About a year ago, I noticed changes in my vision. Soon I learned I had permanent central-vision loss from retinal toxicity—a result of taking chloroquine for systemic lupus. This rare side effect left me to navigate the world in a different way. At first, I thought that I had lost some color vision, too. However, I was informed that I could no longer see differences in similar colors and instead needed more contrast. While annoying when sorting navy blue and black socks, it wasn’t the end of the world.
I am a teacher. So, learning to teach with low vision was as much a puzzle to be solved as any accommodation I would dream up for one of my neurodivergent students. The Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins Medicine identified the link between chloroquine and my vision loss and was able to provide helpful aids for functioning in my classroom and my home.
Still, one of the saddest moments of 2021 came just after I was diagnosed, when my children saw a rainbow in the sky. They were desperately trying to show me, saying, “Mommy, mommy—look!” They pointed up, over and over. Seeing nothing, I started to cry.
My 12-year-old tech-savvy daughter suggested I take a picture of the sky with my smartphone—and use a filter to adjust the contrast. Her idea was brilliant. Suddenly, I could see the rainbow, too.
We all need contrast for life to be meaningful. The joy of a rainbow is the contrast to the dreary sky. For someone who can’t see that subtle contrast, there is no joy. Only rain. The joy of being home is spending time with family. The joy of teaching is partially in contrast to that: interacting with students and other faculty. A trip brings us new scenery and thus delight. For my students—some continuing to mask and some not—an equivalent thrill is running mask-free and breathing in crisp air. Or there’s the excitement of a brain break in the middle of math—the standing and stretching, skipping or dancing that allows their bodies and minds to reenergize.
Unfortunately, these past two years, COVID-19 has left us in a world with little contrast. Some teachers instructed students from home on the same couch where they used to just enjoy time off. Working from home led to shopping online, which preempted the delight that comes with running into acquaintances in town. Students who have been able to attend school mostly in person have still forgone the contrast that school dances, field trips, and mixed-age academic cohorts provide. Athletic seasons have been shortened, reduced to local games, and students have missed out on the contrast of leaving school early for an away game—complete with terrible singing on school buses and joking around with their peers.
Mental well-being is a bigger issue than this virus.
As an immunocompromised individual (who is vaccinated and boosted), I am acutely aware that COVID-19 could land me in the hospital. In addition to lupus, I have asthma. Wearing a mask all day while teaching gives me a headache and leaves me gasping for breath. So, although I am vigilant wearing it when students are present, I frequently use my planning period to shut the door, put on noise-canceling headphones, close my eyes, and de-mask.
The contrast of a quiet room and a few deep breaths is good for my soul. And my sanity.
I have no idea what the future holds, but I do know that I am seeking contrast these days. I’m looking for moments that create differences from the norm of what has seemed like a never-ending panorama of pandemic. For me, that means teaching at a school that values in-person learning. It means taking my students on a local field trip to make birdhouses after studying fraction measurement and surface area in math. It means giving them a few extra minutes to de-mask and enjoy the outdoors while playing gaga ball or four-square. The social-emotional learning that happens outdoors with students I teach is greater than any lesson I could provide; they are experiences that provide contrast.
If you lose contrast, you lose the joy of life.
Here’s to recognizing the need for life experiences that make sense in a coronavirus world and learning—as the virus wanes—to navigate anew. Here’s to understanding that mental well-being is a bigger issue than this virus and to creating safe spaces for children and adults that provide contrast.
There’s a rainbow in the dreary sky of COVID. We just have to adjust our settings—our personal, and perhaps collective, filters—to find it.
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2022 edition of Education Week as Mental Well-Being Is a Bigger Issue Than COVID