In 1992 I moved to Roswell, America to start work at Goddard High School. For those of you who don’t know, Goddard is also a bomb shelter. Many of the classes meet sixteen feet underground. Everything about teaching underground is an adjustment. The air comes through air handlers. Because there are no windows, time evaporates. Everything is lit with slightly sickly florescent lights, and it really isn’t all that claustrophobic. That’s partly because the designers of the building did one thing very right. They made the ceilings high and the halls and rooms fairly large.
Once I got acclimated to it, it stopped bothering me that we were so far underground. Besides it wasn’t like a cave or a mine (unless the power went out). If the power went out it became darker than the darkest night, a dark so complete I really tried “it” one of the few times it happened. By “it,” I mean I waved my hand in front of my face and saw NOTHING. It’s an unnerving feeling, being in that kind of darkness, a darkness that makes starlight still feel like light.
I’m not writing about darkness today, though. I’m writing about my adjustment to this very strange building, the kind of building few people have had to occupy.
When I started working at Goddard, I was an experienced teacher. I had already taught for six years at Deming High School, and I spent a year at New Mexico State as a Graduate TA teaching Freshmen Comp. I wasn’t entirely green, but I did discover that I had a weak immune system. The first couple of years at Goddard I got profoundly sick each year during the winter months. I hated missing work, and I dreaded being so sick I would have to take cold medicine while teaching. It’s not fun, teaching while woozy. During those first couple of years, I noticed that Darlene Klassen, the Head of the Math Department and one of the best teachers I ever saw, did not develop the same diseases I was battling, so I asked her if she had any advice to help me avoid getting sick. Boy, did she!
First, she advised me NEVER TOUCH COMMUNAL SURFACES, especially not the handrails on the stairs. It had not occurred to me that would be a problem, but the next time I was coming down the stairs I realized that even if they were cleaned every night (which they were not), germs would love them. Half the rails were always in shadow and oily. YECH! Darlene was even careful about doorknobs and faucets, about desktops and chair backs. She cleaned her room with Lysol regularly, and she was beyond careful when a student was showing any signs of sickness.
I understood about watching kids for infection. Even before I started my professional life, during my “stupid teaching” days (that’s what I call student teaching), I had learned to diagnose by sight conjunctivitis (pink eye) and by smell strep throat. Still, Darlene was even more vigilant than I was.
One day I mentioned to my students that Ms. Klassen had been teaching me ways to avoid getting infected, and they rolled their eyes and sighed. Yes, they were perfectly aware of her extreme measures. When a kid sneezed, she could hardly wait until the bell rang to rush over and spray his desk with Lysol. Sometimes their noses burned when they came in the room. They clearly felt she was taking it too far, but I disagreed. Their health was still in the boisterous phase. They could handle many of the germs they were passing around. They were just beginning the “kissing strangers” part of their lives, but not me, and not Darlene. I knew she was going about it in a way that made much more sense than getting sick EVERY SINGLE YEAR WITH EVERY SINGLE BUG THAT WENT AROUND.
I never reached her perfect level of protection, but I followed almost all of her advice, and it changed my life. I stopped being sick every year. I missed almost no days of school. I taught at Goddard for fourteen glorious years, and even after I left and went to an above-ground school with huge windows and my own office, I still followed much of Darlene’s very good advice. I did get sick there occasionally, but I have always been one of those “soldier on” types. I always went to school, even when I was sick, and I truly believe I did not spread my disease to the kids. I have to. I was extremely careful about the vectors of infection. Until the last year I taught, I did not miss class due to sickness. That last year I got shingles, the most painful disease I have ever had, and it made me miss a day. Even when I came back to school, I would still have terrible bouts of pain.
I often feel a great wave of sympathy for those people who are essential workers at this time. First, I understand their need to go to work, even if it is fraught with danger, because missing work feels somehow worse than going. I loved my job. I wasn’t saving lives, and I wasn’t moving mountains, but I was DOING SOMETHING. Doing feels so much better than marking time. But, I digress.
Today, I am thankful for the good counsel Darlene Klassen gave me all those years ago. I say again, she was and is one of the best teachers I ever knew.