Apologies of the Caring Class

My wife has a condition that forces her to seek a clinical trial, because there is no cure.

Every three weeks or so we drive to Houston and receive that treatment, and luckily it is indefinite.

But the nurses are not, and just this last time, we had a nurse leave. We do not know if she quit, or if she transferred, or if she died in a bus accident.

For anyone who has spent a long time in hospitals, you know all about this: nurses and administrative staff come and go. Hell, we’ve been there for so long that I recognized when they renovated the second floor from carpet to tile. I remarked on it to the staff, asking, “When did this happen?” And they gave me a quizzical look back of acknowledgement and remorse.

When we check in to the neighboring hotel, they know us by first name…

I haven’t spoken about this with my wife, but I felt a slight embarrassment over my own sadness at the nurse leaving without saying goodbye. Granted, we wouldn’t have been able to hug (or even shake hands) during this time, but still…we talked about Big Little Lies together! That had to count for something…right?

It is a big issue of working in the caring class that does not get discussed. Construction workers do not apologize to the interstate highway for finishing the last turn, and while I do not know what life looks like in the corporate world when coworkers leave, the underlying assumption is that not working directly with people can have its advantages when saying goodbye.

I will be leaving a school I have been at for five years. Keep in mind, in case you do not know, half of all teachers quit before their fifth year due to demoralization or burnout. That is how bad things have gotten in education, so imagining a teacher not just sticking it out, but spending that much time in one school builds a certain reputation that cannot be replaced so easily.

Compound that with coronavirus and the lack of being able to say goodbye in person has me writing an eight page single-spaced letter to the students and posting it on Google Classroom. Like an assignment! The flattening of the letter to be just like every other announcement, it is just all so painful. Reading the response emails where they have to explicitly type that they cried is painful. Knowing that in this Title I school they will likely get some horrific teacher who has no idea what they are doing, especially if they are distance learning, is painful.

Yet nowhere in that letter I wrote was there an apology.

I should have apologized for leaving. I think this is resoundingly important, whether you are a nurse or a teacher or a caregiver. Because what you have always goes beyond the job (if you’re any good at it), and having to say goodbye may get easier and easier for the person who works the job, especially the longer they go at it. But that doesn’t mean it gets any easier for the subject, who is seeing 10th grade English for the first time.

“I’m so sorry,” I should have said. “I know that you have this expectation that teachers will stay to watch you graduate, yet here you are with one of your favorites, knowing that he is going to leave. It takes out the rug underneath you, and you have to imagine two more years of high school with less teachers to visit and rely on. That isn’t fair, because besides your parents (who you may not want to talk to) what other adults do you have? And especially more powerful: what mentors do you have for writing, for books, for learning about yourself? It is not fair to you that I am leaving, and it breaks my heart that it happened to be my time on this year, of all years. Please accept my decision with this apology.”

My wife and I wanted to see that nurse one last time because we cared immensely for her company. There would have been no anger, only gratitude. Working in the caring class means having the social intelligence to realize that people need closure. Many administrators say that it is “just business” and that the job is “not personal,” and to me that is a disgustingly cheap and reductive phrase. How can you say that about a job whose specific purpose is to work to foster human beings? They likely say that because they have so little connection to the human process of the job that they hope to infect their roles onto those they supervise, and ever since administrators have wrested schools from teachers, it has never been the same.

And now we are in a situation in the United States where the caring class is revolting. Before even coronavirus, teachers had been protesting in West Virginia, Chicago, Arizona, and Oklahoma, and nurses around the country were beginning to complain of burnout. Can you imagine the situation now? Where the country is being tested on every front, where every human to human structure is being assaulted by a pandemic? Supply chains are reverberating from eggs and milk, to citrus fruits. The same reverberation is happening to these jobs.

Sometimes I love teaching, and sometimes I hate it. But to be a part of the caring class is to know beyond any doubt that what we do matters. As Don Draper in Mad Men said to a teacher, “No one feels as good about what they do as you do.” And it’s true. That is why it is so painful to say goodbye.

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