I leave today’s parent teacher conferences feeling both rejuvenated and queasy. On one hand, there’s nothing like sitting down with families to discuss their children’s education. I love how these parent teacher conferences make me feel. They make me proud to be a teacher. My spirit is fed by the immense responsibility of guiding children through their formative middle years.
In these meetings talk of goals and life trajectories encircles us. We revel in the shared purpose of enriching our communities and our worlds. The best parent teacher conferences reveal and strengthen the profound connections we have with each other. The resulting sense of shared responsibility and accountability cannot be replicated by standardized test or top-down initiative.
When we’re all on the same side, it feels like we are the village.
But sometimes parent teacher conferences can hurt. In these moments I feel like a spectator, an unwilling voyeur forced to watch a parent spirit murder their young. Words can cut. They can accrete over time, slowly rotting away a child’s identity and confidence until there’s nothing left. I’ve watched parents bully their kids into submission. I’ve watched children shrink before my very eyes. Watched them tunnel into themselves until they become nothing more than a ventriloquist’s dummy mindlessly parroting back whatever they’re told.
When this happens, I have to change tactics. I try to highlight the child’s strengths, relate an amusing anecdote, crack jokes, do anything to short circuit or at least redirect the crumpling gaze of a parent who has lost themselves. Even when I’m able to successfully defuse a situation, I know the relief is temporary. I’m only bearing witness to a sliver of whatever is going on. And there is always something going on.
The possibilities are numerous and formidable: toxic masculinity, inequity, substance abuse, a disastrous lack of social services. Generational patterns of abuse and neglect that leave so many of us broken and gasping for air. During such conferences I become acutely aware of how small I am. How small we all are when the profound love of family and community festers and turns against us.
As I leave the building for the weekend, I struggle to process what I’ve just experienced. The horrors I’ve witnessed leaking out of some children rests uneasily beside the protective aura of unconditional love emanating from other children. It is a juxtaposition without resolution.
The events detailed in this post draw from my multiple experiences at multiple schools across multiple years.
I closed my eyes and tried not to succumb, doing everything in my power to stay awake. But there was just no way I was going to lift my head back up from of the desk until the 2:24 bell dismissed everyone. My day had been spent shuffling in and out of consciousness, passing out on the floor during planning periods and lunch. My brain couldn’t come up with another time when I felt this bad.
My symptoms matched up with the flu almost perfectly: body aches, chills, a fever, dizziness, pain behind my eyes, and a decreased appetite. The only thing missing was the nausea. I just assumed my stomach was being merciful and waiting until I got home before shooting its contents out of my mouth.
Later that evening I was playing with Joelle (because the second shift waits for no disease) when the fever sweats hit. It was like that scene in Airplane.
I felt my stomach knot up and I braced myself. This was it!
But almost as quickly as they came, the symptoms receded. And by the end of the night the day’s unimaginable terribleness seemed like a fever dream. In my mind, I imagined my superior immune system, hardened from a decade of being sneezed on by twelve year olds, routing the virus. I fell asleep that night confident in my quick return to work.
And then I saw them. I woke up to tiny craters in the palms of my hands. The red spots were almost imperceptible at first. But as the day bloomed, so did they. Then tiny cuts began to rise to the surface of my fingers and toes as if someone inside my body was drunkenly slashing away with the world’s smallest razor. I knew immediately what was going on. I had hand foot and mouth disease.
Joelle had just gotten over it, and I guess my Howard Hughes level hand washing wasn’t enough to keep the disease away. By nightfall, my hands were covered with what looked like cigarette burns. My feet resembled the ‘before’ shot from a Proactive commercial. And my mouth seemed okay.
I spent the next day staring at my hands as if sheer will and obsessive focus could stop this thing from taking over my body. At first I thought I had escaped the “mouth” portion of HFAM. Then I realized that this disease moves on multiple fronts on an asynchronous schedule. My mouth was the last thing to go. (I’ve only parted my beard once to check it out, and the gooey yellow mozarella I saw oozing through my skin was enough) Lesions now dot the connective tissue binding my cheeks to my gums. This means anytime that tissue moves, the sores crack. There seems to be some cruel Butterfly Effect phenomenon going on. An eyebrow twitch will set off a cruel chain of seemingly unrelated cuts and blisters on my hands and toes.
In the last few days I haven’t really eaten much or had any coffee. This is mainly because hand, foot, and mouth disease causes sores to grow INSIDE OF YOUR THROAT. Anything that’s not water goes down like a mouthful of tacks. My lymph nodes are the size of monkey fists.
