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The start of 2020 was like waking up to an apocalypse or a bad dream that we just couldn’t shake ourselves out of. Every day, whether it was a weekday or weekend, seemed to be a repeat of the prior day..much like the movie Groundhog’s Day with no hope in sight of when the pandemic will be over. With unemployment rates skyrocketing, there was this constant pressure to overwork. I know I had a rough time disconnecting from work because I had so much fear and anxiety that I could potentially lose my job any day. Even if things resumed to normal, the thought of zoom calls ending, returning to office, and interacting with colleagues in person again was nerve wrecking. What if I get so used to being remote that I will have a hard time adjusting to a life that seemed so normal just one year ago?

Amongst all this pressure, my kids and my husband have kept me grounded. For the first time, I was forced to sit in the 4-walls of my home and become closer to the people that matter to me the most. No more meeting up with friends for Sunday brunch or going out for a run to the mall to pick up an outfit for a meetup. None of those materialistic and superficial things mattered anymore. Somehow, I found power and comfort knowing that I was the protector of my babies who couldn’t comprehend the scope of everything happening in the world around them. That feeling singlehandedly kept me motivated to wake up every day even if it meant reliving the same day for an indefinite amount of time.

As the spirit of the holidays are here and the year is coming to an end, it has brought back hope that there is some light at the end of the tunnel. I am now in the process of packing my bags to spend the next several weeks with my family back in New York and be surrounded by people who love me and my family the most. After spending this entire year self-reflecting, I am now committed to take charge of my life again and not letting the events of this year overpower my personal goals. My personal goal? Focus on balancing my home/work life and being physically and mentally fit.

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This time last year, holiday spirit was in full swing with students participating in numerous festivities and filling the hallways with laughter and joy. You could hear students mingling in hallways before banging their lockers shut as soon as the next period bell rang. The school spirit was soaring as students were eagerly counting down the days remaining for winter break. Fast forward to now, I walk into vacant hallways with barely two students present live in my classroom. I have been a high school English teacher for the past 21 years and for the first time ever, I am finding it difficult to love my job. Teaching to an empty classroom has completely taken away the human element that we have become so accustomed to at an educational institution.

Here at Valley Stream South High School, we have a hybrid learning model where depending on the last name of the student, they have the option to be present live in school every other day. At any given day, we have the ability to manage our classrooms at 50% capacity. However, fear of COVID-19 has completely plagued the atmosphere where students and families are frightened to take the risk to attend in-person. Amidst all this anxiety, I have found myself more determined than ever to find legitimate ways to build a genuine connection with my kids who are now mostly remote. Every morning, I write a motivational quote on a white board so my students can begin their day with some inspiration. Just a few months back on September 3rd when schools reopened after a long period of quarantine, I welcomed my students with the following, “When life gives you a hundred reasons to cry, show life that you have a thousand reasons to smile.” Keeping those exact words in mind, I carve out 5 minutes for my students to engage in mindful writing before each class session; the topics are either thought provoking or completely silly given the day. Having students jot down their thoughts on whether goldfish or cheez-its are better, helps them recalibrate their focus for the next 30 minutes during my class session.

I have always taken great pride in being a communicator, so I was not going to let a pandemic hinder my strength as a teacher. If anything, I found myself checking in with my students more frequently than in the past because I wanted to make sure that they are still creating quality work. I have one-on-one chats with them to do conference writing where I pull their work in front of them and they can revise as we go over it together. I find that it helps them become better writers this way. Sure, there are still days where as soon as the alarm goes off, I ask myself, “Can we do this again today?” I manage to get out of bed every morning because I have a responsibility to make sure my students see the best in themselves every day.

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Two years ago, right after I went through my divorce, was the first time that I felt like I wasn’t myself and started to struggle with mental health. I started having thoughts of suicidal ideation and felt unworthy of my accomplishments which never occurred to me in the past. At first, I tried to justify my feelings as “normal” range of emotions common after going through a traumatic experience. Then, I found myself taking thoughts of self-harm to the level of holding something in my hand and questioning, “Is this something that I really want to go through with?” I was terrified of my own thoughts and knew that I needed to seek professional help to cope with the trauma.

I always felt that I had some form of anxiety because I was a gifted child and was in high stakes programs that kept me preoccupied. I constantly felt this pressure in my childhood to succeed. When you couple that with extreme sadness, it started this unhealthy pattern of spiraling thoughts that became increasingly difficult to get out of. Going to therapy, coming up with coping mechanisms, and pinpointing the root cause of a problem helped build a toolkit to navigate around my spiraling thoughts. There were many days where I would spiral out of control in my therapy sessions and would be told to “Stop and be present in the moment. Name 5 things in the room that you can see, touch, feel, or hear.” Those exercises really helped me get out of my mind and appreciate small things that matter. It took me about a year before all those self-harm thoughts finally stopped consuming me.

When the pandemic hit, I was already in a much better place because I was prepared to deal with my emotions. I started to channel my energy into being productive by throwing myself into work, learning new skills such as coding, and focusing on hobbies like making candles or knitting. I knew that if I didn’t involve myself in all these activities, then there would be a chance that I could easily back peddle into my former ways. It’s a struggle still but being in therapy has made me more self-aware about my trigger points and how to manage them. I am thankful for my experiences because I am not sure if I would have coped with this pandemic as well as I have, if it weren’t for this toolkit that I have developed. So for me, 2020 has been a level up year; I am now able to find a silver lining in anything which definitely would not have been the case two years back.

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