New Year, ______ Me – A 2020 Reflection

I was feeling okay this morning, then my cat meowed at me and my stress level went from 0 to 10. He just meowed… that’s it. It seems like a good metaphor for how things have been going.

My last blog post was–perhaps naively–about my goals for 2020. Until this past year, 2019 was one of the busiest years of my life and one where I had the fewest internal resources to deal with it. When I was 25, I could eat “busy” for breakfast, but with a full-time job, finishing my Master’s degree, raising a toddler, and trying to be a present and contributing husband, that wasn’t so easy. There was just so little room for art-making at that time. I want to say that I had big dreams in that last post, but they actually seemed pretty modest: Try find some light of inspiration/motivation to write music.

So, what happened? You won’t need all three guesses, but I want to follow-up my previous post and keep a record of how things actually transpired.

Our program’s last performance was at the Optimist Festival in February of 2020, and things started to change shortly after. We had our last Jazz Band rehearsal in the first week of March, where after weeks of hashing out Chick Corea’s “Spain” and Charles Mingus’s “Haitian Fight Song,” they were finally starting to take shape. We actually got to celebrate their hard work. That was last time we played together that year. We had class until the week before Spring Break at the end of the month, then it was all online from there.

And this is where things take a turn. It had still been a busy 2020 up until that point, but with normal busy things. Senior Symphonic Camp (which my teaching partner ran, but it was still in our calendar), marks being due and semester change, then festival performance and prep for the Cantando Festival in April. I thought to myself, “at least we still have child care and I can recharge a bit during Spring Break before this push into remote learning.” Our private child care ended on the Tuesday of Spring Break, to be reassessed every month, so our two-year old was home with us full-time. My wife is an intake worker for the counselling department of a benefits company and she was starting to work from home, but needed her own space to answer calls and privacy for the confidentiality of said calls, so her handling child care wasn’t in the cards. That’s not to say that we didn’t come visit her in her office sometimes, but she certainly couldn’t be downstairs making muffins with us if there were no calls. The public health advisories at the time told us to keep our bubble small and not to introduce seniors into it, as they were more at risk, so that ruled out parents. That left me as the primary child care provider.

Now, this is where the story leaves some room for interpretation. I’m old enough to know that there’s what I feel happened, and what really happened, and here’s a hint: they aren’t the same story.

As our department was figuring out how to deliver online learning for the first time, we decided that Band was to be the delivery mechanism for a lot of the online teaching, because everyone in Jazz Band also had to be in Band — it was the biggest umbrella. My teaching partner and the primary band teacher, Michael Brandon, was an absolute champ. He did so much research and troubleshooting and content delivery that he really kept that boat afloat. I taught Music History every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 11:15-12:20, timing it with my wife’s lunch break so that she could have our two-year old during that time. I would still have lots of correspondence with the kids, but my only time free of child care was from 6:00am-9:00am, then from 4:30-7:00, unless my wife worked late, then I would just work later in the night. To the students last year who got emails from me at six in the morning, or at seven-p.m., sorry about that. It was the only time I could do it. Anyway, It turned into my wife and I being on the clock from about 6:00am to about 8:00pm, then we’d hang out for an hour and collapse into bed. I was doing my best, she was amazing, but it was totally unsustainable.

I thought child care might resume by May; it did not. June? It did not. But surely, summer in Manitoba was in pretty good shape, so maybe July? Nope. Maybe I’d get one month of rest in August. I’m afraid not. The tough reality that I had to face was that we wouldn’t have child care until September. We would later learn that there was more to the story that we’d previously known and that our provider was going through health and other things, so there are no hard feelings. That being said, when I found out that day care wasn’t resuming in August, I smashed the shopvac into my garage wall until it broke apart. That’s not generally the kind of person I am, but that’s where I was at.

Now, there is a lot of truth in that, but there’s more to the story. My wife and I really struggling with the demands of work and parenting by about May, so we had to open up our bubble to include our parents. We just couldn’t handle the intensity, alongside the social anxiety of just existing in this time, managing the fear and isolation. My in-laws took Milo one day a week (sometimes more), which turned into the day where I could turn the proverbial amps to eleven and connect with kids, deliver content, mark, assess, and actually do my job while the sun was up. It wasn’t a rest day, it was a catch up one. My parents had him on the weekend too, sometimes. It was just such a difficult feeling to navigate, between safety and self-preservation. I know that’s a bit melodramatic, but that’s how it felt; again, how I felt versus what really happened.