Since there isn’t much to do when, you know, you have searing pain in your HANDS, FEET, and MOUTH, I’ve been holed up like a leper, dividing my time between the living room couch and the bedroom. On the plus side, this disease has done what months of meditation and mindfulness have yet to figure out: get my hyperactive body to stop moving. I never knew I could sit so still and be so uncomfortable for so long. Now anytime I have an itch (which is pretty often if you really stop and focus on it), I imagine a multistage blister just waiting to erupt and barf its diseased goo onto the surrounding skin. Sometimes I have to flap my arms up and down really fast or blow on my hands or whip my head back and forth to try and shake out an itch. It works as well as you would think.
Typing this has been a good way to keep my mind off of the fact that anytime I touch something it feels like someone kicking a needle right underneath my nail. Now it’s time to go rinse my mouth with Anbesol and wonder if my toenails will slough off.
Postscript: This was an unexpectedly cathartic post to write. It helped me gain some distance and a feeling of control over this disgusting ailment that’s plagued me for days.
I cradled you against my chest and walked in measured steps towards the ambulance. Every doorway and window on our street was open and dotted with heads big and small. Emergency vehicles bathed the neighboring houses in epileptic flashes of REDBLUEREDBLUEREDBLUE. Heads big and small peered out to see what was going on. No more than five minutes had passed since I called 911.
When your mother and I put you to bed hours earlier, we thought you were just about over the nasty cold that had been dogging you for days. I cranked the white noise on my headphones (a carryover from your pre-cry it out days) and crammed them into my ears, content you were out for the night.
Thank goodness Mom stays up later than I do. Two hours later I was jolted awake by the creak of the door. Your mother carried you into our bedroom. The suburban darkness gave me just enough light to see that something was off. The way you slumped against her chest kicked my amygdala into overdrive. A soft mewling emanated from your tiny body. “I think something’s wrong,” your mom whispered as she sat on the bed and cradled you. Those four words were all my brain needed to hear. Adrenaline flooded my system and within seconds I was awake and carrying you downstairs.
Your mom called the advice line. I listened as she answered the advice nurse’s battery of questions with a patience I don’t possess. No, neither your skin nor your lips were blue. No, the skin around your ribs didn’t seem abnormally tight.
With one ear on the conversation, I held you and tried to figure out what to do. One sentence kept bobbing to the surface: if something seems wrong with your baby’s breathing, call 911 immediately. 9-1-1. The numbers burned phosphorescent in my mind’s eye, cutting through the association salad that is your dad’s typical ADHD association salad.
“911” I said. “911. I’m going to call 911 right now.” Your mother looked at me and cocked her head. “Okay… we’re going to call 911” she said, ending the call.
What a privilege that I didn’t have to make my first legit 911 call until I was 38. I rehearsed my script while waiting through the multiple rings it took before someone picked. As soon as I heard the iconic “911, what’s your emergency?” I unloaded. I barked out objective statements as calmly and efficiently as possible. My goal was to front load everything the operator needed into one stilted string of barely concealed fear.
18 MONTH OLD FEMALE INFANT BARELY BREATHING. INFANT WENT TO SLEEP AT 6:00PM. INFANT SPENT THE LAST SEVEN DAYS WITH A BAD COLD. WIFE GOT INFANT OUT OF CRIB AT 10:00PM AFTER HEARING WHAT SOUNDED LIKE ABNORMAL CRYING. SKIN AND LIPS NORMAL COLOR. SKIN FEELS HOT. EYES ARE HALF OPEN AND GLASSY.
When the operator heard Joelle was still breathing she seemed to relax. She dispatched an ambulance and ended the call. At this point you were swaying back and forth in the living room, leaning against the sofa. Within five minutes two ambulances, one fire engine, and one police car were idling in front of our house.
I opened the front door and waved the paramedics into the house. “HERE! LET’S GO! DON’T YOU NEED A STRETCHER? WHERE’S THE STRETCHER? ARE YOU GOING TO PUT A FACE MASK ON HER? DO YOU NEED HELP GETTING HER ONTO THE STRETCHER OR PUTTING A FACE MASK ON HER?” Who I can assume to be the lead paramedic took a few steps into the house, observed Joelle for a moment, and then walked back out. He mumbled something into his walkie talkie.
Before I could follow him, two burly fellows tromped past me into the house. I ran back inside and peppered them with the same questions. STRETCHER? MASK? STRETCHER???
