A few people have inquired about my absence from the diaries for the past several months, so I thought I would provide an update and an explanation. Make of it what you will.
The school at which I teach has been fully in-person this year, but we are still dealing with the impact of the pandemic. Prior to this school year, our last day fully in person was March 13, 2020. And while by February of the current year teachers were back in the building, at any given moment probaby less than 20% of our students were. Teaching in a hybrid mode was much more time- and energy-consuming than teaching either fully in person or fully remote (itself something of a time and energy sapper).
Since my stroke (November 12, 2019) and the subsequent surgery (December 18, 2019) to clear the carotid artery blockage (95%) that has caused it, I have needed far more sleep and rest, and some tasks that used to be automatic are now far more time consuming. For example, I still have some problems with both handwriting and typing. In the former I still find myself leaving out some letters and my rate of typing has slowed considerably (from around 60 wpm to less than 30 wpm) because of the number of errors I make and the concomitant corrections required. As to the handwriting, when I have to mark corrections on student papers, it takes about twice as long as before the stroke to make them legible. My first year at my current school (the famous DeMatha Catholic High School) I taught six classes in two preps. The past two years I am down to five classes, albeit with three preps. I also used to coach freshman soccer — I no longer do that, both because of time and because of energy constraints.
But there is more.
For most of my teaching career my primary area of instructional responsibility has been Government, which inevitably also includes politics. I always try to connect that learning with what is actually going on around us. For much of the 27 years I have taught, I would regularly bring in guest speakers. With the pandemic, that became far more difficult. In 2019 I was able to have as a guest speaker a retired FBI agent who was in the NYC office and intimately involved with the response to 9-11 come and talk to my classes. Since then I have only been able to have one virtual session — with my good friend Sec. of Agriculture Tom Vilsack — who could not be with us in person because of the pandemic last year, which meant all student questions had to be submitted to me in advance for he and I to dialog on camera. Fortunately our school actually had a connection — the man who served as acting Secretary until his confirmation is a graduate.and that man’s son (himself an alumnus) is in our development office. But the event did not provide the kind of connection I had previously been able to give students with folks like Congress critters from FL and NY, lobbyists, nationally known journalists (Candy Crowley, Chuck Todd), key staffers, people from think tanks, political operatives from across the political spectrum, etc. Further, the pandemic made it nigh impossible to have students gain extra credit and invaluable experience by volunteering during the 2020 campaign.
But part of my absence has been for other reasons, ones that are far more personal, albeit quite relevant to this site. Let me back up a few presidencies to set the framework.
When the US Senate had passed the Military Commissions Act, I came into my classes and told them the way this thing was drafted I wanted them to consider the following possibility — the latest Al Qaeda video had come out. I noted that Al Zahawiri was fluent in English as we knew from his ranting when on trial in Egypt for the assassination of Sadat, but that Bin Laden almost certainly was as well given his graduation from university in Saudi Arabia. In the video one or the other praised a blogger who had raised serious criticisms of the Bush administration and some of its responses post 9-11, praising by name one “teacherken”. Did that mean I had given “material support” to terrorists? I had to say that I did not know,given how the legislation was drafted.
That was one key moment where I wrestled with what I was doing teaching government. What was I teaching students, how did it connect with the reality happening around us, what were my concerns about the future of democracy in this country.
We got past that. We elected Obama, for two terms. But even during those 8 years of his administration I constantly struggled with my concerns about what I saw happening, the increasing coursening of the political process. I saw some advances, but worrying trends, and not just on the far right. I have enough awareness of history to know that we had gotten through problematic periods before, but still I worried. Clearly it did not discourage my active participation, both in political activities (think of Webb’s 2006 Senate run in which I was extremely active) and in my participation here (I joined this site in December 2003) and at various conferences (although I have not attended Netroots Nation since 2012, which is also the last time I presented a panel). Further, I used to write frequently about matters of public education, but since the middle of 2019 am no longer in a public school setting, and thus feel my words on that topic are far less meaningful.
Yesterday was my half birthday — I turned 75 on May 23. I still want to teach so long as I feel I can make a difference. But I also want time and energy for other things, knowing I am now on the downslope of my life on this planet.
I also worry about the relevance of what I might have to offer here. When I joined this this site there were fewer than 5,000 registered users. The contribution of each of us was therefore somehow more important. In the approaching now two decades since, I have seen many changes here. Some who were “front pagers” are no longer on the site. Other key voices have disappeared as well, some because they have passed on from this life, others because of reasons about which we might not know.
