Wash Your Hands: Navigating Grief and Uncertainty in the Time of the Pandemic

By Linda Christensen

I hadn’t ever planned to teach online, but the Saturday before our college campus closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, I decided to cancel our face-to-face class because one of the students is pregnant, another lives in the heart of the initial coronavirus outbreak in the United States, and I’m over 60. It made sense. Besides the snow that evaded us during winter arrived at the edge of spring, and instead of the forecast “dusting,” we had enough to build snow people and to hunker inside with hot chocolate. And many Oregonians are timid about driving in snow.   

My class, Practicum in Teaching Writing, is a year-long follow-up to the Oregon Writing Project’s four-week summer institute. After being steeped in writing over the summer, classroom teachers head back to school and turn what they learned into curriculum for their students. For our class, this means creating a year-long portfolio of their writing lessons, reflections about the lessons, and samples of work generated by students.  Our class has a routine: We start with check-ins, move to writing, then sharing, then working on portfolios and collaborating with grade-level colleagues.  

But this class was held the day after all Oregon and Washington schools closed for a few weeks, soon to be months, and frankly, we were frightened and uncertain about our collective future. Although the topic for our opening check-in was about where we found hope and solidarity emerging in the world during this tough time, the teachers spoke about their final day with students: the fear, sadness, and uncertainty of students and staff. Would they return to the building? Should teachers send homework? What about the kids who received food at school? Whose parents didn’t have childcare options? How long would they be out? What should they take with them? Would they see their students again? 

One 2nd-grade teacher, Kira, stayed at school and recorded herself reading books and talking to the class as if they were still in the room. She sent the video recordings to her students’ families. Ellie, a high school language arts teacher, shared how she had to have students step back from their bravado about how they wouldn’t die from coronavirus to discuss the role of passive carriers. Zach talked about playing ping pong with the members of his department after their students left and how that joyful release was what he needed at that moment. 

I had previously bagged the writing assignment I had created for that day and instead used the poem “Wash Your Hands” by Dori Midnight, which I discovered on Facebook. The poem takes the “wash your hands” mantra and turns it into a meditation on this moment — a song, a political stance, a prayer, advice, a rant. A perfect piece for our first meeting during the tidal wave of pandemic news, panic, and closures. 

I chose the Zoom platform for the class because with Zoom we can see each other, chat in a side bar, and break out into separate rooms for grade-level discussions and sharing our writing and portfolios. Also, Zoom is familiar. I already use it for both Rethinking Schools and National Writing Project meetings. Zoom met our needs for this first class, and I’ve been practicing new functions, like screen sharing and annotating and the whiteboard, as I teach my grandson morning writing lessons using Zoom. And, I thought, some teachers may want to use it in the upcoming months. 

The Lesson

I placed the poem in a google folder. They opened the document from our shared folder (before I discovered the screen sharing function on Zoom), and we read the poem out loud to each other, stanza by stanza. Although I’ve read the poem daily since my first reading, hearing it read out loud allowed me to savor it in a way my solitary reading hadn’t, to highlight new pieces. The second stanza of the poem, my favorite, stands out as a call to love: 

Wash your hands 
like you are washing the only teacup left that your great grandmother carried across the ocean, like you are washing the hair of a beloved who is dying, like you are washing the feet of Grace Lee Boggs, Beyonce, Jesus, your auntie, Audre Lorde, Mary Oliver- you get the picture. 
Like this water is poured from a jug your best friend just carried for three miles from the spring they had to climb a mountain to reach.
Like water is a precious resource 
made from time and miracle

After reading the poem together, I said, “Please take a few minutes to reread the poem. Mark it up. Look for style and content. Also, highlight places that you think could be jumping off places for our writing — lines, phrases, ideas.”

When reading a piece in the Oregon Writing Project, our mantra is “raise the bones.” What we mean is to reread a piece of writing, looking for the writer’s style: What techniques did the author employ that made the hair on the back of our necks stand up or that brought tears to our eyes or made us stop and ponder or made us want to take up a pen and try that repeating line or idea ourselves? But “raising the bones” also means paying attention to content. What was the topic, evidence, story? Why is it important? Do we have something to add to the conversation that the writer started? 

After reading the poem to raise the bones, I placed teachers into breakout rooms of three or four to discuss the poem. Although this class is not large — 12 teachers most days — I wanted everyone to be heard, to give them time, as I do with high school students, to practice their responses. I used the breakout room function on Zoom and gave them 10 minutes to meet and discuss the poem. During this time, I moved from room to room listening in. After 10 minutes, I gave a Zoom warning, then reconvened the large group. 

