Moritz Revisited

 

One the cruelties of June (mentioned in my last post) is the fact that I have to write an individual letter to each of my students – this year that meant 28 of them. What these letters entail has already been covered in this blog – so I will just point you to that post of five years ago (which should probably be read first if you want to fully appreciate the nuances of the following): “Hummingbird Report Cards – (MYoM – Part 11)”.

Go ahead. I’ll wait.

 

 

Little Moritz of that old letter is now, five years later, a school-leaver. That meant his letter required special attention. Here is what I came up with. (And I will leave it up to you all to determine which parts of the following were actually in the real letter, and which are embellished here in the spirit of steam-off-blowing.)

 

Dear Moritz,

I remember some parts of my earliest lessons with you way back in the Primary 2. Your group and I would meet on the carpet and I would announce that we were starting. Then I would look around the circle, count off the heads, and stop abruptly. “Where is Moritz?” I would ask.  Fast forward five years. Now in the Secondary 2, I never have to ask where Moritz is. He is where all those weird noises or pounding sounds are coming from . . .

In last year’s letter I kidded you about your “Warm-up Phase” and I have to admit, that has gotten better this year. You participated well in all the lively discussions of your English group, even though you weren’t always sure what they were talking about. Your physical attendance was almost perfect this year and, in the end, you managed to hand in some of most of your assignments. You have always seemed to see some sense in learning English – even if after the fact. Your level of English – especially when it comes to understanding YouTubers and Rappers, where YOU had to explain to ME what they were saying – is now curiously high.

Another thing I kidded you about last year was how your journal entries were mostly short and consisted of unfinished sentences. True to form, the second last sentence in your journal this year (which was complete) was followed by “Afterwards”. . . .  and that was it! The best sentence, however, was this one: “Today in german we learned about which words have to be Capitalized.”

In some ways, I feel you left the Hummingbird School quite a while ago, being ready to go on to something new. I know it has been difficult to find the thing that interests you most, so I hope that discovery will come to you soon. In the meantime, have a great summer and good luck in your new school. Afterwards

Still Here

 

There are about two dozen people scattered across the globe who might have noticed that I have been absent from WordPress for a while. But then, it is exactly these people who also know why.

June is the cruelest month for teachers here. Particularly cruel in my school and in the era of Covid-19. Particularly cruel for an American watching helplessly from afar as her country suffers.  Unnecessarily.

In the midst of all the chaos, I HAVE written the occasional post – and then not posted it – mostly because it was, in the end, essentially a rant.

One was titled: “America! Please! Wake Up and Smell the Mental Illness!”

One was titled: “Parents! Raising your Children is YOUR Job!”

One was titled: “How Covid Killed the Hummingbird”

One was titled: “Sick of the Dick’s Shtick”

One was titled: “Dead Brain Walking”

One was titled: “Goat in a Tree”.

Actually, the last one was kind of inspiring. It began with something I observed while standing on my screen porch, drinking my morning coffee.

Background info: There was a single apricot tree that unfortunately ended up inside the area we fenced off for the goats. Upon arrival, they quickly killed it by eating off all of its bark within their reach. It stood there afterwards, dead, and unnoticed by both goat and human.

Until one day  . . .

 

There is some kind of metaphor here, but I am not sure what it is. I suspect it has something to do with “fruitless endeavors”. And that there are things you can do that bring no rewards whatsoever, but you do them anyway because you can and because that is who you are.

In my last post, I was a “Karen”.

In this one, I am a goat.

Progress.

 

 

Reopening – Part Two

(This might be a long one. As Austria is one of the earliest experimenters in reopening schools, I thought it might be of interest to people in places who haven’t reached this point yet. So, I’ve decided to go into pretty much detail about our experiences, even if our school is a quirky little private and alternative one (where the parents have far too much say!) and therefore, not exactly representative. One thing I can say for sure is that the situation in the husband’s high school is running far more smoothly and that he or his teachers don’t have to put up with a fraction of the crap we do . . . )

 

As I wrote in my last post, my teaching team and I worked all last week to prepare the school for reopening on Monday. We rearranged all the classrooms and tried to meet every requirement set by the government to minimize risk and maximize social distancing. We prepared the kids for the changes and the strangeness that would confront them on their first day back. We informed the parents about every change, every measure we had to take, and we asked them for their support. We encouraged them to contact us directly if they had any questions or concerns. Then came the final weekend before the reopening.