When I began my participation here I was clearly an extreme extravert, albeit a shy one. As I have aged I have increasingly become less extraverted, and am perhaps now more introverted than I could have imagined.
We have also dealt with health issues — my spouse’s blood cancer, multiple issues for myself, even starting before the stroke. My wife has had an added responsibility of being the executor of the estate of her father, who passed away about a year ago (in his 90s). There are legal responsibilities that can be very time consuming, she is also his literary executor with a responsibility to get a book he had finished but which needs editing into print. There is also her own intellectual work. She often feels that she is lacking in time and energy, she is now the senior member of her immediate family, she has multiple nieces and nephews (children of 3 of her 4 siblings) and as of this month is now a great aunt.
Simply put, over the past several years I have found my own priorities changing. I have not withdrawn from my interest and concern about politics and policy, but find myself far less inclined to offer my opinion on blog posts. Yes, I still comment on and share tweets on topics that interest me. I still read news media and things posted and shared here.
Increasingly I would rather read books — I have consumed a fair number of books about recent events, but I am also reading books about history, for example, I am partly through David Blight’s magnificent Race and Reunion, which although it is about how our understanding of the Civil War and Reconstruction has been shaped. is also very relevant to things in our own day and times. Since I also teach American History it is relevant to what I do professionally.
I sadly no longer play piano. I find it frustrating that I have not regained sufficient dexterity to play pieces I love with any degree of accuracy. Because of the surgery to remove the arterial blockage in my neck ,my vocal cords do not now completely close and that has pretty much eliminated by ability to sing.
My wife thinks she wants to keep working for a few more years, but we are not quite sure. She will be eligible for Social Security as of July 2023. That would mean one year after this for me at DeMatha. She thinks maybe two-three years more. I would then be pushing or at 80. On the other hand, we worry about whether we want to stay in the US, the way we see things going. The only countries to which she is willing to go are England (which would be a problem because quarantine on pets) and Canada (where she has extended family, but where getting permanent residency can be very difficult — she MAY have some rights with respect to that, but it could take several years to accomplish). We have considered retiring to Charlottesville-Albemarle County — she has connections at both UVa and the Jefferson Foundation, and there may be appropriate places both for her Orthodox Christianity and my being a Quaker. But we do not know.
I know that we are both worried about the increasing intolerance and violence in our politics, the threats to democracy, and perhaps most of all whether or not the US and other countries will do enough to save the environment. On the latter, since August I have been driving an all-electric car (a Kia Niro), and if we have to replace her car (a hybrid) we would buy another electric — assuming the BBB gets enacted into law and with the tax credit for EVs that would make that decision a lot easier financially. We explored putting solar on our roof, but do not think it makes sense. Our house is more than 80 years old, it lacks a master bath, etc. We did upgrade the kitchen some 20 years ago. But we know that were we to sell it, it would probably be a tear down — there is enough land to put up a modern and larger house (ours is about 1500 sq ft of finished space) and given HQ2 for Amazon being based here in Arlington VA there is a lot of demand now and conceivably for next couple of years.
I took off from school yesterday — I teach mainly seniors who were all on retreat, and my once class of juniors did not meet yesterday. We are next in school on Tuesday — students given November 29 off because we donated over 15,000 cans for our Thanksgiving food drive. Tomorrow I will go round trip to Delaware for a family Thanksgiving at her brother’s house. We will drive separately because she is staying over to go birding with some family and to meet her new great niece, while I am coming home to care for three cats and bc I have a dental appointment on Saturday. I also have105 thank you cards to write — I do so each Thanksgiving for each of my students, even if all I can thank them for is prospective, about what I hope they will do going forward. It is a way of deepening connection on a human level. I have one student who lost his mother a month ago. I have others who have dealt with illness of their own or in their family. One student’s parents are going through a bitter divorce and fighting over custody of his younger brother and he is going to have to give testimony in court — meanwhile he has to decide among 5 different full rides because of his athletic ability. Others need affirmations of different kinds, or perhaps a gentle kick in the derriere to stay focused even if they have already signed for their grants in aid as athletes or musicians. They are teenagers, they will make mistakes, they need to be supported even as I challenge them to grow. It is because I can make a difference doing so that I am still in the classroom.
This has been a long post. I thank those of you still here for your tolerance. I have been a member of this community long enough that I felt that owed folks an explanation.
Even when I don’t post — or even comment — I still read.