Please say hello to Heather Davis, a truly remarkable woman I met first through blogging then through a group speaking event about motherhood. She is smart and funny, and her pandemic story is fascinating. Dive in!!
Just before Christmas break in December, 2019, a student in Heather Davis’ 7th grade English class exploded into the classroom, brandishing a fantastic tale of a deadly new virus spreading around the globe, soon destined for the United States. “Reign it in, buddy,” she told him, and resumed teaching. She didn’t remember having heard anything significant about it on NPR, so she assumed it was a pop culture topic.
The outburst did, however, give her pause to reconsider that in March, 2019, she and her family had travelled to China and noticed everyone wearing masks like it was the most natural thing in the world. They asked then why it was such a common practice, learned that people used them for a variety of better breathing reasons, and were offered some for sale. Heather declined then but one full year later ended up regretting that a little.
Fast forward to February 2020, and Heather was preparing for her National Board recertification when the news of the novel corona virus officially reached her awareness. The news worsened week by week until it became obvious that her complex testing plans would be tabled indefinitely. As president of the Education Association in Bartlesville, OK, Heather was made part of a newly formed “Pandemic Task Force” that took action just as Spring Break was due to begin in mid March.
That week in March, 2020, was special for another reason, though: Twenty two years previous on March 19th, she and another teacher, Brian, had eloped! To celebrate their wedding anniversary, the Davises did another sort of eloping by sneaking off to a restaurant just over the Kansas border. That was their last normal feeling event before shut downs, and it barely felt normal.
Back home, the Davises focused on the onslaught of crisis management tasks and decisions. Brian used Instacart to supply their groceries, and Heather’s recounting gently chided her husband for accumulating “lots of food that nobody eats!” They had so much extra flour. Yes, eventually they did join the sourdough craze (watch for how that started in a student story later). Heather admits that they already possessed 80 rolls of toilet paper, stocked up before the shortage happened please note, thanks to an Amazon membership. She remembers looking at the wall of TP in their garage, first feeling a bit guilty, then wondering if they should hide it from toilet-paperless marauders. She is a fan of dystopian literature, after all, so we cannot blame her imagination for exploring this possibility.
Mask wearing was an easy choice for the Davis clan. Their first ones were rolled up bandannas, then a neighbor sewed them some, and Brian’s Mom made them some too. At the time their younger daughter, Briley, had a job at a local custard stand owned by some family friends. Heather remembers feeling confident that the owners would enforce mask wearing (which they did, while the stand was still open) but also impressing on her daughter that regardless of their decision, she would wear one. (Which she did.)
As Heather answered my myriad questions and reflected on her year in pandemic, she exhibited parallel love and concern for her two families: Her husband, Mom and kids at home and her colleagues and students at school. Her deep love for both big groups was obvious, and often the stories were intertwined. Beginning in March of last year and tracking all through that spring and summer, the shaky return to school, the holidays, and the dark, sad end of winter, up to vaccinations and now spring break all over again, Heather kept everyone’s needs in full view and seemed to maintain her equilibrium beautifully. I was impressed and humbled. (Also a little mad, because she is the only person I have spoken to who managed to lose 40 pounds last year, excuse me, what?!)
If she made any of it look, easy, that was an illusion.
Her Mom, who lives with the family in Bartlesville and needs daily care following a stroke several years ago, contracted the virus close to the holiday season, despite the whole family taking extreme precautions to protect her. Heather fished through her memories for a sliver of understanding of how she might have been exposed, like it still bothered her, and kind of narrowed it down to October 20th when they ran some errands together. In early November her Mom woke up feeling poorly then was quite sick for some time. She exhibited strange symptoms, at first mostly stomach problems, then a fever, and finally coughing that persisted as much as month later. Heather remembers with lots of unease several times she would approach her Mom, who was asleep and maybe slumping in her wheelchair, and suddenly fear the worst. She just wasn’t herself. Once Mom finally recovered, she told Heather that she remembered a sensation of fading away, not quite like falling asleep, something worse. She didn’t want to die. The horror stories circulating from around the country understandably lent a lot of tension and worry to the household. Phrases like “it’s a horrible death,” kind of echoed in their minds.
An example of how intertwined Heather’s worlds are is that during her Mom’s struggle with covid, while Heather was teaching online every day, her students asked lovingly for daily updates, “How’s your mom?”
For middle schoolers, the weight of the pandemic was considerable. The uncertainty of it all “really impacted the students’ mental health.” Heather recounted several episodes when she tried to buoy their spirits. One day after a series of technology malfunctions and average school day frustrations having nothing to do with actual mortality, she said cheerfully, “We will survive!” A seventh grader volleyed back heavily, “Unless we don’t,” and it wasn’t funny. She knew these kids were aware of what was happening in the world. They were worried. Their emotions were all over the place. And they were far from immune from getting sick. Heather shared the story of an eighth grade female athlete, the daughter of her cousin. She was an active, healthy, vibrant girl, who contracted the virus and is now facing serious liver issues.
The Davises’ two daughters are in high school and college. Their older daughter, Hadley, initially believed college classes might continue, thanks to belonging to a small campus. But that changed, and she soon had to make drastic adjustments to her schedule and living situation. She faced brand new anxieties, health challenges, and shifting roommate dynamics. In short, an already challenging young life was made much more complicated by the pandemic. It was a lot to cope with.
