All about the Mask

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Arundhati Roy

When I read this quote by Arundhati Roy, it felt like she was speaking directly to educators, as they contemplate the return to school: our data banks and dead ideas vs. a completely new conception of how to equitably and even joyfully–a word that is nearly verboten in these discussions—educate our young.

What’s worth fighting for? What do we keep, and what are we willing to leave behind, passing through this portal?

Because it is a gateway to a new world. Consider this headline: Coronavirus may never go away, even with a vaccine:

Embracing that reality is crucial to the next phase of America’s pandemic response, experts say. A future with an enduring coronavirus means that normal no longer exists.

The struggle to get people to think long-term, of course, is not new to public health. We know that smoking can kill us. Yet, it is still responsible for 1 of every 5 deaths in the United States.

“The problem is people putting the present ahead of the future,” said Tom Frieden, who led the CDC from 2009 to 2017.

Ah yes. Every teacher in America is intimately familiar with those who put an entertaining, carefree present WAY ahead of a sober, worthwhile future. They’re called students.

But students are hardly the only folks who value today’s pleasures over tomorrow’s safety and security. My timeline is filled with exclamations over first forays out into the community, and how few people are willing to follow the rules.

Following the rules is another thing that teachers are all too familiar with—and masks and social distancing are now the dividing point between those who are willing to put up with a little inconvenience and discomfort to keep the rest of the community as safe as possible, and those who (often adamantly) aren’t.

I realize that this is one of those ‘two kinds of people in the world’ gross oversimplifications. But it helps us to understand why a Pennsylvania legislator would deliberately put his opposite-party colleagues at risk while keeping those in his party informed and safe.  My team vs. your team—even when the stakes are life and death.

I was amused to see Angela Duckworth (she of grit celebrity) write in the NY Times:

How do we create a social norm of mask-wearing when, in fact, so many Americans are doing exactly the opposite? One common mistake is drawing attention to the lack of compliance. For instance, highlighting littering as a commonplace problem can inadvertently lead to more littering because it strengthens the perception that littering is the norm. Instead, in press releases and public service announcements, officials should emphasize that the clear trend in this country is toward universal mask-wearing. Norms are also established by high-status role models. 

I don’t agree with much of what Duckworth writes, but on this topic, at this moment, she’s right. 

These are lessons I learned—often painfully—as a young teacher:  Some kids are looking for attention, and will get it any way they can, so it’s much better to focus on their community-minded behaviors than their transgressions. For some kids, outwitting authority is a game—so you have to figure out, first, how, and why, they lost respect for authority. A classroom filled with happy children who understand the rules benefit them is vastly better than a classroom filled with kids who obey out of fear of being punished.

I was pleased to see, in Heather Cox Richardson’s daily newsletter this morning an acknowledgement that masks have become symbolic—and that:

…anti-maskers are losing ground to those advocating mask-wearing. While Trump still refuses to wear one, McConnell, and FNC personality Sean Hannity, among others, have called for wearing masks to help contain the coronavirus.

I want Heather Cox Richardson to be right. But on Monday, I saw plenty of people—in my own little, reasonably safe town—without masks. People not being respectful to the trumpeter on the corner, playing Taps. People gathering in close-in groups to catch up on two months’ worth of gossip. Adults being terrible role models for children.

My inner teacher—hey! (fingersnap)– was seriously activated. I had to remind myself that the best thing I could do was wear my own mask and keep my own distance. Stay on the right side of the divide.

I’m trying to take Arundhati Roy’s advice and walk through this world with little luggage—beyond my mask—looking for a better way to live, and to educate our precious children. There’s much that can be discarded. But not the building of caring communities—that’s what we must fight for first. It’s central to our ultimate health, virus or no virus.


  1. Powerful piece! I have just joined my District’s task force revolving around the myriad issues swirling around how we begin our school year in early August. I too, hope to tread as lightly as possible, but to teach as well. So, maybe we carry a big mask, as we tread (sorry, TR).



    1. Exactly. Mask monitoring could easily become another thing teachers are responsible for. If all adults were masking, it would make teachers’ jobs infinitely easier.



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