Essential Teacher

We were going to be together for the long haul, and resource conservation was imperative.” A lifelong desire to be a part of the military manifests itself in another act of noble service — volunteering to watch, nurture, and teach the children of frontline workers in the early days of Covid-19…

by: Elias Andreopoulos

Student instruction at New York City public schools was suspended and migrated to distance learning due to the spread of COVID-19. However, some schools remained open as Regional Enrichment Centers to care for the children of essential personnel. The Chancellor called for teachers to volunteer at these Regional Enrichment Centers in a desperate email, and I answered the call. It was a compulsion to serve, and me compensating for something that was missing in my life. This was my Vietnam.   

I became interested in the military after hearing my grandfather’s Korean War stories, and I encouraged him to share his experiences. I loved seeing him in black and white pictures posing in his uniform with his comrades. It gave me pride that I had a family member who answered America’s call of duty. I first dressed as a soldier for Halloween in middle school. I would have done it earlier if my mom didn’t force me to be a princess throughout elementary school. The thought of me being different absolutely terrified her.  

An army recruiter called during my senior year of high school, and I agreed to meet him at a Recruitment Center. I planned on attending college, but if I signed up for the ROTC, my tuition would be paid for and I would enter the military as a commissioned officer.  Since I didn’t have a car and didn’t tell my parents, the recruiter drove me there in a blue Nissan Altima that reeked of menthol cigarettes. The recruiter was a burly, middle aged man, who claimed to have served in Operation Desert Storm. He didn’t know much about the ROTC program, and focused on enlisting me as a private. I politely declined saying I wanted to discuss such a life changing commitment with my parents. He tried dissuading me, saying that I didn’t owe my parents anything, but I held strong.  When he drove me home, he stuck his hand down my shirt. I let him continue in fear of him driving me to an alley to rape me. I jumped out at the first red light, and ran four miles home. I never told anyone.

I rebuffed thoughts of joining the Army after that incident in fear of seeing that recruiter again, not that he would remember me. I could have been one of many, which made me regret my silence. I graduated from college with a teaching degree in 2009, at the height of the Great Recession. No teaching jobs were available. During this time, I considered entering the military as an enlisted woman. My parents flipped out when I floated the possibility, literally crying and begging on their knees for me not to join. They would have heart attacks if I was deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, so I waited it out, and was eventually hired as a middle school English teacher in Manhattan.

My desire to join the military remained. I watched videos of soldiers eating chow, interacting with villagers, driving tanks, even roasting a goat. Being there would have been the building block of making me a better person. I romanticized the shittiness. I could have gotten killed, raped or developed PTSD, but I would have been part of a fraternity dating back to 1776. What was I a part of? The United Federation of Teachers wasn’t all that enlightening. That was why volunteering at a Regional Enrichment Center was so important. 

There were two shifts I was given an option to sign up for: 7am-1pm or 12pm-6pm. I chose 7am-1pm, in order to still see daylight when I came home. The price was waking up at 3:45 am to take the 5:03 am Long Island Railroad train. I considered remaining warm under my covers. I could sleep in and focus on teaching my own students remotely, instead of balancing teaching them and my new students. But I arose to serve  my duty and honor my commitment.

The train arrived at an empty station, its headlights illuminating the trash filled tracks. I was the only person in the car when I boarded, and remained alone until I disembarked at Penn Station. Normally, there were no seats to be had. The conductor didn’t even bother checking tickets. I walked through Penn Station, where nearly all of the retail and food establishments had temporarily closed. I elected to walk, instead of taking the subway. In both cases, I was vulnerable to an attack, and preferred the street’s openness over the homeless overtaking the subways. Never trust anybody was the motto I learned from that recruiter.

The streets of Manhattan are supposed to be perpetually bustling, not desolate like they were, even at the early time of morning. I pretended to be on patrol in Vietnam, observing and listening to everything. The garbage can was a palm tree. The feces on the sidewalk was a landmine. The few who passed were villagers I had suspicions were Viet Cong. My imagination made the situation appear less dire than it was. Nearly every establishment was closed, with signs on the doors informing the passerby or customer of their temporary closure. One Chinese restaurant’s sign said that they didn’t cause the virus and weren’t reopening, and that people should be ashamed for blaming Chinese Americans for it. On the other hand, a butcher shop had “Closed Due To Chinese Virus” hanging on their doors to spit in the face of political correctness. I could only laugh, as the cold air passed through my lungs.

I arrived at the school and walked inside. A School Safety Officer sat at a desk by the door, an obese older woman built like a Matryoshka doll, with pink hair and long yellow nails. I showed her my Teacher ID, as was proper protocol. She shrugged her shoulders and let me in without verifying my identity. I could have been a murderer. Just because there was a global pandemic didn’t mean psychopaths stopped committing crimes.