Briley had been working hard on her high school grades as well as opportunities for a softball scholarship. Her team was well ranked and eager to perform for recruiters, but the shut downs and delayed playing schedules left everything up in the air for a time. They eventually did travel to play in state championships, with safety protocols in place, but the Davises felt that constant tension of what might no longer be possible for her.
Covid hit close to the Davis household in many ways.
Their Mom was seriously ill. Their cousin’s daughter’s health could be forever compromised. Then, Heather lost an uncle to the virus two days after Christmas, just as her Mom was recovering. They experienced grief coupled with a sort of covid survivor’s guilt. Heather declined the funeral for safety reasons but attended the graveside service from a distance and live-streamed parts of it for family members who couldn’t attend.
Then a difficult holiday season, with just one week in the classroom before they retreated fully to distance learning, led to an especially dark, stressful January. Those long weeks stretched on until they heard rumors of a vaccine. A light at the end of the tunnel. On February 12, 2021, Heather and her colleagues celebrated news of the 300 shots that were made available. The school district hosted a clinic on February 15 for that many teachers to receive their first shot. As of the day Heather and I spoke, they were still ironing out the details for their second doses.
I had a hard time getting Heather to talk about how pandemic affected her personally. She was, in the most loving ways, so invested in everyone else’s well being. But eventually she relented. “I’m doing ok.” We were on Zoom, so I watched her bright face carefully. She blinked in an acknowledging way, and smiled, but looked down for a moment. She used this analogy to describe her year in pandemic: It was like going on a long hike, the same walk you have always taken, but gradually people begin to load you with weighted backpacks and more and more gear. It’s a familiar path, much of it is normal work, but the burdens are heavier and heavier. It just keeps piling on. Heather shared that at some point she craved relief in the form of novelty.
This is how she turned to gardening. Heather does not claim to be an avid gardener, nor does she say that she exactly joined the gardening craze this past year, but she did play with dirt and flowers. It seemed like something totally new, something with no expectations and no need for improvement. Essentially it was a brand new distraction, and “no one can pile onto novelty.” (The freeform gardener in me secretly cheered for this experience.)
In a year rife with political and social upheaval, Heather stayed active in local campaign efforts. She said the contactless environment made for a surprisingly fun new method of “no knock” door to door flyer drops. Except for one neighborhood dog confrontation (a known a**hole according to an unhelpful eyewitness) which left her hiding behind a glass storm door for her husband to rescue her, it went smoothly. It also afforded her time to walk and think and not be on her phone.
Heather spent as much time reading as she could. She learned that reading actual books, at a distance from her phone, was best. She took every book recommendation her students made, too, often favoring memoirs and biographies but also indulging in suspense when she needed the escape.
We talked about anxiety in the pandemic and about how there was no foundation for this, that it was all a big shared experience and a learning experience. I adored every detail of how she kept her family safe and how she kept her students engaged, teaching her traditional civil rights unit and tackling a creative new locker hall timeline project. She read current and relevant books with them, pushed them to write their own autobiographies, and more.
Early on in pandemic, when remote learning was brand new, she hosted optional nightly read-alouds on Zoom. This had incredible participation rates, especially considering it was optional. The books they gobbled up were Refugee by Alan Gratz, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, and Wonder by RJ Palacio. (You can bet I will be reading these this summer.) It was during one of these reading sessions that a student, who seemed constantly to baking something delicious, told Heather all about sourdough bread and how, “Yes Mrs. Davis you can make your own starter, it’s so great!” All these months later Heather was still visibly delighted by this.
Without a doubt, Heather reminds me of all my favorite teachers between 6th and 12th grade. I loved talking to her so much that I wanted to diagram one of my own horrible, meandering sentences just to prove to her that I can, ha! I also hope she does another virtual read along and invites me.
Something extra special about Heather’s year in pandemic has been her postcard project. I had been noticing it on Instagram for a while and was excited to hear the back story. It turned out to be deliciously simple: She just needed positive moments in her day, every day. So on January first she just decided to spread positive words. She started keeping a stack of various postcards on her desk and, every single morning since, like clockwork, writes something encouraging to another person and mails it. The recipient might be a friend or family member, it might be a student or a former student, it could even be a stranger. The small effort infuses her day with love, and you can tell that other people love it even more. A friend of hers was so touched by the project that she gifted Heather with a year’s worth of postage, to “keep it afloat.”
A little bit of a happy epilogue for this wondrous family: As of this writing, everyone is vaccinated and healthy, including Heather’s Mom. Spring Break rolled around again, and it was blissfully devoid of cumbersome taskforce meetings. Hadley is nurturing her health and plugging away at college. Briley’s hard work has paid off, and she earned that coveted softball scholarship for college. This is truly amazing in a year with so many ups and downs. Congratulations! Heather continues her daily postcards, which help her grab those ever crucial positive moments. And most exciting? Today is the Davises’ wedding anniversary!!
Thank you, Heather, for your time and for sharing such an intimate look at what pandemic was like for a woman who wears so many important hats. My love and admiration go out to you. Even though you had the nerve to lose weight in this year when we were all supposed to be in it together and gain a bit.