The New Normal

I want to start with a quote from a good friend of mine who posted this in response to these extraordinary times: “Nothing will be perfect. Everything will be ok.” He wrote this in response to his institution moving to a distance learning format for the rest of the semester, like so many other institutions have, like my own institution has.

My son, last night, refused to give me a hug and a kiss goodnight. He’s now 11 so not unexpected but there was something behind his refusal that made me probe a little deeper. He is confused, scared, unsure. Is it a big deal or isn’t it a big deal? I tell him that when he was sick only two short weeks ago, that if he were to get sick again, it probably wouldn’t be any worse than that. Two weeks, he asked? How was that only two weeks ago? It feels like forever.

It feels like another lifetime. Even at 11, he is feeling the acute shift in time that emerges in a time of crisis, of uncertainty.

I tell him that we are all healthy, that we aren’t near the elderly, that we are doing what we can, and that we will be, ultimately, ok. We have food, we have resources, we have each other, we have everything we need, and that he can always ask if he doesn’t know, isn’t sure. I tell him it’s ok to be scared, that we’re all in a place we’ve never been in before, so we are all making it up as we go, but we are making it up as we go, together.

Their school district finally closed, for a month. My daughter had long expressed fears about her classmates and friends with poor internet access, no computer or printer at home, who are food insecure, who have no stable home if and when schools closed. Who would look after the children, the really young ones? How would they learn? My heart swells and shatters simultanously; I am proud of her and heartbroken for a system that causes such anxiety.

Two weeks ago. I got a call from my son’s school, asking me to pick him up as he had a fever. I told the nurse I would be there in 30-45 minutes. She pause and asked if there was anyone else to come and get him sooner. No, I said, and I work in the District, and that’s how long it will take me. Oh, she said sternly, just remember that he has to stay at home for 24 hours symptom-free before sending him back to school.

Everything changes. Students from our institution studying in Italy are sent home as a precaution, and suddenly, we are in overdrive, helping the faculty adapt and adopt courses, at a moment’s notice, transition to distance learning. People are encouraged to be quarentined. Tensions are mounting, alongside our collective anxiety. Something is coming, and we start to prepare, to be ready.

Slowly, and then all at once, our professional lives and beyond are consumed with getting ready to help faculty move their courses online for the rest of the semester. over 6k courses. First, the website, and then programming. More and more people are asking us our assistance, our expertise. I spend a weekend creating content, programming, ideas, plans. We all do. Each day, there is another layer, a pivot, another request, another response. Each day, it gets increasingly frantic, desparate.

And we shine.

My entire life, no one has ever expected me to thrive in a time of crisis, least of all me. And yet, I always thrived, stepped up, exceeded expectations. Now I understand, adrenaline is like Adderall. There is hyperfocus, and I not only step up, I thrive. And here, I thrive.

But it isn’t just me. It’s the entire team. It’s an entire community, coming together to share resources and strategies and to support one another. But especially our team, who all come together to work towards the goal of supporting our faculty so we can support our students. Whever I come up for air for a moment, I marvel at what we’ve accomplished, at how we’ve come together, at how we put everything else aside in the service of one goal.

It is not perfect. It is a compromise. It is borne of necessity. But we still carry all of those lessons from time past with us as we work with faculty. I ask, are you ok? Are you taking care of yourself? What can I do? I ask faculty, I ask my colleagues. And there is a moment, I am not ok myself. One night, after working from 7:30am to 10:30pm, the day our institution officially announces, I break. I spend the morning of the next day fighting back tears. It is not enough, it is inadequate, I am not enough, I am inadequate.

And those around me rally me, support me, praise me. It is no small thing to be seen, to be acknowledged, to be recognised, to be in together with people. And a kind word brake me, too, because my strengths have often been seen as liabilities, as threats, and now they are assets, recognized as such, and I am spent and replenished all at once.

I am also not immune to the critiques I hear: neoliberal, administrative mandate, shock doctrine, disaster capitalism. But I try to remember that one can resist the system without sacreficing the people. It is not perfect, but the people still need to be supported. And so I support. We support. We work and we work and we work. We fall apart and then help to put each other back together.

I am asked, repeatedly, about technical tips and tricks, and I always go back to our shared humanity and the people who are striving to go beyond their best, who are evolving and growing and changing before our very eyes. Our shared humanity will get us through this. Our community will nourish us. Our connections will be our lifeline.

These are unprecedented times. I am once again reminded how small I am in this interconnected ecosystem, but I also realize that no matter how small my impact, it nonetheless matters. We survive and ultimately thrive, together, to Friday, and there is another new normal waiting for us after the weekend. Monday feels like forever ago. Next Monday feels like the start of something completely new. We spend an afternoon, together, in a moment of relative peace and stability enjoying each other’s company and camaraderie.

A plea comes in from someone I do not know and have never met. It is a part of a community of people all struggling with this shift to online in the face of a pandemic. I join groups hoping that I can help, that I can learn something. This person is teaching a college swimming course. How can they possibly move it online?

At first I laugh ruefully at the apparent futility. And then, my swim coach brain and learning desinger brain merge. I am filled with ideas, suggestions, innovative assignents.  I share them in a flury. I feel like I’ve been training my whole life, literally, for this.

I don’t know this person, at all, but we share so much, indirectly. So while a few hours before I celebrated with my colleagues for surviving, I share with a stranger because I know what it is to be lost and overwhelmed and stuck and I have something, some experience, and I can share it, and we just keep connecting and sharing and trying to be generous and remembering that we are all doing the best we can.

May you live in interesting times.