“Yea … we can give you a ride to the hospital. if you want, I mean,” burly man A mumbled. Without a word, burly man B ran back outside to prepare the ambulance. I picked you up and held you close to my chest, feeling your abnormal body heat through our winter layers. The walk from our front door to the ambulance would have felt cinematic if I weren’t so terrified
At this point, I began to realize that the reason no one was acting like it was an emergency was because it probably wasn’t. I also began to suspect that the paramedics in the ambulance with us were in some stage of apprenticeship. The lead paramedic stuck his head inside the ambulance and watched the trainees fumble around with various tubes and dials before helping them along “Okay. Did you get her oxygen levels?” he sighed. “Get her vitals and give her oxygen.” He muttered something I couldn’t quite understand and shut the door as the ambulance’s engine hummed to life.
The ambulance felt like the shock absorbers had been taken off before the ride. Single-use prepackaged medical paraphernalia spilled out of cabinets at every hairpin turn. Your mom kept you pinned to her chest throughout as I did my best to try and figure out what was going on. You ripped off every suction cup they tried to tether to your body, prompting burly man A to smile and say “See? She’s fine.”
A few horriplating minutes later, we pulled up to what must have been the back entrance to the hospital. A few workers waited for us, the glowing embers of their cigarettes disappearing into the night at various vectors as they unlocked gates, opened doors, and ferried us into a room.
As soon as we entered the room, two nurses ran in and started checking your vitals. The paramedics snapped to attention immediately. One nurse quizzed the trainees as the other plugged in various monitors. The screens behind the bed woke up and began the variable beeping schedule that seems to be a staple in hospital rooms.
“Let me guess, first time parents?” the nurse asked me with a smile. I let that sink in. You were going to be fine. Everything was okay. After a rapid xray, the flu was ruled out and the diagnosis was ready: ear infection and a nasty respiratory system virus. You needed antibiotics, sleep, and fluids.
You finally succumbed to sleep and passed out against your mom’s chest. Antsy and eager to remove any barriers to your slumber, I spent a solid chunk of time trying to map out the bleeps and bloops that ruptured the room’s relative calm at irregular intervals. I gave up and focused on playing whack-a-mole with the machines. Every time a beep went off, I leapt up and pushed buttons until the beeping sound stopped. After a few excruciating minutes of this, a nurse came in and took pity on me, putting the machines into silent mode and turning out the lights. I must have looked like I needed something to do (I did), because she gave me a corrugated plastic tube with oxygen spilling out of it and told me to aim it at your nose. So I did until it was time to go home.
A few hours later we left the hospital with antibiotics in hand and our first emergency room trip underneath our belts.
The last sixteen months have been the hardest months of my life. While I’ve always been a worrier, nothing could have prepared me for the gauntlet of anxiety that is having a child. The bad news is that some of this anxiety, this propensity of mine to be worried about every tiny thing that could go wrong, will absolutely transfer to you. With that in mind, I’ve been working hard to limit your exposure to my worrying. However the pediatrician recently said you might have a speech delay and it’s taking everything I have not to completely lose it.
I’ve been burying it in my body. I cram it down between the fibers of my muscles and sweep it underneath my organs. It feels like my skin has become the final line of defense protecting the beauty of who you are from the rot encased within me. (Sometimes I try to imagine a million tiny corks being wedged into each of the million tiny pores covering my body.)
I’m normally someone who believes in the cloying cliche of ‘what you resist persists.’ But this anxiety is too much. I can’t let the wolves in for even a second. So I just keep burying it.
That’s why Daddy has to turn away sometimes when we’re playing. I don’t want you to see me unravel. I know you can probably sense it. Maybe there’s some sort of tell: a momentary dullness behind my eyes or the way my body seems to glitch for a second. You’re probably too young to name what you see. I bet you can feel it, though.
I’m writing this to you but I’m not sure it’s really for you. I just have to do something with the anxiety so I don’t choke. Maybe writing about it will help me excise it. Every paragraph another slice.
Nah. I’ve been writing and hurting long enough to know that the former doesn’t always alleviate the latter. Well, maybe it can, but the reprieve is ephemeral. I would have to chain myself to a pad and pen in order to sustain some sort of emotional equanimity.
It would be impossible for you to somehow avoid soaking up my anxiety. That’s why I recently reconnected with an old therapist to explore ways to help me deal with this constant panic that everything is already ruined. I want you to know that no matter what happens with Daddy, he’ll be ready to help you navigate your own mental health struggles.
Time to go. You just woke up from a nap and you don’t sound too happy about it.
I love you so much.
It’s okay to go to you if you’re crying.
It’s okay to spend my night cradling you in my arms.
