The Kandahar Marathon: Week Seventeen
“Don’t try to become a teacher overnight with psychological bookkeeping in your heart and educational theory in your head.”
I ended last week thinking about the fact that Afghanistan has seemingly slipped into the background of the world’s collective conscious. We don’t appear to have room for Afghanistan alongside Ukraine’s war, France’s elections, a global pandemic and, of course, the NBA playoffs. It’s as if recency bias is perhaps so powerful, or maybe that our brains are so full, so weak, or else so constantly under bombardment with new and equally troubling information, that the Afghans have no hope to remaining near the forefront of our collective psyche. Primacy would perhaps explain why we still remember—and rightfully so—the Holocaust, no matter what else we are exposed to, for the Shoah as it is often called is in most instances the first egregious human rights abuse, certainly the first genocide and in many cases the only one that the vast majority of us encounter in our studies. Recency would explain why Ukraine is front of mind right now, and also why six months from now it likely won’t be any longer.
I remember that line from Hotel Rwanda, a movie I’m reluctant to quote for its factual inaccuracies, yet which serves as the starting point for many if not most peoples’ study of Rwanda. The reporter, played by Joaquin Phoenix, responds to the suggestion that his footage of the gruesome killings will save the nation by saying something to the effect of “I think people will see this footage and say ‘wow, that’s terrible’ and then go right on eating their dinners.” It’s not a perfect quote, and I’m not going to re-watch the movie to get it right, yet the idea has never left me. When bad news appears in front of us, most people will make an obligatory remark of concern before proceeding to change the channel. Knowledge is necessary to proceed meaningful action, yet the evidence I have encountered suggests that rarely does knowledge along lead to such action.
Tuesday, many students met Cindy and I, along with Claire from the agency and Ahmed, a Syrian immigrant and friend of Cindy’s who, despite fasting for Ramadan, agreed to drive the massive U-Haul Cindy rented, at the Furniture Project. We had collected many items from donors at school, but there was much that we were missing if we were to outfit a home for eleven people. We showed up at the massive warehouse and began choosing couches, chairs, end tables. We grabbed additional beds, one after another, mattresses too. We snagged lamps, rugs, and dressers. Then we went next door, picked up glasses, a set of knives, and various odds and ends we still needed. I found a nice bean grinder and an even nicer French press, and was excited to be able to gift these things to the families we were helping.
We drove back across town and my students, some parents, Cindy, Ahmed, and I began unloading. We pulled the furniture in, piece by piece, and maneuvered it through tight doorways, up stair cases, and around corners. At one point we thought we were stuck with a couch, but then one of my students suggested a different angle and, between her physics and the brute force of four people pushing and tugging, it fit through at last. Around seven I ran out and bought enough pizza for everyone. When I got back we took a break and ate. Someone had brought fresh strawberries. We dined appreciatively and rested up before getting back to work. Around nine at night or so, with bedrooms set up and living spaces, dining areas, and more, at last we were done. We taped a huge banner reading “WELCOME HOME!” up in the dining room, which had been signed by dozens of my students who had each contributed in one way or another. It felt great to look at the house and know that it would soon be a suitable home.
It was while we were moving the couch that something happened, something unplanned and unforeseen, something that was at once horrifying and somehow singularly important, a moment that I dare say I will never forget for as long as I may live. I want to take a moment to tell you about that now.
Teaching has never been more difficult than it became during the pandemic; it has gotten so bad that a shortage of teachers and a shortage of substitutes has left us in a position where most of the time teachers don’t have their allotted time to plan and instead are used as substitute teachers in classrooms for absent colleagues. There’s more to be said, but to keep this brief I’ll end by pointing out that there is a mass exodus from my profession, and sometime in the midst of my malcontent over the winter I applied for a couple of professorships. I didn’t get them, and I had thought that to be the end of it, however right as I settled into the idea of teaching for the two decades between now and my retirement I was contacted by a local college and asked to apply for what was undeniably an amazing job. Sparing you the details for now, the short story is that the job would afford me a lot more time to be with my family, the chance to do things like walk my kids to school and be home for dinner most nights, as well as free college tuition for them when they’re older. I couldn’t possibly pass on it.
After a series of four interviews, over the course of nearly a month, I was offered the job on Tuesday morning and I accepted it. I knew the hardest part would be telling my students and my runners. I was giving a lot of thought as to how I would go about that when, Tuesday evening, I was helping to move that enormous leather couch up a flight of what seemed like a hundred stairs. Out of the blue, the parent of an eighth grader asked me rhetorically if I’d be coaching cross country again that fall. Next to me was a young lady who I recruited to run at North, a student of mine as well as an athlete and a truly phenomenal young person who I tend to think of more as a daughter than anything else. I didn’t have it in me to tell a lie. I looked at her and she held my gaze, her eyes growing larger and dewier the longer I remained silent. I couldn’t think of anything to say, until at last I came forth quietly with “This isn’t how I wanted to tell you.” There were a lot of tears a short time later, though while it felt in the moment as if I were having my still-beating heart cleaved from my chest, I am pleased that I got to tell her in person—even if the timing was perhaps something less than what I would have planned.