 

Saturday

In evening, 36 hours before the first child would arrive at the school, we get this email – addressed to everyone, meaning all the teachers and all the parents(!):

I felt an urgent need to reply and immediately composed an email that I knew I would never send. Once again, my fingers at the keyboard were sputtering and stammering. Here is what they came up with:

Of course, I didn’t send it. But getting the words out calmed me down enough to get a good night’s sleep.

 

Sunday

I wake up and the first thing I see is a response to the email above from the speaker of the parents’ organization. Her main point is that we have had bad experiences in the past with email discussions and that this mother can always – and should have – contacted the teaching team first. Her words thankfully ward off any further explosion of “Reply all” responses.

Later in the day, my boss forwards an email from a second family announcing that their two children would not be returning to the school. They wanted their kids to remember the place in a positive way and not be confronted with the fear and hysteria that apparently reign now.

That email is followed by another one saying two more kids would be leaving the school at the end of the year. This family – like the one above – had stopped paying the fees way back in March and would continue not doing so. But the kids were going to be there for the reopening the next day. “How can this be?” I wondered. (I have since found out that there at least three other families doing the same, i.e. not paying, yet still sending their kids or expecting distance instruction to continue.) My nervousness about the coming day increased. If the kids behaved anything like their parents, it was going to be a tense and tough one.

Then a third email arrived. A mother wanted to give me a little joy and sent a picture of her son in front of the computer at home. There on the screen was me, with a goofy expression and gesticulating weirdly. It made me smile.

 

Monday (– Reopening Day)

7:30 am. My job was to stand outside and greet the kids as they got off the buses or out of their parents’ cars and to make sure they knew the drill. (Go through the right entrance, shoes off, hands washed, on to the classroom – and there you can take off the mask.) It turned out to be easy. The bus kids all had masks on already and the car kids put them on unprompted as they neared the school. All I had to say after “Good morning!” was “Everything clear? Do you know what to do?” and they all said yes. They were so cool! Not one of them seemed embarrassed, fearful or resistant. They just took it in stride. You could tell how happy they were to be back and to see one another again. These were the older kids in the school (the younger ones would start on Wednesday) and apparently, they did not share all of their parents’ views. Or at least that was how it seemed at the start. But I am getting ahead of myself . . .

Halfway through these arrivals, a mother walked up to a foot away from me, mask-less, and handed me a box of disinfectant and masks. She was a doctor, too. I asked for the bill to reimburse her and she said, no, she was donating the stuff. Then she turned to me and said nervously: “You aren’t really going along with all this nonsense, are you?” She went off on a tirade about how dangerous mask wearing was and pulled out a form to show me. When signed by a doctor, it freed her son from having to wear one. She began filling it out. Meanwhile, I saw her son pull a mask out of his back pocket and put it on just before entering the school. I asked the mother to wait a sec and called for reinforcements. A second teacher and I together made it clear to Dr. Mom that we were indeed following the required guidelines but added that the amount of time her son would be wearing a mask could be measured in minutes. She changed her tune and said that the school part was okay, it was the bus ride she was worried about. Luckily, we don’t have any influence over those policies and could dodge this particular bullet.

After this one jag, the rest of the day jigged remarkably well. We had great talks with the kids and then began the lessons. I’ve never seen them so attentive, receptive and, simply put, happy to be taught. Some of them handed in reams of worksheets, posters and essays; others sheepishly confessed to having done almost nothing in the 9 weeks of the closing. In each case, it was entirely predictable. We had already gotten a good idea about which parents were on top of things and which were helpless when it came to home-schooling. We had been supplying the kids with a steady flow of inputs and assignments, but mostly through their parents’ email. I estimate that in about a third of the households, the information or materials never reached the child. And in a few cases, I assume this was intentional. In order to keep up the pretense that the teaching team was not providing a service and therefore school fees did not have to be paid, all of these efforts on our part to reach out to and help their children had to be ignored.

As far as the hygiene measures were concerned, the kids cooperated with aplomb the whole day. Once or twice we hit a snag and had to pull out the one-meter stick to refresh their memories about what that distance is. In general, though, they kept each other in line. Near the end of the day, I asked one group how they felt about it, how it went. I got this reply:

“I didn’t expect at all that this day would be so much fun!”

As the last school bus departed and we teachers were alone again, we all agreed that the day could hardly have gone any better. Despite all the trouble from some parents, the kids were totally cool and impressive. Then the phone rang. It was a notoriously nervous mother complaining that, from what her son told her, we weren’t enforcing the social distancing enough. Another boy had touched his face . . .

