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Wednesday, March 09, 2022


by Laura Sweeney

Portraits of the Pandemic by Steve Derrick of nurses and doctors who have been working strenuously in the effort to contain the spread of COVID-19 and aid patients with the virus.

The Frontline Worker never thought she’d teach  
in pandemic conditions. When she accepted her  
contract, after a gap year of self-quarantine, and  
a zillion Zoom conferences, she thought she’d be  
back in the classroom, sans face masks.  In the spring,  
things were turning around, the energy and activity,  
by May people out and about.  Eating ice cream  
in Uptown Circle, dog watching.  All summer she  
was movin’ & steppin’ & makin’ her way closer  
to home.  Glad to be employed. But by the end of July,  
the Delta variant rampant, the scramble was back,  
to shut down the university, or stay open? She was not  
equipped, not schooled in trauma informed pedagogy,  
but wanted to be part of the movement forward,  
in the trenches.  No, that’s not true.  Even up to  
the first week of class, when Nick the Tech Guy  
showed her around the desk, she braced herself.  
But as he coached her how to use the doc cam, projector,  
PC, “Small things help,” he said, to quell anxiety,  
then shared about his lung collapse. Suggested meditation,  
the Café Music BGM Channel.  That’s what got him  
through college.  The Frontline Worker tries not to  
think about her lung obstruction, or the millions  
of women forced out of the workforce by the care economy.   
Her care is here, a lighthouse for eager young minds  
more afraid of climate change.  And she needs  
the stipend.  Pandemic Unemployment Assistance  
was just enough to get to her first paycheck. The Frontline  
Worker prepares for each session while listening  
to easy jazz or bossa nova.  She wipes down the chalk  
on the keyboard and mouse, from the previous  
Frontline Worker.  The wipes are from the bucket  
near the door, when it’s not empty, set there by  
Environmental Health and Safety.  She spritzes the chair  
with Mrs. Meyers Multi-Surface Every Day Cleaner,  
Lemon Verbena scent.  Practices the mantra ‘get vaccinated,  
act unvaccinated.’ No way to ask students to show  
their COVID cards or wear a badge around their necks.   
And about the food or drink policy, use a straw, under  
the mask.  Anyone who refuses is asked to leave.  
The Frontline Worker teaches four days a week, in-person,  
sixty students, a hybrid model, synchronous/asynchronous.  
She’s socially distanced from them, sitting every other  
in their seats. A sea of half-faces not memorized yet.   
Though she wonders about those absent as she  
peers over her too tight N95 gear, picked up  
in the main office.  Her department distributed masks  
to tenured, tenure track, and NTT faculty, not  
instructors of record, or grad assistants. The Frontline  
Worker took three.  They only last five wearings.   
Still, by March the state is lifting the mask mandate.   
She wonders if there’ll be another surge, another  
shutdown, despite the CDC saying Omicron is abating.  
Meanwhile 43 million children have not yet received  
the vaccine.  Faulty logic. To delay in-person classes  
after the winter holidays, only to go mask free  
by spring break.  But if she speaks up, she’s scolded,  
told to stay in her place. Or moved. She has no authority  
to mandate mask wearing.  Symptomatic.  To focus  
on learning outcomes instead of health and safety.  
So, she ignores the mask wars, relies on her Pfizer  
booster, and a supplement cocktail: vitamin C & D,  
echinacea, zinc, fish oil, a soy protein shake.  More  
concerned about Russia invading Ukraine.  Refugees  
fleeing.  Chernobyl.  Inflation.  The highest in her lifetime.   
More gas and food hikes.  She’s already subsisting  
on a shoestring.  And understocked shelves. Spring break?   
Maybe she can make it.  She needs time for self-care,  
exhausted from pivots & pivots & pivots. She takes  
more naps than usual, fed up with politics & fear  
mongering & propaganda machines. Tired of shenanigans,  
smoke & mirrors, dog & pony shows, window dressing.   
Three semesters she’s taught through this pandemic.   
This semester, two blizzards.  But maybe this is the end?   
As Covid turns endemic. Who knew she could make it  
through Covid-19?  20? 21?  22?  She’s kept herself  
and her students mostly Covid free. Took that spit test  
at Student Health. Not a nose swab, thankfully. Though  
this lighthouse flickers, she’s kept calm and taught on… 
But in this moment, the room is hot. Her words halted.   
Sweat beads her lip. She fights the urge to wipe it. Or  
adjust her mask.  Her voice in abeyance this eighth week  
of classes.  The window’s open a crack, though its chilly.   
Enough to hear the first Tuesday of the month  
all-hazards siren wailing.  To be honest, she wonders  
how she’s not gone mad in these days? She’s trying  
not to go mad. Too tired to go mad.  Is mad.   

Laura Sweeney facilitates Writers for Life in Iowa and Illinois. She represented the Iowa Arts Council at the First International Teaching Artist's Conference in Oslo, Norway. Her poems and prose appear in sixty plus journals and ten anthologies in the States, Canada, Britain, and China. Her recent awards include a scholarship to the Sewanee Writer's Conference. In 2021, she received an Editor's Prize in Flash Discourse from Open: Journal of Arts & Letters; Poetry Society of Michigan's Barbara Sykes Memorial Humor Award; and two of her poems appear in the anthology Impact: Personal Portraits of Activism, an Indie Book Awards finalist. She is a PhD candidate, English/Creative Writing, at Illinois State University.