Teaching Empathy during COVID

Empathy is a trait that serves us all, especially during a public health crisis.

All around the country, school boards are struggling with decisions on how to best educate our children through a public health crisis. Our family, my husband and I and our two kids, attended a recent school board meeting where it would be decided whether our school would continue in a hybrid model or return to full capacity classes.

Image for post
Photo by pixpoetry on Unsplash

When we arrived at the meeting, there were already about thirty parents there, some not wearing masks. My husband and I brought our kids because we both planned to speak. We hadn’t hired a babysitter since COVID hit last March and didn’t want to leave our kids home alone.

More parents arrived, pushing the room capacity to well above fifty. All the chairs, spaced six feet apart, were filled. So people started to line the walls or gather in the back. The air in the room was tense. At the last meeting where this decision was discussed parents argued angrily for full capacity and criticized teachers and administrators for taking “virtual vacations.” Even more parents packed this meeting hoping to convince the board that our kids needed to be in school full time. My husband and I were in the minority favoring a hybrid model that we believed was safer for all involved.

The President of the Board made an announcement asking everyone to abide by the school’s policy to wear a mask. Only a few refused. But after the meeting was called to order, the board needed to conduct some business in closed session. When they left the room, many of the parents removed their masks or lowered them to their chins to talk and laugh with neighbors. My 11-year-old daughter turned to me to ask, “Mommy, why aren’t they wearing their masks?”

Read the rest of my post here on Medium.

We belong to each other

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. — Walt Whitman

*****

I took a class on the personal essay and memoir at a weeklong writing conference this summer.  What attracts me to these conferences is not just the focus on writing, but on the variety of people I meet.  Last week’s class included three widows, a lawyer, a real estate agent, a professor of physiology, a Jewish-Buddhist turned Secular Humanist, a former alcoholic and cocaine addict, a conflict mediator, a motherless daughter, an adoptee, and a pastor.  The essays we wrote reflected the diversity of  our life experiences: a heart-wrenching account of aid work in Haiti, a one night stand, a stripper who boarded her horse at the writer’s stable, a journey of self-discovery through the choice of men’s cologne.

Whitman’s “Song of Myself” reminds me of what becomes clear in every writing class I take.  Although we are a diverse people, celebrating and singing our unique songs, every atom of mine is yours as well.  Or, in other words, we are deeply and intimately connected through our biology as well as some universal truths about the human condition.  These universal truths always arise in the writing workshop: our human desire to know and be known, to be accepted, respected, appreciated and loved; every person has a story to tell; everyone knows pain, suffering, grief and loss; everyone has the power to create, but, like a muscle, our creative side needs to be exercised in order to realize its transformative potential.

Whitman’s words also remind me that we don’t just belong to ourselves, even though our individualistic American culture tells us otherwise.  Because of our shared biology and the universal truths of our human condition, we belong to each other.  Which means we are responsible for each other.  Each writing class I have taken has had a very skilled teacher leading it, but everyone in the class bears a responsibility to each other. The doctor’s oath of “do no harm” could be our oath as well, especially while offering critique on personal writing.  In class we practiced how to share space and air time with everyone in the room. We practiced attending to each writer and his or her needs.  We practiced offering constructive criticism in a way that could be received well and truly heard.  We practiced respect.  It wasn’t perfect.  Some group members were more responsible and sensitive than others.  But this is the challenge of every class, every group, every community made up of fallible human beings.  The hope for me, though, comes in the desire to gather and in the connections made across difference—connections we had not realized before, but that always exist among a people who belong to each other.