 

Tuesday – Day Two

I could tell in the morning that some kids were already getting a bit too relaxed about the new policies and we had to go through some of them again. But otherwise it was a day of successful teaching and absorbing. During recess, two of my oldest girls actually started asking me questions about English tenses and then requested extra homework in them. This is my ninth year in the school and that has never happened before! All four of my groups seemed almost excited to get their homework assignments. They all would go home with a clear plan about their work not only for the rest of the week, but for the remainder of the year (each group will only have five more lessons). And finally, the one girl being kept home by her parents sent me a (secret) message through one of her classmates. I returned it with an invitation for her to show up at our English chat over the internet on Friday.

There was only one jag.

I was sitting with my First Year group – just three kids all about 10 years old – on a carpet and talking about their assignment for next week. Right now we are learning to use “doesn’t” and “don’t” so I showed them a poster I made years back with a different group and asked them to do the same. They should find pictures in old newspapers, magazines or ads of things they like or don’t like, cut them out, paste them and then write the English words. One of them pointed to the picture of Barack Obama and asked about it. I said he was the former president, which they didn’t really understand, and yet they started talking excitedly all at the same time. It was when one of them said, “That’s all not true!” that I started listening more carefully. The child went on. “The media are paid to say bad things about him . . . the whole thing was started by Bill Gates . . . He’s not a bad man or a racist – he built the wall to protect Mexican children from human organ traffickers . . .”

There was no way I was going to get into a political discussion with a student, and especially not a 10-year-old one. I wouldn’t have been able to in any case because I was so dumbfounded. Where does such a young kid get ideas like that??!! Please god, let it not be his parents!

(This story is not over, and I will surely be returning to it in a future post. But first, I need to consult my team to figure out what, if anything, I should do about this.)

 

So, that was our start in the new normal.

 

I’ve spent all day rethinking these past events – not just the reopening, but everything all the way back to that first rushed and panicky teleconference about closing the school down completely and immediately. The idea was to fire the entire teaching team, stop school fees, and yet, somehow, magically, keep all the kids enrolled and say they completed the school year. We managed to stave that off, but at a pretty hefty psychological and financial cost to the teaching team.

My own feelings toward the school and my future there have been changed too. In the past I had always kept a distance between me and the parents, but Corona and home-schooling made that impossible. I got dragged into the middle of the organization’s multiple crises and then had a crash course in history behind all of the parents’ idiosyncrasies. I began to mentally sort them into groups: the Seriously Supportives, the Hysterical Hyperventilators, the Squawkers, the Stay out of the Frays, the Hopelessly Helpless, and the Silent But Deadlies. After Day Two (and the revelation of a Ten-Year-Old Twumpist), I added a new group: the Conspiracy Theorists.

As might be obvious by this uncharacteristically cynical description, with some notable exceptions, I no longer trust the parents. After years of listening to yapping about solidarity and the bonds that hold us together and commitment and obligation and collective responsibility, the crisis made it crystal clear for which people this was just blah blah all along. When the road of solidarity hit the rubber of their pocketbooks, they quickly switched to personal agendas. A lot of these people are either going or gone now. But not all of them.

The question is if I should go too. Technically, I am still unemployed and could walk away, especially if the crisis management team reneges on their promise to fully reinstate the entire teaching team 10 days from now. On the “Stay” side of the equation is the team itself. We have stuck together in a truly remarkable way and we have gotten closer through this whole ordeal. I think they are fabulous people and, past conflicts aside, working with them has been a great enrichment of my life.

And then, of course, most of all, there are the kids.

 

Empty Nests

My four-week stint (or eight, depending on how you look at it) of experiencing unemployment has come to an end. I just had my first day back at work. The Hummingbird School has survived its own initial incompetence in crisis management, and starting Monday, (most of) the kids will be coming back. To comply with all the requirements set by the government and school board, we had to prepare a whole new physical environment in the classrooms – new nests, so to speak. Gone are the couches for lounging and the big carpets where we sat for circle discussions. Gone are the balls to play sports with during the recess. Gone are all the chairs in the small kitchen. Gone are the Montessori materials that get passed from hand to hand or are not conducive to being disinfected. Gone are the glasses and pitchers of water in the classrooms. Gone are the computer stations for common use. Gone are the musical instruments and board games. Instead, the room is filled with socially distanced, individual desks where the students will sit for most of the morning. In the front of the class there is a space for me to stay put and – for the first time in my career – teach lecture-style to a captive audience.

We’ve divided the students into 4 groups of roughly 10 kids apiece. Two of the four will come each day on an alternating schedule and each group will have it`s own entrance into the school. The ones who will be filling this empty classroom will disembark from their school buses in masks, enter the building, and immediately wash their hands before going to the classroom. They will take a seat and only then remove the mask.