When we gathered again, I asked the class to talk about the lines they loved. Our favorite stanza included a list of the ways to wash your hands with love. But the stanza about fear also resonated with our current state: 

When fear arises, 
and it will,
let it wash over your whole body instead of staying curled up tight in
your shoulders.
If your heart tightens,
and expand.
science says: compassion strengthens the immune system

But we also loved other lines — “it’s already time” and “stardust and geologic time.” Besides loving the language of the poem, we discussed the intention of the poem — the need to be more compassionate, especially to those struggling with chronic illnesses, to look out for others, to stop consuming, to understand the systemic failures of our economic system.

As I looked at the gallery of faces on my screen, most sitting on couches, a few at desks, where we see bookshelves, windows, artwork — a small intimate window into each other’s lives — I asked, “So what lines, words or ideas could you use as a jump off for a poem?” I started the conversation by suggesting playing with the line “wash your hands like,” but maybe changing the verb “wash” to another verb that might also elicit a list. “I absolutely love the poet’s list of people. Specific. Eclectic. The people she names tells me so much about who Midnight is.” I think it was Lindsey who pointed to the possibility of using the phrase, “It is already been time” or “it is always true.” Tamarah loved the phrase, “stardust and geologic time” and wanted to weave that into a poem. Someone, maybe Harriet, suggested using the phrase, “when fear arises.”  Aaron liked the end of the poem, the returning to traditions as a way of healing and coping with the anxiety that has risen and shrouded us. 

Before we turned off our videos and muted our audios, I said, “This may not be a time for a poem for you. This could be a narrative. A rant. An editorial. An interior monologue. Let this be a time and place for you to write what you need to say right now. This poem is a lift-off. Find your own path.” We wrote for 20 minutes. After we gathered again, I returned them to breakout rooms, so everyone could read their poems out loud to each other. In a longer class, I would have had a full class read-around. 

Perhaps it’s not necessary to note, but I will: There were no handouts for teachers to fill out. The material for the writing came from the lives of the people in the room. The writing helped them frame the grief, despair, as well as moments of solidarity at this moment in time. They didn’t need a rubric. They didn’t need a list of rules for poetry or narrative or essay. What they needed was time to write and share about what was happening in their world at this moment.

Harriet volunteered Kira to read her piece to the entire group. Kira, who always wears a smile, serious glasses, and lights up a room with her optimism, wrote about the need for connection: We are learning to show and share love differently./ The time of high fives and handshakes are on hold./ Elbow bumps, waves, and smiles will step in/ Because we still crave human connection/ And will take it however we can get it… We will lean on the internet now more than ever/ For music/ For hope/ For joy/ Because staying apart is now the biggest act of love we can show.” After she read, someone suggested that we all put our poems in the group folder and said that the lesson and their poems should be sent out in solidarity to our wider OWP writing community.  

And with their permission, I’m sharing a few stanzas of their pieces. Kym teaches 2nd grade, and like me, tears up easily, especially when she talks about her students. When she applied for the Oregon Writing Project, her administrator, who is also an OWP coach, said, “Seriously, Linda, Kym is one of the best teachers I have ever witnessed.” Kym’s piece evoked the classroom on the last day: closing the doors and the memory of students and what is left behind: 

Tell them you’ll see them in two weeks although you have no idea
how long it will really be. Watch them traipse onto the bus with their oversized backpacks and dinosaur shoes and glitter hair beads and unicorn jackets, faces glancing back with wide eyes. Close the classroom door behind them.

Wash the handle, lovingly, with Clorox. Do the whole door. Wash the desks and tables. Let your eyes rest on what’s left behind: drawings of Katherine Johnson, broken crayons, bunny stickers, the books a parent surprised you with on Wednesday, the Patrisse Cullors quote you scribbled under the Black Lives Matter photo for them to read to each other: Nothing can break a community united, a community guided by love.

Harriet, who teaches middle school, who came to the Writing Project in the last third of her teaching career, is a lover of words, a life-long learner, a petite woman turned overalls into fashion, who I can turn to in an hour of need. She wrote about the loss of hugs:

In the time of the loss of the human hug, I am recommitted
To the hug and the metaphor for the hug:

the photograph 
the poem the fiddled tune 
the falling snow

the zoomed conversation 
the imagined cup of tea, 
served on a saucer 
to the one in need, 
with the simple words, 
I know…

Sam, who grew up at the entrance to Portland’s vast Forest Park, teaches
high school language arts, loves to wander in wilderness, get lost in
mountains, wrote:

I remember high school and Nokia cell phones,
My self-righteous resistance to being connected
To everyone else all the time.

And it is true that the more connected we are
Through the invisible ether, the harder it is
To feel the ground beneath our feet.