I entered the Main Office, where a lanky woman with permed black hair and a mole on her nose watched news coverage on her computer. I didn’t want to interrupt, but also didn’t want to waste time standing around when I could be setting up my classroom.  

“Excuse me, I’m Cleo Papadrakos. Would you know where my classroom is?”

“How am I supposed to know?” the woman replied nastily, without looking away from her computer screen.  

The disrespect astounded me. I was a volunteer, possibly exposing myself to the virus, and deserved to be treated like a human being. 

 “Who’s in charge here?” I asked.

“Aren’t you?” the woman asked.

It was clear nobody knew what was going on. A frazzled woman wearing a Garfield t-shirt with curly blonde hair entered the office, holding a stack of papers. “Are you a teacher?” the woman asked me, sounding overwhelmed.

“Yes, I’m Cleo Papadrakos.”

“Go to Room 202, children will be joining you shortly,” the woman said. She started reading from the stack of papers, in no mood for questions. I figured she was the principal, though the Garfield t-shirt had me second guessing.  

Not being verified showed what a disaster the place was. I walked to Room 202 through the empty hallway, whose poorly painted green walls had streaks, chips and missed spots. There was a wall display case within a glass window, honoring the accomplishments and mourning the death of Ed Bradley, the papers faded by years of harsh fluorescent light and covered with dust. It looked untouched since Ed Bradley died, fourteen years before. That was years of instructional laziness. Teachers weren’t celebrating creativity, they were merely collecting paychecks.

I entered Room 202. It was in worse shape than I expected, and I wasn’t expecting much. Books were strewn about, the garbage cans were overfilled, crumbs were on the floor and newspapers soaked up a coffee spill. I doubted the room was disinfected like the mayor’s office promised, so I took my personal Clorox wipes and cleaned everything I could touch. The wipes turned black from the filth.  

I posted assignments and information on my Google Classroom from my laptop as I waited for students to show up. Five minutes passed, then ten, then thirty. I didn’t want to go back to the office and be treated as a nuisance. To put my annoyance in perspective, I imagined the true terror of being the first man off the boat at Omaha Beach, knowing upon disembarking, bullets would tear up my body. The first wave of D-Day soldiers were slaughtered, and there was nothing they could do. If they deserted, they would be put to death and disgraced. I couldn’t complain about sitting alone when those soldiers sacrificed so much more.

The door opened and a group of Pre-Kindergarten aged children lumbered into the classroom. The impression I was under was that I would be teaching middle school students. The children given to me were in diapers. The frazzled woman who I thought was in charge held a girl, who cried and squirmed uncontrollably. She dropped the girl on the floor hard, but I couldn’t tell if she was hurt because her cries were so violent to begin with. “These are your students,” the presumed principal yelled through the noise and left, without further direction.

I couldn’t blame the children’s terror, they were abandoned with a stranger without explanation, with no parents to ease the transition. I didn’t know their names, if they had special education modifications, allergies, or health issues. I was completely in the dark. The room was used for 4th Grade, definitely not the colorful confines of the Pre-K classrooms the children were accustomed to. Literally nothing was done to make them comfortable.

I knelt down and smiled to create a positive vibe. “Hello children, I’m Miss Cleo.” I used my last name with my middle school students. Miss Cleo came out subconsciously to make myself more relatable to the youngsters. During my school days, bullies teased me endlessly in a Caribbean accent, like the fake psychic, Miss Cleo. If I had a regular name, chances were I would have been left alone, Cleo was magnetic to bullies.

There was no response. The only noise came from the screams of the one girl the principal held. There was a hearing aid attached to her right ear, as well as a magnetic circular strip that attached to her head, with the other magnetic pole implanted inside. It detached as I examined her, and her screams quieted. It seemed the device caused her great discomfort. I had no idea what it was, and described it on Google to gain insight. My research showed it was a cochlear implant. I never knew there was an invasive surgery to make deaf people hear. Embarrassing for a teacher, who took numerous special education classes. I reattached the implant, and she began screaming. I immediately detached it and she stopped. I planned to keep it like that. Her diaper was visibly full, and I hoped supplies to change her would come soon.

A chubby blonde girl began crying, and it was infectious to every child. “Quiet!” I yelled to no avail, wishing I hadn’t raised my voice. Yelling was inherent when working with older students, but it wouldn’t calm four year olds.    

I couldn’t get in trouble for the pandemonium, however the current situation looked awful for my reputation. I was the in-over-their-head soldier, who dies first in war movies, like Gardner in Platoon. You saw him, and you knew he wasn’t making it. There was no guarantee that I would work with the upper grades, and I should have prepared better.

I sat down, crossed my legs, held my arms up and closed my eyes in a yoga pose. The crying slowly subsided to quiet. When I opened my eyes, the children copied my stance. I stood to establish my authority. “Okay children, I want to know your names. I’ll start with you!” pointed to the red haired boy, whose teeth were orange, like he had eaten Cheetos for breakfast.

