When I was diagnosed with systemic lupus back in 1996, I experienced it as a shrinking and a rising all at once. My ability narrowed: My joints creaked, my skin erupted, my muscles ached, my lungs screamed. I couldn’t physically do all the things I once did, like hard weight-lifting sessions or dancing all night. But as the disease progressed, my spirit seemed to lift; I began to witness myself as existing in ways much more significant than performance. Over the following years, I learned to take care of a body that announced every imbalance.
There was a trigger early in the pandemic that returned me to my first days of living with lupus, when it was at its most terrifying and debilitating. But this time, it wasn’t a solitary experience. We were all shrunken—me, my family, my friends, my students. Removed from our ability to connect physically, so many of us skulked away from one another. Students of mine who had been active participants in class grew quiet in our virtual communities. My children were stunned into silence. I’ve been a college professor for 18 years, but it was hard for me to “profess” to any of them. I just didn’t know.
I slept an absurd amount. Then I grew sleepless. I wavered between wanting to ensure meaningful intellectual engagement and personal growth for all the young people around me—my children and students alike—and wanting to make space for all of us to worry and grieve without concern for metrics and outcomes. In a residential college, the student services are the in loco parentis branch, but as a female faculty member of color, that line often blurs. Students entrust us with their feelings, sometimes because of shared identities, sometimes because of shared vulnerabilities, sometimes because we are the ones who teach about power and difference. Late adolescence is a time of reckoning with one’s place in the world.
Blurring has deepened in the pandemic. The ages of my children and my students are converging—my oldest child is one year younger than many of the people I teach. My students’ rooms, which I can now see, look like rooms in my home; their references are the ones shared here—to music, to history, to politics, to TikTok videos. I am distant from them and closer than I’ve ever been. I witness a generation on-screen and in my home at once. The sadness in those myriad twin eyes breaks my heart.
I imagine the same is true for the teachers who teach my children. They deal with an even more turbulent stage of adolescence, many with children of their own as well, and they are managing minutiae and oceans of grief. And teachers in underserved districts even more, where logging on to virtual school has been impossible for a large number of their students. We all were and are layered in our caring, teaching, and fragility and responsible for this incessant, inconvenient task of evaluating one another in what is, collectively, our weakest moment. I admit, I have always disliked the idea of grading, although it is part of my job. I would much rather assess what skills have been gained, what growth took place, than rank people. But in the pandemic, where nothing is fair, where death and hunger and houselessness are ever more unfairly distributed, I have felt that grading is a masquerade, and I am a guilty participant. Meanwhile, I witness growing hunger, illness, and crisis outside, via screens, behind a locked front door.
A student sends an e-mail about a delayed assignment because someone they love has died of Covid-19, and a dam breaks. I wouldn’t have thought, after so many months of crying, I had so many tears left.
One way of looking at the pandemic is that it lays bare all the ways injustice in our society is refracted through public health, labor, and our eviscerated welfare state. It is a cruel lesson about the history of fend-for-yourself neoliberal politics, but one that we as educators and parents must teach as we are living it. We don’t want this replicated. So our failures must become the source of our children’s political possibilities.
Another way of looking at the pandemic is that it exposes the greatest human virtue: the capacity to love. This is the longest I have been separated from my mother, and the longest I have gone without crossing the threshold of my family home in Birmingham, Ala. I feel a terrible ache in my chest, an unmooring. The past year also marks the most time I have been able to spend with my children since they were small. That is an extraordinary bounty; that expands my heart. People I know keep dying; people I love keep having their hearts broken. The preciousness of love is undeniable when we are so vulnerable.
I am brought back to my awakening to lupus, when I began to understand that physical vulnerability was no weakness when it came to my emotional landscape. Love is in sharp relief now, as it was then. We are all brought to the very core of what it means to be human. There is no evasion of tragedy, and yet there is enormous capacity. I think we can use it. I think we can attach our hearts to human history. I think we can learn to care deeply about every imbalance, including those far beyond our immediate surroundings. In fact, I know it.