetics. My DNA is hardwired to worry.

Some of it is adverse childhood experiences.

I’ve written about those before and don’t care to get into them now.

Some of it is adverse adult experiences. Losing your job three times, going broke, and struggling with crippling arthritis isn’t a kiss on the cheek by the county fair queen by any stretch.

I can hear the chorus of my friends, family and loved ones reassuring me everything will be fine.

Some of the best teachers I’ve ever had have written and called to tell me they think I’ve got the right stuff.

Still, my mind wanders, and the worries move in.

I don’t remember when my mind turned this way.

When I was a boy anticipating presents on Christmas, I never assumed the boxes would be filled with onion peels and asparagus stems.

The worst I would have to endure was socks and underwear.

But as an adult, I worry every box will end up like the one at the end of Seven. (If you don’t get that reference, Google the plot of the 1995 movie. Yes, my brain goes there.)

Listen, I know all this kvetching makes no sense. I have a behavioral therapist who helps me.

Most human problems lie in the space between emotional reaction and logical understanding.

Emotionally, I’m freaked out about failing at my new job.

But logically, I haven’t even started that job yet. How could I fail before I even started?

I can’t.

My friend Paul says I should just embrace the mundane.

Watch some M*A*S*H reruns. Eat a nice salad with a burger.

This, too, shall pass.

But, gosh, wouldn’t it be nice if I were squirming with anticipation like Christmas of yesteryear?

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, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.

des moines, Faith and Values, healthcare, Iowa, life, mental health, obesity, People, Unemployment

A throughly restless spring break

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

One day, hopefully soon, I will write an update and it will be lovely.

I’ll talk about my new teaching job and how I’m looking forward to it.

I’ll go on about how well my arthritic knees are responding to aquatic therapy.

I might have even lost a few pounds.

Surely my mental health will have improved.

One day.

I hope.

This isn’t that day.

I hoped spring break, which ends Monday, would be a time for rejuvination.

I picked up a chest cold at school the last week before break. My doctor diagnosed it as an inflammation of my asthma. She prescribed a steroid inhaler.

The inhaler works great except for one side effect: It plays hell on my anxiety.

Such a side effect normally tortures me enough in more steady times.

These aren’t steady times.

I’m trying to finish graduate school, earn my teaching license, and survive on the thinnest of financial margins.

I made it through midterm. I received my report. I talked it over with my mentor teacher and my supervising teacher. It seemed a fair assessment. 

I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but my mentor teacher and the Drake professor overseeing student teaching assured me that my development was on par with where they expect novice teachers to be at this point in student teaching.

Alas, a brain affected by acute anxiety rejects positive information. I’ve written before that most problems occur in the space between emotional reaction and intellectual understanding. Feelings overrun facts and thoughts run haywire.

I took the midterm and my wild thoughts decided I had already failed as a teacher and that I was going to die broke and alone and my nest dispatch would be from temporary housing at a YMCA.

I didn’t do this on purpose. It’s just a bad thinking pattern developed as a survival method to deal with childhood trauma. It’s the same bad thinking that leads me to overeat to morbid obesity.

So when the steroids hit the bloodstream with already jangled nerves, that was cherry bomb in the toilet. Everybody I’m in close contact with knew I was depressed and tried to assure me I was going to be OK. My teachers tried. Parents 2.0 tried. Friends tried.

The trouble is they used intellectual reasoning and the chemical malfunction I was dealing with mucks up emotional reactions.

The combination of physical illness and mental health struggles put me to sleep for the first four days of spring break.

My therapist finally helped me reason out the situation and come down from the rush of negative emotions.

Then I got my vaccine booster shot. That made me sick with fever and chills for about three days. I suppose a few miserable days are a good trade for avoiding the full force of a potentially lethal virus infection, particularly with my comorbidities, but it’s still no fun.

So spring break week has come and gone and all the books I was going to read for fun and all the schoolwork I was going to accomplish remain in the same state they were before break began.

There’s a possibility that would have happened even if I had been healthy, but I want to believe my better intentions would have prevailed if I wasn’t fighting a double- or sometimes triple-whammy of health problems.

There is a bit of good news. A friend of mine, a fellow former paragraph stacker, left the trade to become a lawyer. He reviewed the administrative law judge’s rejection of my appeal for a special benefits program that would extend my unemployment.

He and his boss offered some suggestions for an appeal, but my friend told me the appeals judges almost always side with the administrative law judges.

But an appeal costs me nothing but time. I appealed. The state is moving in its usually speedy way. The form says it could take up to 75 days. I would guess that figure will be doubled and add five more days for that.

I did my taxes. That was a brutal bummer. I’m due a refund from the feds that will be completely wiped out by my tax bill in Iowa. So the hope that a tax refund would keep me in rent, groceries, and gas for a month or so dwindles.

Some hope rests in some federal government deciding what income might be declared tax exempt because of the pandemic disaster. My tax software company says the feds haven’t decided this yet. No rush. Taxes are due in less than a month. 

Why would we expect the federal government to serve the people in any speedier fashion than any other government?

Ah, but why bother with politics at a time like this.

As my friend Todd often reminds me, the only way through troubles is straight through them.

I hate to trouble all of you again with my tales of woe. I hope you know how much each of you has helped me. These contributions have kept afloat during one of the most challenging times in my life. 

I’m learning to be a teacher while I’m also learning to live with the disability from my arthritic knees and facing financial struggle. It’s a lot of stuff to worry about all at once and, frankly, sometimes it gets to me.

But you people, you floor me. I don’t know many of you personally. I dare say I don’t know most of you personally. Yet you give and give. You send positive messages.

I hear the negative ones, both in my own thoughts and from others. 

I want you to know how much your letters have touched me, how much your faith in me becoming a good teacher keeps me going when the doubts mount.

And, yes, money is important. I wish I never had to talk about money, but we live in the real world. The electric bill is due every month, just like the rent, insurance, and other bills.

I’m hanging in there. I live frugally. I clip coupons now. OK, an app does it for me, but I never did before. 

So, this is a day I wish never comes, a day in which again I ask for your help. I need your support. Don’t overextend yourself for me; your first duty is always to yourself. 

For those who do help, I will remind you of the promise I’ve made many times before: I will become a teacher and eventually a very good one. I will pass on all that I have learned about writing and creativity and passion for a craft. I will be honest, tender my truths with kindness, and be the person you believe me to be.

And one day, soon, I hope, this will be a different kind of message.

Blessings to you all.

Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.
Meal Train:

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, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.