“Declan Kirby!” he exclaimed.

“Good morning Declan!” I responded gleefully.  

And so it went, with every child introducing themselves, except for the girl with the cochlear implant, who did not appear to have speech. She couldn’t participate much, which was a disservice to her. Sadly, unless something changed, this would be a babysitting service for her.  

“I want to learn about your families. Is your daddy a firefighter? Is your mommy a nurse? Please raise your hand to share!” I asked.

Their hands shot up to participate. They would follow my direction if I maintained my behaviors, though handling them for six hours would be a challenge. Each minute would bring greater comfort. I would make it through the hour, then the day, then the week, and finally to Spring Break. A scary thought was that I wouldn’t be alive by then.  Coronavirus could strike at any moment. Soldiers should never plan too far in advance. Shit like that got you killed, because you didn’t see what was right in front of you.

No supplies were sent. Only burned egg sandwiches were dropped off. The children didn’t eat them, the kitchen somehow managing to make them both burnt and soggy. When they started getting restless, I put a note on the door, saying we would be in the playground in the school’s courtyard. I took them there, and let them run wild. Playgrounds were supposed to be closed to stave off the spread of virus, but the classroom wasn’t any cleaner, and the children needed an outlet to release their energy. They played until exhaustion. The lack of breakfast started showing after two hours, and some of the children became cranky, especially the girl with the cochlear implant, who tried sleeping on the filthy ground. She threw a tantrum when I forced her to her feet, but she eventually calmed.

I lined the children up, and we walked in unison through the hallway. It was a terrible thing to do, especially with cameras watching, but I brought the children into the vacant classrooms, and we raided them. Chances were the teachers wouldn’t remember what they left behind. We stole until their little hands couldn’t carry any more snacks, crayons and activities. Soldiers are notorious for pillaging villages, and my little platoon was no different.  

We reached our classroom and emptied our bounty on a table, making an impressive mountain. There was a sink in the room and I directed the children to it to wash their bacteria ridden hands. They formed an organized line, surprising me with their ability to follow direction. A bag of food was on the floor from the kitchen. Disgusting, with roaches and mice rummaging about the rundown school. I unwrapped the food, more egg sandwiches and burnt broccoli. No plates or utensils were provided, so I looked in the closets and thankfully found birthday themed plates and forks. I served the egg sandwiches with a crown of broccoli, only promising the snacks we looted if they attempted to eat their food. We were going to be together for the long haul, and resource conservation was imperative.  

A woman entered the classroom dressed in a nurse’s garb. She looked exasperated, her legs unsteady, hair in all directions and face imbedded with the outline of protective goggles. It appeared she hadn’t slept in days. “I’m here for my daughter, I was told she’s in this room,” she said. On cue, the girl with the cochlear implant ran over joyously.

“There you are, Ana!” the mother said, and picked her up with her dwindling strength. 

“Truthfully, I’m not sure about the dismissal procedure. I don’t know if I can just release her to you without proof you’re her mother. I’ll call the office for an administrator to come up, because they’re the ones with the paperwork. I’m sorry, I’m just following proper procedure.”  

“Wait, did you change her diaper today? It’s like a brick!” her mother yelled.

I inherited her with a dirty diaper and forgot to change her after noticing it in the morning. That was on me. I should have called for supplies, instead of winging it like a soldier. I was teaching preschoolers, not storming the beaches of Normandy.  

“I personally didn’t.”It was a generic response, one that likely wouldn’t fly with an exasperated mother, who saw death all day. Telling her I wasn’t given supplies or support wouldn’t do any good. Changing a child was common sense, and I was disgusted at my lack of awareness.

She pulled back the diaper’s elastic to get a good view of the damage. “There’s like two craps in here! Spillage is collecting in her pants, She’s been suffering! How dare you!” the mother yelled, and spit in my face, the phlegm dripping to the floor in a steady stream.

My reflexes made me close my eyes, and I didn’t believe any spit got into them. She likely worked in a coronavirus ward, and that spit could have been infected. She stared at me, shell shocked at her repugnant act. What happened to her daughter was neglect, and she lost herself in rage, but spitting in my face crossed a line. There was so much I could do in retaliation. The idiots who spit on food and licked supermarket shelves for TikTok views were getting charged with terroristic threats.  

“Get some rest,” I said. Now was not the time for fights. It was a warzone, and we were soldiers on the same side.

The woman nodded to me in gratitude, and walked out the classroom with her daughter.  Undertaking the same routine for the foreseeable future was daunting, but I vowed to get better. I would make sure diapers, supplies, books and food were always on hand. I didn’t care if I had to spend my own money. That’s what teachers do, look out for their students. And if I got coronavirus, it was collateral damage for being a soldier. 

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