A sabbatical in 2020: Not what I had planned

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I wrote my sabbatical proposal in fall 2019, and when I found out it was approved, I was elated.

My husband had surprised me that same fall with tickets to Italy for May, and we had a trip to New York planned for spring break, so I thought I had a lovely year to look forward to: teach in the spring, go to New York, go to Italy and other places over summer break, then a whole fall semester to research and think deeply about the best ways for faculty to help students with mental health problems.

As a high school dropout who had never left the country until she was in her 40s, this was the life I had always dreamed of. I went to community college as a single mom with three kids and very little money, and I took out student loan after student loan to keep going and finally get an MFA. What kept me going all those years was this dream — to teach and write and travel — but what I carried with me during those years was my depression and a gnawing sense of inferiority, a sense of being unworthy of that life, of being an impostor.

When I thought about working on the sabbatical, I pictured myself writing in local coffee shops, in the library, and meeting friends and colleagues over coffee. In February, we started hearing about the coronavirus, and my uncle kept texting me that I should probably reconsider my trip to Italy. I shrugged it off. This would blow over in a month or so, I thought.

In early March, I watched as the numbers of deaths in Italy rose, and they finally closed the borders. Then came New York, and all the others, and finally we were told to take anything we needed from our offices and leave campus. We would finish the semester online.

All at once

In May 2020, my mother died. She had been in a nursing home with worsening dementia and our weekly dinners with her were the highlight of her life. In March, the facility she was in closed its doors to visitors. My mother could not hear well and had never used a cell phone, so talking to her was impossible.

She fell in April and was moved to a skilled nursing facility. There, I could sit outside the window and talk to her. On Mother’s Day, I brought her chocolates and sat outside the window talking loudly through the glass. She ate her chocolates and talked to me in French until I reminded her that I don’t speak French. When I left that day, I heard her tell the nurse, “That’s my daughter, she’s a professor at a college.” (As an immigrant with only a high school education, my mother was always very proud of her daughter’s accomplishments.)

As I walked to the car, I kept turning to see if she was still there. She was. She did not take her eyes off me, and I’m not sure I can describe the look on her face — pride, but something more, a knowing. A couple of days later, I got the call that she had been taken to the ER. She died later that same day. We had her cremated, and there was no funeral or small gathering to celebrate her life. Her ashes came in the mail and they remain in my closet.

Over summer, my husband and I watched the protests over more murders of innocent Black people. Then the fires started in California. Our air was so thick with smoke, it looked like winter all the time. When that cleared up finally, we had the election and the ensuing chaos. Now, entering December, we are told the virus will overwhelm hospitals again.

Throughout all of this, I have been reading books and articles on mental health and meeting with college psych services to work on my sabbatical. I have been writing but finding it difficult to focus, then beating myself up for not being able to focus. I eat too much. I drink too much, finding the 4:00 wine time to be a way to punctuate the day, just as I open the blinds and close them at certain times, turn on the lamps, and turn them off. To mark time, to stay sane.

The losses have been overwhelming, and I find that only now, almost a year later, I am fully grieving for my mother. Because so many others have losses as well, it is collectively overwhelming. As I write this, my daughter’s ex-boyfriend is sleeping in our car in the driveway. He is homeless like many in my town right now. People don’t have enough to eat and the stimulus money is slow and always uncertain.

Understanding the struggles

I chose the topic of mental health for my sabbatical because every semester I have students who reveal to me in one way or another that they are struggling with depression or anxiety. 2020 only added to the ever-growing numbers.

When I see the vacant, flat look of depression on a student’s face, I see my own face, too. As a survivor of domestic violence, a single mom and a student, I was often depressed or anxious.

As the only one in my family to get a college degree, I was working hard to look normal, to fit in, and to finally become a successful person who did things like go to Europe. Now, when a student writes to me that she is having a hard time concentrating and that she doesn’t feel like she can stay in school, I see myself again, sitting here trying to write and finding it hard to concentrate. I realize some of my students have far greater sorrows and challenges than I do, but if I can’t grieve for my own losses, I will not be able to empathize with theirs. If we stuff our losses and expect ourselves to carry on, we will expect the same from our students. Maybe it’s time to do things differently?

A new approach

There are many things faculty can do to help their students who struggle with mental health issues. There are articles and books full of helpful information, but the most meaningful thing I have learned is that we are connected to our students. When I share my own experiences and past struggles with my students, I see them relax. Suddenly, I am real to them and we are on the same side. I am not just another person for whom they must perform to enter the club of the successful. I’d rather be their mentor, their advocate cheering from the sidelines as we question what it means to be successful and as they find their own meaningful path to success.

This empathy and connection with students does not mean we allow them to do shoddy work or that we pass them along regardless of the work they do. Nor does it mean we have to become psychologists and help our students with their troubles. But it might be a good time to examine the ways in which our own egos get involved with having “rigorous standards.” It might be a good time to ask ourselves whether we put the love for our subject above the love for teaching it to students. We are teachers first.

And we are human. Connecting to our own humanity will allow us to connect to our students. We have to give ourselves room to grieve because then we can offer that same space to our students.

One of the things that is essential for mental health is to have meaningful work, whatever form that may take. We can give our students meaningful assignments and strip away all the other work they do not need to be doing right now. We can give them and ourselves grace. When they email to say they can’t make a deadline, we can offer grace. When they turn in less than their best, we can have compassion, and instill in them a sense of confidence, that yes, they can do better. We can offer what so many of us have been given: second chances.

About the Author

Michelle Patton
teaches at a community college in California. She is on sabbatical this semester.