I confess that I feel uneasy in more ways than one about these first steps into the new normal. While planning with my team members, we talked about whether it was a good idea to assign yet another text about their experiences in the lockdown and distance learning. I suggested that the kids reread the reports they handed in near the start and then write about what changed over time. In my case, I worried about feeling confined at first. Now at the end, I find I don’t really like the idea of leaving the house if I don’t absolutely have to.

I wonder if this feeling is normal. Clearly, I have had it easy. Between my spacious house and big garden, my family situation and hermit genes, it’s not like it has been hell. I’ve honestly enjoyed having my whole family around me, not to mention so much time that I stopped monitoring its passing. (“What day is it today?”) I could have continued on like this indefinitely.

But this is not where we are at here in Austria, so I guess it is time for me to come out of my hiding place. The rest of my household is doing so too (if somewhat more eagerly than me).

Whereas the school nest shown above is about to be filled up, my home one is emptying out. Last week, our refugee son moved to another village to be near his brother. The plan is for him to transfer to a school in Graz for his last year. (There is a long story behind these decisions that I won’t get into here. I will only say that I hope he will be happier and more productive with this new living situation.) Yesterday, my elder daughter moved back to her apartment in Graz after two months with us. She took my daily concerts with her. That leaves just one – my youngest daughter – who will be taking her graduation exams starting a week from now. Her original plan for a work/travel gap year got nixed by Corona, so she will be starting university in the fall and, of course, moving into the apartment with her sister.

It was while listening to a conversation between the daughters about decorating the place and the timing of Lily’s move, that the realization finally washed over me. They were talking July – or August at the latest. “Wait!” I thought, “It’s almost June already!” Too months from now, it will be just me and the husband and a whole lot of silence.

Somehow I thought “reopening” would feel different.

 

Queen for a Day

 

According to the clock on my notebook, I am now exactly 11 hours into my new life as a welfare queen. So far it hasn’t been too bad. I spent the first 8 of them sleeping (“Typical!”), one of them drinking coffee and listening to Rachel Maddow – who, I must say, no longer relaxes me – and two of them following the WhatsApp escapades of my (former) colleagues while starting to tie up the loose ends of my 37 year teaching career.

(Speaking of which, does anyone out there need a couple thousand of  . . . whatever these things are called in English?)

 

 

As far as my former workplace is concerned, there is really nothing for me to do now but sit back in my new throne and watch from a distance how things play out in the school. Meanwhile I have lots to learn about the ins and outs of my new employment status. For instance, can you use food stamps to buy Coca Cola and chocolate? Am I going to get retrained for some new career? And if so, is basket weaving an option? How many job offers can I turn down before I risk losing my monthly handout? Am I allowed to take up golf? Will my blog posts become rambling, half-finished scribblings that reflect my structure-less days? I’m starting to think this sozialschmarotzing might be more complicated than it looks.

 

My team members are somewhat in a state of denial in terms of what is happening right now. The two left standing haven’t quite realized that they are basically on their own, while the three of us that have been (supposedly) temporarily laid off are all secretly evaluating our current situations and options and wondering if it is time to just move on. We all fall on different places in the spectrum of possible outcomes:

I hold out some hope that the fourth option will happen, but I confess I am closest to the third point right now. As if to confirm this feeling, two emails just came in since I began writing this paragraph (!): two more families announcing that they are taking their kids out of the school. Along with the six that are graduating this year, we are now up to a loss of 12 kids and I expect we will be hearing about at least 3 more by the end of today.

 

What has been fascinating to watch is the contrast between my husband’s school and my own. At the risk of him getting a big head, I have to say that he’s been Master Class in crisis management. The school closings were announced on a Wednesday evening and by Friday, his school had an entire learning platform up and running, all the teachers had been brought on board and all the students got training in how to use it. Monday morning, they all got up, checked their schedules and started teaching/attending virtual classes from home. Several times a week, my husband video conferences in the evening with a set of his teachers to share experiences with the platform or to plan some new creative project for the students. I listen to these group discussions from the next room and marvel at the laughter, the competence, the clarity, the solidarity, the productive and reassuring tone of the conversations.

I’ve had a tiny bit of those things in my conference calls with the team, but mostly we have just been reeling from crisis to crisis and helplessly watching the parents’ organization crumble in the chaos and conflict.

(Oh! By the way . . . I just realized the date . . . “Happy April Fool’s Day!”)

