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Randi Kreiss

College of hard knocks: the pandemic of 2020-21

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Did we graduate yet?
This was the college we neither applied to nor wanted to attend. This was the education we could have lived without. This was the schooling that killed a half-million of us. This was the time, 14 months and counting, that we learned more than we could have imagined about our own strengths and weaknesses.
You never wish for tragedy as a character-building exercise, but when human beings confront extraordinary challenge, they often grow in unexpected ways. Have you thought about what you’ve learned since last spring, when we realized we would all be long haulers in some way?
After a time of intense anxiety, I learned that I needed to devote myself to activities that were all-consuming and demanding of my attention. That was both good and difficult, since concentrating was hard when I kept drifting into “what-if” scenarios. I spent some of my time in Florida, and I drove inland, past the coastal towns, to orchid farms and nurseries in the boondocks. I discovered that wandering through the orchid houses was safe. The orchids bobbed in the breeze, and the kaleidoscope of colors and shapes became my fascination for the day.
I learned, too, that what I read or watched on TV mattered during difficult times. I needed to read historical fiction that brought me out of my own place and time. On television, I tuned out the news after the presidential election, and tuned in to documentaries, mostly nature (See “Chasing Coral”). I was having Covid nightmares at the time that I could not have had before the pandemic. In the dreams I would walk into a crowded room and suddenly realize that everyone was sick, and I would get sick, too. Shutting out the news helped.

For a long time, I measured my days in a completely different way from the “before times.” While two years ago I might have been running around all day, the pandemic day was pared down to the basics. I might take a walk in the morning, then conduct all work and pastimes online, cook a meal, and go to bed.
I learned how brave and plucky and smart my grown kids and niece and nephew are while raising teens and toddlers and infants in the worst of times. They all worked and kept house and nursed babies and didn’t go mad. The grandkids toughed out constant disappointments and cancellations.
Learning how unprepared the country was for Covid-19 was a shocking lesson. I always assumed we were better than that, that if any country in the world could deal effectively with a global pandemic, it would be us. Yet the messaging from the federal government and from our scientists was distressingly inadequate. We were distinctly unexceptional.
Post-pandemic, we need to educate, fund and support science and scientists and never again let politics trump scientific evidence.
But I learned that, even coming from behind, America can do the right stuff, develop vaccines and get them into people, millions of whom are still skeptical about the shots. And haven’t we all been schooled in the anti-science thinking that abounds? We need to push the education pedal to the floor and raise a new generation of critical thinkers.
I asked my kids and grandkids to tell me what they learned over the pandemic year. One said he learned that so many joyful family times together have nothing to do with paid events. Another said, “There is no better place to be than out in nature.” Another said, “I learned not to worry about things I can’t control . . . I’m very happy being surrounded with a fraction of the people I previously interacted with.”
One of the grandkids, 15, said, “I learned that physical interaction with others is essential for your mind.” The preteen said, “Humans are very resourceful although most people struggle with change.” A 14-year-old said, “I thought it was cool that people just adapted super quickly to living in a whole new way,” and the 18-year-old said, “Online does not always mean more efficient.”
I learned that the little things that irritate an individual in isolation with a longtime partner, as in a 53-year marriage, are like grains of sand in an oyster. Sometimes you get a pearl, an appreciation for the love and support that endures. 
The most important lesson of Pandemic 2020-21: We’re still in school. It’s not over. We may have to dig deeper and find more strength and forbearance, and I believe we will.

Copyright 2021 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.