Guest column by Sarah Rossmassler: We do it because we are needed

  • In this screen shot from a YouTube video, Dan Klatz, director of administration at Hilltown Charter Cooperative Public School in Easthampton, makes a video of himself greeting students during the time of coronavirus. SUBMITTED

Published: 4/13/2020 9:21:36 AM

My son’s seventh grade school principal, Dan Klatz, sent a YouTube video one recent morning to everyone in the school. In it, he wanders around the schoolyard at 8:15 a.m. He calls to the students, the children — my son — to come in from the yard because it is time for school to start.

Craning his neck, looking for the students, he walks to the front door at Hilltown Charter Cooperative Public School, keys clanging on his belt loop. His head moves from side to side, searching for where the students are, his voice questioning the emptiness. The camera follows him and sweeps by the empty parking lot, the still-barren trees and grey sky.

He opens the front door, where he usually stands greeting the throngs of children, the tumbly kindergarteners under the weight of their backpacks, and the teenagers with their greasy, shaggy hair and their doodled-on sneakers.

He looks around again, feigning confusion, calling for his students. Finally, looking straight into the camera, he smiles broadly: “Oh! There you are!” The video ends.

Like Mr. Rogers, who would look straight into the camera and connect to a single child, this devoted educator did the same for my son. It made me cry instantly. This man wishes to reach my son, my woeful, unscheduled son and will look for him until he can find him on the other side of the internet connection.

I see my own students on the ZOOM page, 21 of them, almost graduates of a very demanding nurse practitioner training program and I want to send that same signal to them. They are worried for a multitude of reasons, and their worries are legitimate.

Most are working as newly-minted registered nurses, in Boston hospitals that are bracing for the surge of COVID-19 patients that are promised to come. They have no seniority, less than a year’s experience as RN’s, and tuition bills.

Their supervisors pressure them into taking extra shifts, and they acquiesce because they are passionate and hungry for experience and paychecks. They worry about falling sick, infecting their own small kids or babies at home, and whether they will be able to graduate and take their place as nurse practitioners as they had planned.

Their faces on ZOOM are earnest, they sit up and pay attention, and ask questions they know I cannot answer: “Will we meet again this semester in Boston?” I see my own face redden over the hour I spend with them, as I work hard to pierce through the internet the way my son’s principal did on his YouTube video.

I will soon go to the hospital, for my once-weekly clinical shift. There will not be a protective internet shielding me from the coronavirus or my patients. I will don my assigned mask and step into the reality of what is happening to all of us. I’m sure my face will redden again over the day with effort.

This work will topple me from my ivory tower, legitimize me with my students, and make my own worried sisters wring their hands. I may bring home the virus on my clothing or in my lungs and infect my own tidy home.

I do it for the same reasons my students do — because I am needed, because this work is my identity, and because I am swept up by the vortex of need. After my shift I will strip at the back door, take a shower and be aware of every time I cough near my own kids and spouse.

My son’s principal showed up, both in the schoolyard and in my email box. My clear-eyed, ambitious and smart students will show up to my desk via ZOOM. I will bounce between all of them, straining for clarity and consciousness in this very strange time.

Sarah Rossmassler lives in Hatfield with her three children and husband Tom. She works on the palliative care service at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, and teaches at the MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston. All of her children have attended the Hilltown Charter Cooperative Public School over many years.

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