Many of us end this year the same way we ended last year: by staring at screens, searching for answers to questions we don’t know how to ask.
Screens of all sizes feed us information about the way people wrestle with institutions, with each other, and with themselves. The people who cheerled the personified mess four years ago and vociferously rebelled against any mitigation efforts have openly questioned why the current US president hasn’t singlehandedly eliminated the global pandemic. Conversely, many of the people who thought the last president would be gone within months of taking office have seen that, upon his first term exit, he has more power from his seat in Florida than he did on the phone with heads of states across the world. The screens read us the numbers. We compared COVID-19 to the flu and underestimated the flu. We compared the pandemic to 9/11 without including civilian deaths and destruction across the Middle East and so many other war-torn countries. Our multiples are off.
We’ve now normalized mass deaths and stopped questioning why the climate has changed with bodies dropping befitting the darkest science fiction. In my studies, I’m being asked to observe and make connections to the past while this active present stirs me.
It’s difficult to celebrate such a year when we’ve reserved seeing full faces for our screens, our homes, or amongst people who think puffing up their chest is enough to fight a disease that’s killed hundreds of thousands of people. But alas, where joy and community were at a premium, some of us tried to find it. For me, it was in the random texts I shared with classmates, the memes shared over DMs, and the way my son and wife have unwittingly tolerated my dad jokes. Hundreds of people and I shared screens together and they got to hear about a veteran math teacher turned burgeoning sociologist, too. Gratifying.
The spring and summer brought moments of love: walks down the East River Park, face-to-face meetings with family members, and the occasional protest about school reopening. I found amazing success with three virtual gatherings I had a hand in because doing them for myself wouldn’t have mattered as much. The pandemic hopefully taught more of us this lesson, too. EduColor got some big wins for the collective (more soon) and even The Kid Mero came through to bless us for back to school for the fall. Much to the chagrin of my friends and fellow activists, New York City made its choice for the presumptive mayor. But personally, I was clear that, regardless of what was happening in the world, I had to make space for sunshine and the spirit of the work that chose us.
There were moments when I knew it was my ancestors blessing me with abundance. It was somewhere after the weekend trip my brother and I planned for Alejandro to LEGO Land / Watkins Glen and our trip to Atlantic City where I saw the fruits of all the hours I put in. We still had on our masks and washed our hands. The prickly moments of all the months prior dulled with every intricate brick structure, every vroom from Chase Elliott’s #9 car, every outlet store with that item of clothing that fit us just right, and every beach wave that crashed onto my ankles and then my knees. I sported a color coating just before the first day back to class in August, where our society mostly pretended we’d go back to normal, not necessarily better.
I went to Chicago for business, alone. Vaccines worked. Masks worked. Social distancing worked. For the flu, the cold, and COVID, all of which I hadn’t caught in the year and a half I started wearing masks publicly. What also works is going back to places that have served as sources of inspiration for the life I lead now.
I looked across the Atlantic, wondering when I’d ever go across it. By year’s end, I had made it over this ocean twice. The first time, TED Countdown Summit in Edinburgh, Scotland allowed me to meet youth climate activists, Al Gore, international educators, politicos, writers, podcasters, The Edge, and dozens of other people who actually believed that changing society was possible, necessary, and doable. The “doable” feels daunting here in the States. In The World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha, Qatar rewarded me for the lessons I learned over a few decades: how to communicate with others who don’t speak the same language, how to love spicier rice and show appreciation to the chefs, and how to speak up to deepen conservations that only go surface level. I heard a few TEDx Talks in Arabic with no headphones from a pre-teen child and it was among the best I’d ever heard.
I flew about 50 hours in total for these two trips for two weeks total. Going that far away from the United States and convening with people who’ve moved millions in their work was amazing. These trips can make the petty squabbles we get into on a daily basis even smaller by comparison.
Oh, of course, I missed home. I didn’t miss everything surrounding it. In a short time, Omicron would come into our screens more regularly, then to our shores two weeks after, then into my body a week after that. Caught flights, caught feelings, caught COVID.
My studies went back to the screen for the last week of the semester, as did my son’s. By the time my test came back positive, I had turned in one 15-page paper on that Tuesday, felt dispossessed that Wednesday, and wrote another 15-pager that Thursday. Another epidemiologist is on my screen reassuring the public – and me – that things would be fine. I followed the science and it told me I’d – we’d – be fine, but I also held onto the faith that the world wasn’t done with me yet. The number of people who passed due to COVID and the names of people who died in the age of COVID took over my conscience for a few hours last week.
As I type this now, I’m writing in the corner of my house where the Christmas tree lighting disrupts the darker corners, conscious that the symptom I have now could have been much worse. I remain thankful that I’ve gotten this far when Black men such as myself have a hard time even making it to this age before COVID. I prayed thanks to my family, my friends, and those who believed in me even through moments when I didn’t believe in myself throughout the year. I came through on my resolutions to be more devoted to my spiritual person, to make more facets of my life reflective of the person I wanted to be, and to guard the boundaries that would clear the path to the blessings I’ve received thus far. I know I couldn’t do it without all the faces and names who let my imagination run laps in front of them, and the people who matched my energy on that faith. (Thank you.)
The best rap verse of the year by Andre3000 has a four-bar poem within it and it goes:
I’m supposed to smile as if God knew that I would be troubled
Keeps me around, for what? I don’t know
But I do know that it’s crucial, that we do so, pronto
I don’t know how much long though
Maybe 2021 was a lesson in hoping collectively even when we’re not given rational reasons to do so. Maybe I – we – get to smile even when it looks like we shouldn’t. Sure, the problems kept revealing themselves to those of us who see patterns. Maybe the classroom is a microcosm of our society because, whether we’re face-to-face or remote, the deep inequities our society has allowed both in our learning and in our conditions have brought us to this moment. Maybe and concurrently, we can turn up the volume on love, joy, and learning how to make our individual wins a portion of the collective pot.
Leading with faith has given me permission to believe in us in ways I couldn’t before. I believe getting through this moment is more than doable for us when we collectively care. If and when we believe in that with greater consensus, we can beat any deadly virus and properly mourn those who’ve already left.
Bless up, 2022.