Wash Your Hands

Navigating Grief and Uncertainty in the Time of the Pandemic

By Linda Christensen

Illustrator: Sawsan Chalabi

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. 

My class, Practicum in Teaching Writing, is a yearlong 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 yearlong 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. Zak 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. 

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.

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 sidebar, 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, Beyoncé, 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 re-read 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 re-read 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? 

When reading a piece in the Oregon Writing Project, our mantra is “raise the bones.” What we mean is to re-read a piece of writing, looking for the writer’s style.

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 message 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 is already time” and “it is always true.” 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 has already been time” or “it is always true.” Tamarah loved the phrase “stardust and geological 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 and despair, as well as moments of solidarity in this 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.

Harriet volunteered Kira Hamilton 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 Condron-Lee 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 Wingard, who teaches middle school, who came to the Writing Project in the last third of her teaching career, is a lover of words, a lifelong learner, a petite woman who 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 Wilson, who grew up at the entrance to Portland’s vast Forest Park, teaches high school language arts, loves to wander in wilderness, and 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 lies 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 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 and realities, 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.

Subscribe to Rethinking Schools magazine at rethinkingschools.org/subscribe.

Click here to read the full poem “wash your hands” by Dori Midnight.

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. 

Illustrator Sawsan Chalabi’s work can be seen at schalabi.com.