Back-to-School Dread

I press a button on my suit to release a slow stream of oxygen into my helmet, savoring the freshness of it.

Sam is crying again. His visor has fogged up, and a steady stream of tears and snot run down his face and disappear past the glass and into the depths of his helmet and neck brace.

I resist the urge to sigh and steam up my own space, negating the effects of my oxygen-shot. Sam has been crying all morning. He misses his mom. I get it. He’d been home with her for almost a year before we were finally able to open the schools.

I guess my break is over then. The teacher covering me is either oblivious to his misery or she’s ignoring it. I think wistfully about the days when I would leave the room on my break – isn’t that what “break” means? Now it’s not worth the energy to trek down the hall in this heavy suit. Who really wants to sit at the staff charging station and stare at my colleagues through a fully enclosed helmet, ensuring that my audio channel is tuned into the adults-only stream only to listen to complaints of my own that I don’t require someone else to voice?

Instead, twice a day I sit where my desk used to be and plug into the classroom charging station. At least I can turn off the audio input completely and take a break from the noise.

Sam’s breathing is coming in gasps. I raise my hand to signal Mrs. Rose, hoping to alert her to his situation, but she is in the other corner of the room dealing with a sharing issue.

I pull the cord and hastily tuck it into the waist panel of my suit, not bothering to wind it up neatly as we were shown.

I turn on my audio and microphone before releasing the extender arm – sending my go-go-gadget-hand toward the crying boy. I pat his shoulder with three impersonal taps, understanding why they give him no comfort. It’s no replacement for a hug.

“It’s okay, Sam. You’ll see Mommy soon. Why don’t we go to the building corner and make a tower? I bet you can’t make one as tall as yourself!”

Sam looks me in the eye as another huge tear splashes on his cheek. He shakes his head, but pauses his sobbing.

“L-l-eg-go?” His eyes plead as he stutters the request.

“I’m sorry, Buddy. You know we had to put the Lego away. The pieces are too small for us to handle with our gloves.”

A fresh shower occurs inside Sam’s helmet. I feel like I’m watching him drown inside a washing machine, unable to save him.

I use the extender arm to push his oxygen button. He could use a good dose of air in there about now.

My next series of shoulder pats is interrupted with the automatic lowering of our face monitors while the instruction to stand for the playing of O Canada is piped into our helmets.

The children in the puppet area struggle to get to their feet in the bulky suits. As the anthem plays, we watch scenes of our country flash across our screens – beautiful lighthouses, oceans, mountains, forests; places we can only visit virtually since travel outside of our city was banned. I’m reminded daily at this time of how upset people were back in the beginning when they couldn’t cross the border into Quebec to visit their cottages. Little did we know…

As the last notes of “We stand on guard for thee” linger in my ears, I notice my colleague staring at Sam with a look of horror on her face.

I turn to find the inside of his visor covered in vomit. His crying has made him sick.

“Oh, no!” I say the words aloud instinctively, forgetting how good our audio systems are. All ten little faces look at me, hearing the fear in the tone of my voice.

Mrs. Rose is halfway across the room, heading for the communication panel next to the door. The Containment Team is to be notified immediately of illness.

I gasp and send my extender arm to block her path. “He’s not sick!” I hiss, wishing we were both on the staff channel.

I look at the pale faces staring at Sam or at me. Bella and Jennifer are crying now too. They undoubtedly remember what happened last week when the Containment Team took Cole away. It will be another ten days before they see their classmate again; before his family sees him again.

If one of our isolation chambers is not available, Sam will be taken to the nearest Clinic to isolate there for the two-week period.

“Sarah, please!”

But Mrs. Rose skirts around my attempt to bar her way and reaches the panel, pressing the big red button before she looks at me. Her eyes are sad, but her mouth is drawn in a line.

“No exceptions. That’s the rule, Val. If a child is sick, they have to go immediately.” She takes a deep breath before continuing. “It’s for everyone’s safety. You know this.”

My eyes blur with tears. “What I know is…” but my words fade into my helmet, knowing they have no purpose. The button has been pushed. They will come.

Sam’s eyes are huge and round. A stronger emotion has taken over the sadness.

There’s nothing I can do. Missing his mom got Sam into this situation, and now he’ll have to wait 14 days before he sees her again.

Jennifer and Bella’s wails need my attention now. With only one extender arm, I randomly swing it to Jennifer, giving her the three shoulder-taps.

“It’s okay, Girls. It will be okay,” I say, not knowing if my words are true.

Bella steps toward Jennifer, her arms outstretched, reaching for her best friend. Before I can stop her, the distance alarm shrills inside her suit loudly enough to penetrate my helmet. She jumps back like she’d been shocked, her cries increasing in volume.

I look to Mrs. Rose for help, but she taps her watch and points to the door. Apparently, my break is over.

As she opens the classroom door to exit, the two men from the Containment Team enter. Their suits are even bulkier than ours, and they look ready for a walk on the moon.

They locate Sam right away, each grabbing an arm.

“Stop!” I cry in desperation. “He’s not ill! He made himself sick from crying!”

Dan raises his eyebrow as he meets my eye. “You know the rules, Val. He’s got to go.”

Sam is screaming now; his little voice piercing in our ears.

His other captor pushes the override volume button on the outside of the six-year old’s suit. The piercing sound stops instantly while Sam’s face continues making the noise.

I watch helplessly as they half drag, half carry my little student down the hall.

A class of Grade 2 students march toward the Team, one behind the other, six feet apart; their heavy boots echoing down the corridor in front of them. The conveyor system will be installed next week to alleviate such noisy disruptions.

The men have turned the corner with Sam. I allow myself a huge sigh. The fog on my visor blinds me to my other students for a few seconds. It gives me time to consider how to explain this to them. Yet, I realize there’s not enough time in the world to do such a thing…

To explain how a tiny virus can cause such upheaval in our world.

We have no idea what a future stage is going to look like, especially while living in today’s pandemic-reality. What actions will I need to make? What words will I have to say? What costume will I be expected to wear? If I fear the future, I ruin my today – I let it steal my joy and peace.

Allowing dread and fear of the unknown to take over can cause our minds to create scenarios such as this back-to-school nightmare (which actually haunted me all day after writing it). I don’t know what my classroom will look like in the fall, or even if we’ll be back at all. Will there be a second wave of COVID-19? A third? Who knows?

Dreading this unpredictable situation will not prevent it from coming, but my mind can make it much worse than it will actually be. It’s kind of silly to torment myself with all the bad things that the future might or might not hold.

I choose to face life with courage and say:

I will not fear, because greater is He that is in me than he that is in the world.

1 John 4:4

A positive attitude in a negative (or even potentially-negative) situation shows our audience that we are different – that having God in our lives brings us peace and joy. After all, not only do we have a future home in Heaven, we have a Father who loves us unconditionally NOW – who’s ready to hold our hand and lead us through any difficulties we have to face.

For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.

2 Timothy 1:7

Faith and trust in my Father will help me face whatever the future might bring – when it actually gets here.

I choose to enjoy today.

This is the day that the Lord hath made; I will rejoice and be glad in it.

Psalm 118:24

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