I began this post with a quote from a great man, a man who inspires me named Janusz Korczak. Korczak taught that “Children are not the people of tomorrow, but people today. They are entitled to be taken seriously.” I have always taken my students seriously, and tried always to show them respect. They do not have to earn it from me; they are entitled to it by virtue of who they are. For eighteen years, my students have been everything to me. They inspire me. They give me a reason to get up in the morning, a reason to work hard and do my job well. More recently, however, as I’ve had children of my own, my students, though still of the utmost importance could no longer be singularly so. They now have to share their place in my life with my son and daughter, around whom my world revolves. I will miss teaching high school desperately, mostly because I will miss my students and runners so, yet I am excited for the next chapter in my life as well as for the additional time it will afford me to be with my own children who, truth be told, are growing up far too fast for my liking.
To conclude, at least for now, I’d like to thank my students for all that they contributed to the house we set up for the families from Afghanistan, and for all that they have contributed to my life. They brought items for the families, yes, and they donated their time. They brought energy and spirit and intellect to class each day, and have given me so much of their own time. They brought family and friends to help, just as they brought themselves and other wonderful people into my life. They gave up anything else they might have wanted to be doing in order to do something good for others, others who they had not met, just as they so often invested time after school in various activities, traveling with me to far away places, volunteering, running, and more. My students have always inspired me, and for that reason I will always be grateful. For that reason, I will miss them tremendously in the years to come.
To this point, I’ve avoided writing about running this week, perhaps because my efforts were somewhere between desperate and pathetic, or at least it felt that way. I was sick from work Monday, and slept all morning, though I wouldn’t find out until Friday afternoon that I had Covid-19 of course. Monday afternoon I went out for an easy five, and with a combination of being sick and a strong breeze, I was so chilly I was shaking at times, my easy five becoming a very difficult five indeed. I rested the remainder of Monday, called in again Tuesday, slept in again, and then went out for what my plan called for, an easy eight that turned into ten and a half. Wednesday morning, nice weather and some pent-up emotions from the night before that I couldn’t turn off quickly turned eight into nine, but my sickness persisted. Thursday morning I ran ten before school, slogging it out despite a shortness of breath and an incessant cough. My palate had been off, which had made me suspicious. During first block that morning, Sonja called repeatedly, then sent a text saying “Please call me.” When I did, I learned she had just tested positive for Covid-19. I went home and the family piled into our little CRV and drove to a testing cite. Friday morning, I toughed out a 10K and some change at a slow pace, wheezing as I went, achy and tired. The milage put me at 210 miles for the month of April, besting the new record I had set the month before, which had bested the record from the month before that. At some point I may have to slow down, but right now, despite my sickness, I’m running better, faster, and more than I ever have in my entire life, and loving every step of it.
Friday afternoon, test results confirmed that the whole family had Covid. I started texting and calling everyone I could remember being in contact with. It took a while. Then I emailed Coach Valdez as well as my co-pacer to let them know I couldn’t pace Lincoln on Sunday, a last-minute cancellation that deeply inconvenienced my team and devastated me personally as it’s my favorite race to pace and has been for many, many years. I haven’t run it since 2019. Ironically, two pairs of new Asics Gel-Nimbus arrived in the mail that afternoon. Saturday I rested all day, an easy thing to do when you feel terrible. My normal resting heartrate is 55 beats per minute. Sonja asked me what it was Saturday afternoon so I checked my monitor. 97. “Well, you are being active right now,” she said to me, to which I raised an incredulous eyebrow in her direction. I was folding laundry.
Sunday morning I awoke and laced up my shoes. Earlier this month, with a cold and less-than-ideal conditions, I set a lifetime PR in the half marathon, running the thirteen-point-one in just over and hour and forty minutes. That day, I set out to run the time I had been set to pace in Lincoln, two hours, which wouldn’t be a challenge normally. I lapped the park and jogged down to the trail, following my usual half marathon route. The wind was sharp at times, and sunlight was scarce, but it was my heartrate, often in the high one-sixties, and my shortness of breath that were the most trying. I thought of my poor wife back at home, whose conditions are so much worse than my own, and doggedly I soldiered on. The 9:09 pace was tough to hold at times, and on some hilly sections I ran closer to ten. Near the end, I realized I’d done a fairly good job of staying even, and I began to calculate, adjusting my gate slightly. Normally, for a pacer to come in within about twenty seconds of their goal time is excellent, but I saw how close I was. With only the point-one to go, I watched my watch roll over to 1:59:10. I kicked slightly, realized I’d overdone it, slowed, realized I had slowed too much, and kicked again (not good form for a pacer). My Garmin changed to show 13.1 and 2:00:00 at precisely the same moment. I pushed pause, photographed it, and slowly walked to catch my breath. Covid was kicking my butt, but it hadn’t beaten me. In fact it was the first time I’d ever been perfect on a pace before.
Thinking back on my week, I found it curious to think that it took until Friday to confirm that I was sick, when in reality I felt so bad even Monday that I did not go to work and cancelled my meeting that night as well. It made me think about the recency bias I had been reflecting on earlier, and the weird, seemingly self-imposed limitations of our fragile human minds. For whatever reason, I needed proof that I was sick. Just like, for whatever reason, Afghanistan is no longer on our minds, not really, despite the fact that the problems we once agreed were so important have certainly not yet been solved. I think in that way I’m lucky. I have my running, this year, in which every step is devoted to helping Afghans resettle, and the miles do not allow me to put them far from mind for very long. So, too, I have my students, young people whose minds and hearts seem somehow more capable of holding on to the things, to the people, who matter most to them. If this world is going to be saved from itself, I am convinced that it will be this next generation of amazing young people who do it. There is, of course, no test for that, no way to quantify the idea, no proof save for to wait—and yet I know it to be true.