I was driving to work today and dropping off my sons at preschool with their masks on. I hugged them good-bye and attempted to kiss them through my mask.
I am not a hugger. Ask my friends. The pandemic has been great for one thing for me. No one tries to hug me except my kids and wife. During cold and flu season normally I also would not even shake hands with new patients or their parents. “No touch-ey” is my motto.
(This is not the case for my kids. We are all snuggly in our house, so don’t worry my sons get a ton of hugs. They are very tactile and are always on top of one of us.)
In 1993 on on September 23rd, my Grandfather died. It was very sudden and unexpected. He was in his early 70’s and in good health. It was devastating to our family.
I was in third grade at the time (I’m 35 in case you are trying to do the math). My teacher was Mrs. Gulliford. She was likely in my top three favorite teachers. She had the right mix of nurturing and boundaries to make our entire class moderately afraid of her without her ever yelling or raising her voice while also fully admiring her and wanting to impress her and be in her good graces. She was middle age when I had her, maybe 50’s. So she also had a matronly quality to her and clearly she had been teaching for a few decades at that point so she was rarely ruffled.
In fact looking back I acknowledge that we had a tough class. At least three kids with severe ADHD and then myself and two other “smart” kids, and a myriad of in between kids. It must have been challenging to meet everyone’s needs but as I recall she always had extra work for me to do so I never got bored. She was one of the only teachers until I got to high school who didn’t try and force me to stay with the class. She saw that I was done with the lesson much faster than other kids and instead of yelling at me for reading a chapter book she started giving me extra work and tasks to keep me busy.
She never made a big deal about it. She would just slip it onto my desk whenever she saw that I was completing an assignment.
September 23rd was not far into our school year. Maybe three weeks. Long enough for me to understand that Mrs. Gulliford was a force not to be reckoned with who was kind but also firm.
It took me completely by surprise when I returned from being absent for three days after my Grandfather died and she called me up to her desk. Everyone was still getting settled so kids were talking and not paying attention to me walking up. I was nervous because I thought I was in trouble as every kid does when we are called out by an adult unexpectedly.
I walked over to the side of her desk and next thing I knew I was enveloped into a big warm hug.
I remember fighting back tears and after my initial shock wore off burying my face in her shoulder trying not to sob. She held me long enough for me to feel that I was going to sob, choke back tears, and then realize by now that half the class was staring at me.
I learned that about grief later on in life. That even when you think you’ve cried all that you possibly can…at the most unexpected moments you can still produce tears.
I don’t remember if she said anything or if I did. I just know I walked back to my desk and went through the rest of my day in third grade. I don’t remember her hugging me the rest of the school year. I do remember seeing her hug a few of the other kids in my class at varying times during the year and I remember thinking something bad must have happened because she reserved her hugs for those moments they were truly needed.
At some point the girl sitting next to me turned and told me about her dead grandparents. That’s when I learned people say weird shit to you when a family member dies.
Of all the memories to pop into my head thinking about my Grandfather that’s the one I thought of today. Mrs. Gulliford’s warm hug. Then I thought of my kids in their masks and all the kids in all the schools who can’t give or receive a warm hug this year.
Teachers are supposed to teach. That’s the nature of their job. But we all know they do so much more for children. They comfort. They nurture. They create safe spaces. They forge connections with the smart kids, the challenged kids, the kids who struggle, and all of that is challenged this year because they are either behind screens or masks or both.
Families are not able to have funerals. And there have been at least two hundred thousand families who have lost family members in the last six months.
I’m incredibly grateful to all the teachers who touched my life and fostered a love of learning that continues today. I’m grateful for the teachers who provided hugs in times of acute grief and comfort because she didn’t have to. But I’ll always remember that she did.
I thought of this memory today because I acknowledge that there is a global pandemic causing acute isolation for many people. There are people on my caseload who haven’t been touched with comfort or love since March. We all took hugs and touch for granted. One lesson I’ve learned from COVID, among many, is that I’m not a hugger. But sometimes a hug is the only adequate form of communication.
And our children are all deprived of these small but monumental moments with the adults in their lives for the foreseeable future. Keep that in mind as we parent our kids. They are deprived of basic human touch in spaces that they never have been before. It’s taxing on them. I see it in my sessions. This pandemic feels like it has only begun. As we gear up for a long dark Winter I hold onto memories of warm hugs and hope in a way that I never thought I would ever hope; for warm hugs to be safe again.
VOTE. Black Lives Still Matter. Breonna Taylor…you deserve better.
To my bestie, if you made it this far,…who is the ultimate hugger…yes I even miss your hugs even though you always end up making it weird. I’d give anything for a hug from you! Florida needs to get it’s shit together so I can visit.