By the time the school year was over, I was totally fried. It’s not like my proverbial tank was empty, the “Check Gauge” light was frantically blinking. But, it was nice outside now and restrictions were lifting a bit because we had low case numbers, so my small fry and I could actually do things. We could go to a park, we could go to the splash pad, have picnics, stop at the coffee shop and pick up a treat… there were things to do.

Here’s the most important part: Even though I was beyond exhausted and solo-parenting for the summer days (mostly, but not entirely), it really cemented my son and I’s relationship. Everyone I talked to about it said that this will be a gift and, while I couldn’t feel it at the time, they were right. He and I have a really awesome bond. Mom is still the favourite, but I’m a pretty close second.

Near the end of that summer, we actually secured child care in a children’s centre for September in our neighbourhood. We had wanted to get in there for some time, and we had been a pretty squeaky wheel, but it was finally happening. Of course, I’d be back at work, but at least we had care and our guy could meet the kids he’d eventually go to school with… and just in time for me to go back to work.

While I missed my little guy dreadfully when I went back, I was not in a good place when I started work again, and I knew that I wouldn’t be. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t going to come back energized and that that would need to be okay. I lined up counselling, I had a plan to stay active, and I was going to take sick days when I needed them. I knew that my students would need a lot from me, so I needed to get myself in a position where I had the most to give (within reason). By October, I was seriously considering taking a leave, and the second wave was just beginning.

While we had child care, we couldn’t see our parents around this time and that was really hard for everyone. I got through my funk and came out the other side (as we often do), but the alternating days of A-K and L-Z high school classes were very challenging on a pedagogical and musical level. October would deal one more gutpunch, though: by the end of the month, we couldn’t play instruments in class anymore. Sure, we had to play with masks, instrument covers, be six-to-nine feet apart and at about 25% capacity, but we could play.

Some teachers hadn’t been playing all year, which must have been a really difficult decision to make and has very few silver linings. We knew it might be coming down the pipe, but seeing as the world has so few crystal balls right now, it’s hard to see anything a few weeks in advance sometimes. We had to reinvent, and it was fun for a while (boomwhackers, bucket drumming, basic keyboarding, documentaries, etc.), we all really just wanted to make music together again, and we still do.

And we will. It will either get warmer outside and we can play out there, or restrictions will change and we can play indoors. People will get vaccinated and the numbers will continue to drop (hopefully before a third wave, but see the sentence above about crystal balls). For me, I actually need some time off, so I’m looking forward to the end of the month where I can get a week of solitude at Spring Break.

It’s okay not to find a silver lining in all of this. To use my teaching partner’s analogy, it’s okay to be mad that we were building a sandcastle for decades and something came to knock it all away. There’s loss here: loss of time, loss of energy and motivation, loss of arts students in our programs, loss of musical moments in our day, and for a lot of people, a loss of life of those around them.

It’s also okay to keep persevering in spite of loss. It’s possible to feel gutpunched about kids dropping our programs, while still showing up for the ones that stayed and giving them the best experience we can, given the circumstances. I don’t find a lot of silver linings in this past academic year, but here’s the most important one to me: Life keeps throwing obstacles at these kids, and a lot of them keep showing up. I’m not saying we should praise kids on their resilience (because they don’t want to hear that, they want to play volleyball or go to a movie theatre and they’d take that over resilience any day of the week), I’m saying we should keep giving them something to show up for. We need to be grown-ups they look up to and keep finding ways to build their ability and skill sets in our educational areas. One transformational paradigm in our program was shifting to online rehearsals, and like the previous remote materials, my teaching partner spearheaded this and he is a rock star for all of the work he’s done for our department.

Now, online rehearsals aren’t perfect–not even close! BUT, they do enable us to play our instruments and work on music in some capacity. When Manitoba high schools went remote in January, we shifted to playing online and, in some crazy form, we could make music together. The kids could unmute their mics, play something that we’re working on, and we could celebrate some great sounds together. As a teacher, it’s amazing how quickly my music ped language came back: “Okay, clarinets, let’s hold that all the way to the end of that line,” or “lots of support here, lows!” or “One, two, three, no-breath-no-breath-no-breath-no-breath-all-the-way!” hahaha.

That gets old too, don’t get me wrong, but it’s something. The absence of music is the wound, online rehearsals are the gauze and pressure, and band rehearsal is the ambulance; we just need to keep gauze and pressure on the wound until the ambulance gets here.

And it will. Keep fighting the good fight teachers and students. We’re all in this together. Let’s keep showing up for one another, support each other when we need it, and be patient with ourselves and lean on others when we can’d do it ourselves. If Band is the biggest team we’ll ever play on, let’s show the world how true that really is.

Thanks for reading.

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