It’s okay to feed you when you wake up hungry.
(Maybe you’re not hungry. Maybe you just need reassurance and comfort. It’s okay then, too.)
It’s okay to tell you that daddy is here and that everything is going to be alright.
It’s okay to act on the protective and nurturing instincts that have helped this species survive.
I will not feel bad for taking you out of your crib, rocking you, and feeding you.
What matters is that I recognize not only your personality and temperament, but the fact that you are literally learning how to be a human.
And it’s okay to experience a level of exhaustion beyond what I ever could have imagined.
What matter is that I am here for you right now.
And at 10pm.
And then again at 3:00am.
Maybe it’s a nightmare. Maybe it’s a tooth. Maybe you’re lonely and need someone to sit with you and hold you during the predawn darkness. It doesn’t matter why.
Shhhh. It’s okay. I’m here, now.
Your mother and I agreed to write you a letter every year on your birthday. This letter is a little late, but that’s okay because you can’t read yet! I’ve hemmed and hawed over what to write and how to write it. I settled on a “slice of life” post. By the end of this letter, you should have a decent idea of what life was like for you and your family during the summer of 2019.
Right now I’m sitting in my old room in Nana’s basement surrounded by crumpled up gum wrappers and stained coffee mugs, each filled with varying levels of caffeinated sludge. I can hear your small and sweet giggle coming from upstairs where you’re playing with Nana and Papa.
The summer of 2019 will be ending soon. Your mom got a new job working at a place called ManTech (what a silly name!). I’ve been teaching middle school English for the last ten years. Since I’m a teacher, I got to spend the entire summer hanging out with you. It has been one of the most fulfilling chunks of my life.
Let’s run through a typical in the life of Daddy and the Bean. Daddy is BIG into routines and schedules, so most of our days followed the same format. You would wake up around 6:30 AM, eat breakfast lovingly and graciously prepared by Mommy, then play with your toys until around 9:00 AM. That’s when I would pack our things into the car and drive to “soft play.” Soft play is a big room filled with squishy equipment for kids to crawl on, over, and under. You always charmed whoever was there with your playful demeanor and friendly disposition. We would spend an hour at soft play.
After we got home it was snack time. I would spoon feed you from a single serving packet of baby food (always a fruit + veggie combo). Then the two of us plopped down on the floor to watch some Sesame Street videos. When you read this, find me and say “This is a song about Elmo, who likes to sing and…” I am 100% positive that I will answer with “YELL-MO!”
Lunch was always at noon. Me: burrito. You: squishy vegetables and some sort of protein. Normally you would be getting sleepy at this point. I always knew because you would rub your tiny eyes with your tiny fists and take off take your tiny glasses. The two of us got so good at this that by the end of summer, I could take you upstairs, change you, and put you to sleep in under thirteen minutes. I timed it!
You’d nap until 2:30. While you napped, I exercised, cleaned the kitchen, and read. Always in that order. The time between 2:30 and when Mom returned was often a grab bag of activities. Sometimes we stayed home; sometimes we went to Nana’s; sometimes we went to another soft play session.
After a family dinner around 5:30 the three of us would play in the living room. Your favorite game was (and still is!) to be chased. You would stop every few feet to turn around and make sure someone was chasing you. The closer we would get to you, the more you would giggleshriek. When we got to you, we would snatch you up and tickle you under the arms or under your chin. Around 6-6:30 we would bathe you, read you a story, and tuck you in for the night. This pattern repeated for the entire summer.
And then you came down with a stomach bug. The next seven days were scary. Our beautiful routine that ensured a healthy combination of play, rest, and nourishment collapsed as your fledgling immune system struggled to keep up with what must have been one heck of a bug. You were inconsolable. I spent hours cradling you in the dark as you cried and bucked wildly against me. I wanted you to know that I loved you and that I was with you in the darkness. You couldn’t keep anything down, so your mother and I took 30 minute shifts holding you and squirting micro doses of Pedialyte into your mouth with a plastic syringe. We literally nursed you back to health. I became convinced that you would never smile again. But after ten days or so, your sweet self finally returned. By the time you healed, our summer together was just about over.
I wonder how old you will be when you first read this. What is life like? Are bananas still your favorite fruit? Do you still like to pull on Daddy’s beard? Is Lola still alive?
Love you always,
P.S. If you’re having a hard time reading this letter, that’s okay! You will become a strong reader as you get older.