But it is also true that we have been connected
By ties we cannot see since the beginning of time.

It is already time to recognize this interweaving.
It is already time to acknowledge the common
Fate we share, and the common call to face it
With care, and compassion.

All creeks braid their way to the sea.
All of growing up is finding our way to that
Vast horizon.

Each of our poems signified the ways that this crisis pushed us to reflect on what lay behind and what lay ahead, fueled by our fears, our understanding of who we are and who we have been and how the unknown that loomed ahead might change us. On this first day out of school, we struggled together, through poetry, to find footing on unstable ground and community through an internet connection. 

Now that three weeks have passed from that first online class, I realize how naive my assumptions were about teaching during coronavirus. That first wave of grief has risen, a steady incline, like the graphs on the nightly news showing COVID-19 cases. As schools pass out laptops and lunches to kids whose folks have lost jobs and send mixed messages and mandates to teachers trying to hold their own homes and families together while they deal with the enormous weight of their students’ fears, I think about what our students need now. Not packets. Not third quarter grades. Certainly not learning targets. What I didn’t get wrong about teaching in the time of a pandemic is that in whatever way education moves forward, we must begin with our students’ lives at the center.

Linda Christensen (lmc@lclark.edu) is director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. She is a Rethinking Schools editor and author of Reading, Writing, and Rising Up and Teaching for Joy and Justice

Artist: Sawsan Chalabi

wash your hands
By Dori Midnight

We are humans relearning to wash our hands. 
Washing our hands is an act of love
Washing our hands is an act of care
Washing our hands is an act that puts the hypervigilant body at ease 
Washing our hands helps us return to ourselves by washing away what does not serve.

Wash your hands 
like you are washing the only teacup left that your great grandmother carried across the ocean, like you are washing the hair of a beloved who is dying, like you are washing the feet of Grace Lee Boggs, Beyonce, Jesus, your auntie, Audre Lorde, Mary Oliver- you get the picture. 
Like this water is poured from a jug your best friend just carried for three miles from the spring they had to climb a mountain to reach.
Like water is a precious resource 
made from time and miracle

Wash your hands and cough into your elbow, they say.
Rest more, stay home, drink water, have some soup, they say.
To which I would add: burn some plants your ancestors burned when there was fear in the air,
Boil some aromatic leaves in a pot on your stove until your windows steam up.
Open your windows 
Eat a piece of garlic every day. Tie a clove around your neck. 

My friends, it is always true, these things.
It has already been time.
It is always true that we should move with care and intention, asking
Do you want to bump elbows instead? with everyone we meet.
It is always true that people are living with one lung, with immune systems that don’t work so well, or perhaps work too hard, fighting against themselves. It is already true that people are hoarding the things that the most vulnerable need. 
It is already time that we might want to fly on airplanes less and not go to work when we are sick.
It is already time that we might want to know who in our neighborhood has cancer, who has a new baby, who is old, with children in another state, who has extra water, who has a root cellar, who is a nurse, who has a garden full of elecampane and nettles. 
It is already time that temporarily non-disabled people think about people living with chronic illness and disabled folks, that young people think about old people.
It is already time to stop using synthetic fragrances to not smell like bodies, to pretend like we’re all not dying. It is already time to remember that those scents make so many of us sick. 
It is already time to not take it personally when someone doesn’t want to hug you.
It is already time to slow down and feel how scared we are. 

We are already afraid, we are already living in the time of fires.

When fear arises, 
and it will,
let it wash over your whole body instead of staying curled up tight in your shoulders.
If your heart tightens,
and expand.
science says: compassion strengthens the immune system
We already know that, but capitalism gives us amnesia
and tricks us into thinking it’s the thing that protect us
but it’s the way we hold the thing.
The way we do the thing.

Those of us who have forgotten amuletic traditions, 
we turn to hoarding hand sanitizer and masks. 
we find someone to blame. 
we think that will help. 
want to blame something? 
Blame capitalism. Blame patriarchy. Blame white supremacy. 

It is already time to remember to hang garlic on our doors
to dip our handkerchiefs in thyme tea
to rub salt on our feet
to pray the rosary, kiss the mezuzah, cleanse with an egg.
In the middle of the night,
when you wake up with terror in your belly, 
it is time to think about stardust and geological time
redwoods and dance parties and mushrooms remediating toxic soil.
it is time
to care for one another
to pray over water
to wash away fear
every time we wash our hands

Dori Midnight practices community-based intuitive healing that weaves plant and stone medicine, ancestral and queer magic, and justice work. She lives on occupied Pocumtuc/Nipmuc territory, also known as Western Massachusetts, where she teaches, creates ritual, makes potions, and maintains a local and distance healing practice.