When the dust and ash settle somewhere down the road, I wonder how various parents and team members will feel about the decisions they made in panic. I find myself looking back at certain moments and thinking “What I should have said is . . . (XYZ)!” But, in general, I’m not sure I had any power to influence developments. Also, even as a kid, I never liked the rollercoaster. Knowing now that someday soon I might be able to get off of this one is not entirely a bad feeling. Luckily, I have had some experience in losing jobs – and even in losing jobs due to an international crisis. 9/11 cost me my course at a Marketing college when I couldn’t get back in time for start of the academic year. The end of my Business English teaching was not entirely unrelated to the 2008 Meltdown. And now Covid-19 is killing my Hummingbird.

But maybe, just maybe, some small group of dedicated families will find a way to resurrect it. And maybe, just maybe, I will be able to contribute a little to its inception and new design.

https://www.deviantart.com/fornaxkingspear/art/Hummingbird-Rising-579308846

 

 

Unneedful Things

 

I had this whole list.

All the projects I was going to get to during the Social Distancing weeks. It even included an exercise plan. But, instead, for a person who was technically going to be fired along with her entire team because “they have nothing to do”, the past two weeks have been the most work-intensive ones in all of our years at the school.

First, we all became IT specialists on the fly and out of necessity. Teleconferencing began almost immediately with various constellations of team members and parents. The team spent hours and hours on the phone, trying to keep the school alive, while parents bickered and raised old grievances among them. “Really? Is this all necessary? Can’t it wait?” I thought to myself. It quickly became clear that the crisis in the school had existed long before the virus arrived. Corona just let it all come bubbling to the surface.

Meanwhile the team was trying to figure out how to set up learning platforms for the kids and creating a schedule for who will man the empty school on which days – as ordered by Ministry of Education.

Meanwhile, hundreds of emails were flying to and fro, most of them requiring attention.

Meanwhile, new WhatsApp groups were popping up like mushrooms, setting my cell constantly a-dinging.

Meanwhile, the website I used to post all of my assignments for the school kids came crashing down, adding an extra dose of stress that I seriously did not need.

 

Meanwhile, I began noticing again and again how the comfortingly familiar – the taken-for-granted stuff – can suddenly get hinky and . . . eerie. Take this, for example – I go daily to the MSNBC website for updates, but one day this week, the big red banner at the top for breaking news looked like this:

I spent an unreasonable amount of time trying to decode “Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE”. Was it some kind of secret code? Hackers? A Russian bot? Subliminal messaging? A warning? I confess it unnerved me a bit. It was creepy.

I need my normal things in life to remain normal.

I have been finding excuses to go to the neighborhood store every other day. I’ve discovered that seeing the fully stocked shelves puts my mind at ease. I then buy things I don’t need to justify my visit there. Yesterday, I really did need a particular thing though. The husband was making spaghetti carbonara and we realized we didn’t have enough noodles. I zipped down to the store and . . . they didn’t have any. “OMG! THEY DON’T HAVE SPAGHETTI!!” I thought. Now let me add that there were about 15 other types of pasta in plentiful amounts, but . . . “OMG! NO SPAGHETTI!!” Creepy!

And then there was the stranger. He walked past the house and then stopped to ask which direction he should go to get to a certain wine tavern in a nearby village. It was a situation I have had a thousand times, living in a resort area and right on one of the major hiking paths. But this time it was weird. “Where did this tourist find a room when all the hotels are closed?” I asked myself. “And why is he heading toward a closed restaurant?” Creepy.

And then there is the constant low-grade anxiety. “Do I have it?” one thinks by every tiny ache or pain. I mentally run through the litany of virus symptoms on a regular basis. If I cough, I think “Was that a dry cough?” And then I go sanitize my hands and try to tune my body out. I tell myself that we are all suffering from activeimaginationitus. It’s creepy.

I used to have a rhythm. There were workdays and there were free days. Now, every day, I have about an hour for my morning rituals before the emails and text messages and WhatsApp messages and the conference calls start coming in. And even that hour is disorienting. A week ago it was sunny T-shirt weather. Three days ago I was woken up by a frigging earthquake (!!) Yesterday, I woke up to a white wintery world covered in new fallen snow. Mother Nature is now sending me disorienting messages too. I raised my hands toward the sky and, looking up, I asked her “Really? Is this all necessary? Can’t it wait? It`s creepy!”

These are all unneedful things.

So, what makes all this bearable? The fact that Corona isolation causes creativity.