Until then, here: Hi, Joelle! I love you so much. The two of us spent your first summer playing, eating, and laughing. You are the best thing to ever happen to me. You are funny, smart, curious, and playful. I am writing this in 2019 and you are 14 months old. Bananas are your favorite thing to eat. You love being chased, caught, and tickled. You also like to dance to music and to pull on doggy’s ears and tail. I love you I love you I love you.
A flash storm blackened the sky and pelted us with rain as we scampered down Nana’s front steps towards the car. Although you’ve never been a big fan of car rides, I knew something was off. You were fussier than usual.
If I wanted to maximize my chances of putting you to sleep successfully, I needed to calm you down ASAP. With one hand on the wheel I fished around in the back seat for Kitty Kitty Meow Meow, a stuffed cat that lived in the car for just such occasions.
I propped Kitty Kitty up on the top of the passenger seat so that it was facing you. Meow Meow! I squeaked, fiddling with the cat’s head and limbs in a way that I hoped looked comical. Meow Meow! It worked. Your plaintive mewling turned into exquisite giggling. You thrashed your arms and legs with glee and cackled in the back seat. This distraction technique, like all distraction techniques with babies, yields diminishing returns. I had to keep the puppet show up to keep you satisfied. MEOW MEOW PEEK-A-BOO MEOW MEOW! I shouted, lifting the cat up and down to mimic your favorite now-you-see-me/now-you-don’t game.
With my other hand I navigated through blacked out intersections and block after block of darkened store fronts. Nothing along our street was lit, so I knew we would be going back to a hot and dark house.
I parked the car and hopped into the back seat with you to wait out the worst of the rain. Your ratio of cries to giggles began to even out and I knew I had to get you inside soon. Thankfully the two of us only had to wait a few minutes before the worst of the weather was over and I could ferry you inside.
Doggy greeted us as soon as we entered. I plopped you down onto the floor, took off your glasses, and corralled the dog outside. I looked back from the backyard door to see your face crumple. Your cry rose up and pierced the silence of the house.
You weren’t normally this upset. My brain wracked itself trying to figure out what was wrong, but I had no idea. Thankfully, doggy dislikes going outside as much as I do, so she was quick to come back in. I scooped you up off the floor, got your bottle ready, and snagged a clean binky.
You’ve always hated getting your diaper changed, so I wasn’t too phased by your back arching and binky chucking. The real problem began when I sat down on the rocking chair with you to administer your bedtime bottle. You finally committed to the complete and total explosion that you had been flirting with for the last hour.
You thrashed, bucking against me, clawing and pawing at everything within reach. Your terror wailing blocked out my vision and overloaded my circuits. You didn’t stop screaming. I had no idea what to do. I was afraid to move you too much too fast. I quickly lifted you up and did a 360 degree spot check. No blood or strange marks. I checked your fingers and toes but every digit was in the right place. The only thing missing from our normal bedtime protocol was a story. I’m pretty sure your explosion wasn’t caused by not hearing about how the pigeon doesn’t need a bath for the gillionth time.
Sweat poured down my face in rivers, soaking my beard and your polka dotted pajama onesie. I held you in place with my body. You roared and contorted, doing your best to escape my grasp. I tried to strike the right balance between giving you enough inches to move while still keeping you contained. You were deafening. You seemed to be in so much pain and I was helpless before you.
I remembered hearing a story once about a Buddhist monk who found himself feeling nervous before giving a talk to a large group of students. The monk stood in front of the audience, closed his eyes, and began naming his anxiety. He shut everything out and tuned into his experience. By the time he opened his eyes, the entire audience was in meditation with him. I couldn’t fix what was wrong with you, but I could hold you and be with you.
So I started talking. I verbalized everything that was going through my head. I needed to get my brain back online and refocused. Like writing, speaking forces me to put one word in front of the other.
okay so joelle so right now you are screaming really loudly and i don’t know what do and i’m we’re sitting here and it’s raining and the power is out and i’m sweating you seem to be in pain maybe i don’t know what’s wrong everything is going to be okay everything is going to be okay i’m right here with you i’m so nervous oh god what do i do everything is going to be okay i’m right here with you
Tremors moved through you in waves. I held you through the aftershocks. Finally, the only one shaking was me. Once you were still for at least five minutes, I put you down in your crib. Your hair, drenched from banging and rubbing against my arm, was plastered to your scalp in coils and curlicues. You were asleep.
I sat on the rug and watched you sleep. I don’t know how long I sat there. Finally the various electronic beeps of electronic machines turning on signaled electricity’s return. I felt confident enough to tip-toe out of your bedroom and into our bedroom. The exhaustion of my frayed nerves belied the early 6:30 hour. I closed my eyes and waited for sleep.