Reading, Teaching, COVID-19, and Mental Health

While many of my friends made great headway through their TBR stacks during our COVID-19 stay-at-home time, I found it difficult to read for pleasure. My usual reading time is on my commute. Except on rare occasions, I would not do work on the train; rather, I would read a book for pleasure, usually something that I was not even teaching at the time. Staying at home took that time away from me; so, while there is a definite benefit of not traveling an hour to an hour and a half each way to work every day, there is also the loss of that time to sit (or stand) on the train and be transported to another world. A transportation I found refreshing and rejuvenating even in a crowded subway car.

Additionally, there was the transition to working from home. I teach high school English, and my school lost almost no time in the transition from traditional to home-based learning. We dismissed the students after a half-day of classes on Friday, March 13th (so ominous, yet we really had no idea how much so) and proceeded to a faculty meeting to learn how to use Google Meet and other online learning apps. Then we packed up our things expecting to be out of the building for a week or two and headed home. The subway was eerily empty for a Friday at 5pm. Again, we had no idea…

Monday, March 16th dawned a new day in my educational career, and I took it on. I met with each of my classes for an hour and a half once a week (except for AP English Lit which met twice a week), and during those live Meets, I conducted class almost as if we were in the Classroom together. We read stories together, students either volunteering to read a paragraph or two or being called upon when I hadn’t heard from them in a while, and I asked close reading questions both aloud and in writing on the Google Classroom. I tried to keep it as much like our days in the school building as I could. Our daily warm up activities became Classroom assignments during our off days and our Meets were times of close reading and discussion. And it worked.

But. There’s always a “but.” But, most of my students live in busy households with many people trying to work and go to school from home, so most of the time their responses were on the chat or on the Classroom. And, quick, multiple-choice comprehension quiz before discussion became less valid, so more and more of the assignments were writing based. I mean, this is an English class, so many of our assignments were writing based anyway, but now the discussion was too. And class participation became more and more important because I could no longer see who was drifting away from lesson, both figuratively and literally. Most of my students also kept their cameras off, so I was teaching to their avatars. I found that instead of gaining that commuting time to myself, instead it was folded right into my teaching time. I was working longer hours than ever reading their discussion responses and creating lessons for the next day. When two weeks turned into three, into a month, I was recreating the wheel in some cases as I hadn’t brought all my files home with me in March. No one expected then that we would finish out the school year online. It didn’t help matters any that our school servers had been attacked by ransomware earlier in the year. Only now was I realizing what hadn’t been uploaded to Google Drive before that happened.

After a week or two of online teaching, my husband’s job at a local private golf course was suspended. I sequestered myself in the second bedroom of our two-bedroom apartment which had become my classroom and office while he languished in the living room. When I’d emerge, he was more than ready for human interaction. As was I. I love my students, but it was difficult not seeing them nor hearing from them. And some days, I might have only one or no classes, the rest of my time devoted to reading their work and creating new lessons and researching new ways to keep them engaged online. I was more than ready to turn off the computer and spend time with him rather than open a book–or worse because it is another screen, my Kindle. We’d talk, make dinner together, play cards–one very competitive game of Uno went into the wee hours of the morning. And this was good.

Until it wasn’t. I’m not talking about the time with my husband–that was still great, but I was spending too much of my day on schoolwork and not enough on taking care of myself. I was so worried about how my kids were doing that I didn’t stop to think how I was doing. (See my guest post on Norton’s K-12Talk blog about my solution.) So when a friend recommended a book to me, A Discovery of Witches, I decided to download it from the library and give it a go. It seemed right up my alley: witches, vampires, and the Bodleian library in Oxford. Right away I was drawn into the story. I still didn’t take as much time as I should have to just read, almost forgetting how rejuvenating it is to the mind, but I was starting.

Then, the loan ran out and I had to wait for the renewal, but I did. And I renewed again and again till I finished. And I’m glad I did. It is an excellent adventure of witches, vampires, and daemons, and academia, and love, and loving the “right” kind of person. It’s well worth the time. I’m looking forward (with some trepidation thanks to a hint near the end of the book) to volume two. But what I’ve learned through all this is something I’ve innately known, but, having never vocalized it, perhaps didn’t realize soon enough.

Reading is an important part of one’s mental health. I tend to favor fiction, but it doesn’t have to be, though I think perhaps we’ll leave out current events here. Reading allows your mind to take you somewhere else, to set you on experiences you may never have, and to experience dangerous things safely. It is not something to do half-heartedly; to read something, you need to give it your focus and–here’s the mental health angle–let go of your concerns for the time being. Your subconscious mind can keep picking at that knot, but you give your conscious mind a break, and as a result, your anxiety is lifted, maybe before you even knew you had some. And while you may never be a witch or a vampire, your mind still absorbs the way the characters–in this case, for example, different species in an uneasy, deeply suspicious, and ill-informed detente–interact and eventually learn from and about each other, and adds that to your experience of human interaction. The wider our reading, the more open our minds are to the experiences of others. Think about that in this time of racial unrest.

Many people look on reading as frivolous or selfish, but it’s not. It’s as necessary to a healthy mind as exercise is to the body. And to those who say they “don’t like to read,” I say, you just haven’t found the right book yet. Drop your guard, open your mind, and read. You won’t regret it.

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