There has been a veritable explosion of it everywhere I look. My backward, alternative school has gone high-tech in the space of a week. The gym teachers in my husband’s school started posting funny “Sports at Home” videos and within 24 hours the students started spontaneously contributing videos of their own. My team and I had a WhatsApp cocktail party, sending one another pictures of our gin and tonics while chatting. A creative writing group of parents found a way to meet online and created a wonderful collection of “Life under Corona” pieces along with new, deeper connections among the participants. I’ve just been invited to join an online needlepoint circle who will collectively make blankets for a homeless shelter. Yoga teachers have found a way to keep their classes going through live streaming. My daughter had her first piano lesson by Skype. Musicians are finding ways to collaborate from balconies and basements to make completely new forms of music. As I write this, my other daughter is upstairs taking part in an open mic session with a group of jazz singers. And in the offline outdoor world, long-time laconic neighbors are meeting and talking (from a safe distance) for the first time.

It’s all communicative. It’s all collaborative. It’s all free. It’s all needed.

 

I try to be wary of romanticizing a pandemic. But there are things happening that I hope we will be able to take with us into the post-Corona world. As much as I crave normalcy – I would love to see a new normal emerge. A new school rising out of the ashes of the one being burned down now. An economic system with longer-term thinking and contingency plans. A new consciousness that a health care system based on profit and with gaping holes impoverishes and endangers everyone. A realization that we had become isolated long before this sickness began to spread. And when that isolation became a physical reality, we discovered that reaching out to others was the only way to return to sanity.

 

 

Babysitting Till Easter

 

Here’s a sort of continuation of my previous post. A lockdown update, so to speak. It is not every day that you get to experience a country going dark. Ripple after ripple of what this all means have been washing over me for the past three days.

As we suspected, the directive from the Ministry of Education to start preparing distance-learning materials for our students was a prelude to school closings here in Austria. Our 17-year-old Chancellor held a press conference on Wednesday to announce the government’s decisions. High schools will be closed starting Monday and stay that way till the Easter vacation begins. That means for three weeks. For elementary and middle schools, a compromise was found. Those kids who can stay home, should. The schools will stay open only for the kids who have no day care options. We teachers should not teach anything new to these kids, just take care of them and maybe review past lessons. One point stressed was that kids should not be cared for by grandmas and grandpas – if that is the only option, they should go to school instead. As a near-grandma-aged teacher, I’m not sure how I feel about that. But, in general, the decisions seem measured and sound to me.

Unfortunately, I fear there will be parents who don’t grasp the concept of social distancing. We have already gotten the first notice of a child who can’t stay at home. In his email, the father wrote that “it will be fine because [the child]’s immune system is very strong”. The email was sent to every family in the school and it got me wondering how many other parents would follow suit. Sure enough, a second email arrived on Thursday. In this case, the child’s parents both work from home, but apparently, they still need us to take of him during school hours. I’m not sure how this one will be handled, but in any case, it seems my team and I may be glorified babysitters for the coming three weeks.

Or . . . maybe not! On Friday, one of the parents sent an email suggesting we teachers be fired for the duration of the corona closings – with a guarantee of being rehired again. That way, the social welfare system can pay us and the school can save a few bucks.

I have no words.

Yes I do.

Firstly, we will all still be working. Secondly, in my entire life, I have never applied for or received unemployment benefits and I don’t plan to do it now. What is this woman thinking?? I told my team members that they can quote me if they want: if the parents go through with this crappy idea and fire us for a month, in my case they can spare themselves the rehiring part.

This was just one of the many many ripples on Friday. Despite it being my day off, a frantic phone call from a colleague had me jumping in my car and driving to the school. It seems most of the parents had decided not to wait till Wednesday. They would keep their kids at home starting right away. We had four hours to prepare them all for a month of distance learning and home schooling. We threw together materials and documentation sheets, we compiled email address lists, we helped them pack up all their books and assignments, meanwhile, the photocopier was running constantly, and the emails kept coming in. New information about the closings from the school board, the youth hostel cancelling our week in Carinthia in May, the big Montessori conference also cancelled, announcements from grocery store chains telling people there is no reason for panic buying – the warehouses are full and more food is on the way. There was a notice from the health resort that my third cure week is cancelled, news that the huge health spa near my house as well as all the hotels around it are closing and that the upcoming local elections were postponed, that the chancellor would be holding a press conference at 2:00 pm to announce the closing of all stores except food stores and pharmacies, and then the email mentioned above about the team being temporarily fired.

The news kept dribbling in all afternoon and evening – facility closings, border closings, cancellations of all kinds. My daughter sent me pictures of empty store shelves in Graz and asked, “What’s going on?” Amid all this, another dispute-by-email broke out among parents from the school. “Really??” I thought. “Is this really what you are worrying about at this moment of national emergency?” The exchange ended abruptly when the upcoming General Assembly was cancelled.

To be fair, though, these parents are not the only ones who are slow to realize the gravity of the place we are in or what “social distancing” or solidarity really mean. My younger daughter asked if she could sleep over at a friend’s house. My older one keeps talking about going to work on Monday despite her cough and cold and the fact that she isn’t really required to do so. Some of her band members don’t see why they shouldn’t get together and practice. We also had to track down our refugee son. He was by friends and planned to stay over. I had to text him in a pretty harsh tone that if he thought he could be going out with friends and still come in and out of this house, then we had a problem. My daughter then went to pick him up and bring him back. He gets it now too.

Somewhere during all of this, I had to get away for a while, so I took my dog for a walk. I ran into Mean Neighbor Lady by the mailboxes and, of course, we talked about Corona measures. There is no other topic right now. She wasn’t worked up at all about the shutdown in progress.  She even saw the bright side of it. “People can act so dumb,” she said. “They have way too much of everything and it makes them crazy. Years ago, we didn’t have all this stuff, but, you know what? No one went hungry. It was the same when all the refugees came. Everyone got so worked up about it, but, look – they are here now, and everyone still has enough food. And you know what else? If people here don’t want refugees from other countries coming, then maybe they should stop selling them weapons.”

It was the first time I had ever heard her political views and it floored me. For thirty years I have been assuming she would have xenophobic tendencies or be somewhat ignorant of the world. I guess that was pretty unfair of me. This short conversation turned out to be the bright spot of my day.

 

Love in the Time of Corona

People occasionally ask me how Europeans see the whole political mess in America, so when this newspaper arrived at my doorstep on Super Wednesday, I put it aside to use in my blog. There is a reason I am finally posting it today – a week later and at a time when the corona virus and crashing economy have completely shoved political topics aside in the news.  Add to that the crescendo-ing crisis at my workplace and it is almost a wonder that I have any room left in my brain for the primaries. But as I said, there is a reason – and it has mostly to do with cat puke.

The three topics mentioned above have been intermingling constants in my consciousness and I keep feeling that they are all somehow connected. I’m going to try to get to the bottom of that here. Starting with politics . . .

The article above is a pretty accurate assessment of the state of the Democratic primary race, except that it pronounces Sanders to still be the clear front runner and it predicts a contested convention. Well, either things change quickly, or I have missed something in the coverage of the race.

In my own assessment, after watching all the more attractive candidates drop like flies one after another, I find myself imagining the fall debates with either of the two remaining contenders against Twump. Will it be two septuagenarians tossing word salad or two septuagenarians flinging invective poop at one another while bemoaning all that is disgraceful and disastrous in America. I can’t help seeing Bernie as the flip-side of Twump’s coin, with a different set of issues, but also banking on grievance and fear. Two men completely locked into their world views. I don’t like the idea of having to choose between revolution and devolution. I don’t want to vote based on fear or any other negative emotion. I think I prefer Biden’s kinder senility.

Because that is a second constant theme in my thoughts lately. How Twump has succeeded in putting the “coarse” back in “discourse” and then spreading it around the globe like a . . . well, like a virus. I’ve been noticing signs all over in all different contexts how communication is becoming ruder, more aggressive, more profane.  Swearing politicians. Stories of increasingly vicious trolling in the internet. Group mobbing on social media. Nasty movie reviews of perfectly nice films like “Emma”. (You see? It has even infected me!) I’ve watched little seven- and eight-year-olds in our school calling one another “wankers” while giving them the finger. Older kids speaking with the crassest words, hurling insensitive insults, and being either oblivious to or unbothered about their reception. “That’s just how young people talk today,” they tell me. (Nonsense!) The number of 15-18 year-old students who stop attending because they can’t handle the school day is increasing and a lot of their stress is social. It has prompted my husband to send out a letter to all the parents in his school, asking them to talk to their kids about the way they communicate in the classroom. I hope it will help, but when I observe how the parents themselves behave in discussions, it seems pretty clear to me where the kids might be getting it from.

There has been one meeting after another in my school and I see the different factions getting more and more rigid in their views – more certain that their assessment of the problems and solutions is the only right one. No room for compromise. The tone can be aggressive, threatening, fear-inducing, insensitive, impolite, even crass. One group says it’s simple: close the kindergarten and fire those two teachers. Problem solved. The other says it’s simpler: raise the tuition by one hundred percent. If this or that family can’t afford it – well, too bad! They can go somewhere else.

These recent developments have gotten the teaching team worried about the continuing existence of the school. It prompted my boss, who is not a sentimental person by nature, to send us an atypically cutesy meme – something I would have found sappy in the past:

Love . . . should be the virus that all people on Earth are infected with , , ,

 

Which brings me to Topic Number Three. Which is really Number One. Today’s news included the biggest drop in the world’s stock market in history as well as the shutting down of an entire country (Italy. Our neighbour.) Closer to home all the universities are now closed in Austria for the coming week (or weeks?) Even closer to home, the theater in Graz we were planning to take the kids to next week has cancelled all performances until April. And at home, I got an email today from the Department of Education. It was a directive to all teachers to start preparing materials that students can do at home. We think that all schools might be closing down starting Monday.

Everything seems connected.

My students need a time-out and a course correction. My school needs them too. So do the politics of my home country, the economy, and the world. The Corona virus seems to be forcing us all into one. And yes, I realize that is an insane way of looking at things.

But my cat agrees with me.

He jumped onto my desk this afternoon and started retching. The only thing within reach was the newspaper I had been saving to blog about. I quickly removed the first few pages, spread out the rest in front of him and let him empty his stomach onto it. I then carefully folded up the paper and tossed it in the garbage.

Later, I started reading the article for my blog post and discovered that the second half was in the part I had thrown away. I fished it out and gingerly opened it back up. There was the puke and, of course, it had landed right on the article I was looking for. Its stain smeared into two adjacent articles – a complimentary review of the movie “Emma” and a public service ad for the corona virus hotline.

 

Fifty-eight

A serenade from twenty-seven students. A wave of WhatsApp wishes. Facebook full of happy feelings. A birthday blog from a bff. Red roses refreshing my room. A delicious dinner date. And, finally, a last little gift of good news from the cosmos.

 

 

Sociocratic Rumble

 

I’ve been back at work for two days now and, luckily, still feeling a bit of the “cure” Zen. I say that because during my absence from the school, the pace of rolling crises apparently quickened, the gossip mill heated up and exploded, a myriad of personal opinions and affronts were typed up late in the evenings and “Send” or “Reply All” was clicked, spreading these missiles out into every last corner of the school’s emailing lists. The first post-cure Team meeting was mostly spent hashing over all these chaotic developments at the parental level – and at the cost of planning for the coming school weeks. For the first time since starting there, I find my seriously worrying about Hummingbird extinction.

How did we get here?

And when I say “we”, I really mean “they”.

Because a big part of me feels only indirectly involved. Just like during the cure, I am an observer, interacting with all these people, but keeping to myself. Maintaining my distance in an instinctual drive for self-preservation. Setting limits to my participation to spare me from getting sucked into the vortex.

You’re confused now. Let me go back in time and explain.

The school I work in is financed by an association of the students’ parents and mostly run by the idealistic teachers they underpay, most of whom are (or were) also parents themselves. In the beginning, it was just a handful of families who were all on the same wavelength. The school developed and grew to the point where 25+ families had to agree on the major decisions.  At that point, the classic elements of such an association (General Assembly, Board, Chairman) were rejected and a huge yearlong effort succeeded in installing a sociocratic organizational structure. This means that decisions are no longer made democratically – where the majority can overrule (or roll over) the minority – but by consensus. Options are proposed and the one – if any – that no one seriously objects to is adopted. Ideally, theoretically, in principle, the result should be policies and measures that everyone can live with.

Ideally. Theoretically. In principle.

I’ve suspected for a while that this sociocratic experiment is failing and the last two days have only confirmed the feeling. Reading the thirteen emails of complaint sent out to everyone over the last 24 hours, it is clear that several personal conflicts among certain parents run deep and that the knives are out. Also, various working groups who are supposed to coordinate their efforts have become factions with competing interests. And at the core of all these discussions is the issue of money – which, as we all know, brings out the best in people. All of this together is the run up to a general meeting set for Saturday. I fear it is going to get ugly.

I won’t be there.

Being one of only three employees in the school and not a member of the association, I am not required to attend. I have no say in these matters. Only opinions. And we have all heard more than enough of those.

No, on Saturday I will be taking a long walk with my dog and then maybe a bath. I`ll practice my newly learned relaxation techniques and spend 10 minutes contemplating the toes of my left foot. I’ll tell myself that there is no sense in worrying whether I will still have a workplace to go to next year. I’ll find out soon enough. Que sera, sera.