Simone Billings


February 2019—The Context:  

While beginning to get to know my colleagues at the University of Malta (UM), I experienced Malta’s worst winter in 30 years, with rain and winds just 3 miles per hour shy of hurricane force. The torrents began as my fellow Fulbright Scholar and I were finishing a day exploring the capital, Valletta, that had included a marvelous lunch at Guze Bistro, a cozy restaurant off the main street, where we enjoyed pappardelle with a rabbit ragu and small servings of rikotta cannoli (the Maltese spelling) and imqaret, a fried date pastry, also traditionally Maltese (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Ricotta Cannoli and imqaret
Fig. 1: Ricotta Cannoli and imqaret

We knew a storm was coming, but we had hoped to be back on the bus heading to our respective apartments before it began—until we had been enticed to continue wandering Valletta’s streets by its ancient stone buildings, the statues of saints everywhere built into myriad buildings’ facades (Malta is 95% Roman Catholic), the stone streets closed to cars but filled with people speaking Maltese, English, Italian, Japanese, and Polish. 

The winds were first, knocking over advertising sandwich boards outside businesses, so we took refuge inside a store in the hope, unfilled, that the rains would be like a thunderstorm that let up after a while. When it became clear the downpour would only continue, we joined those on buses back to our respective apartments, my running shoes and pants drenched by the water gushing like a river on the downhill where my apartment was, overflowing the gutters and sidewalks. For the next two days, I holed up in my apartment, not needing the Maltese government’s admonitions to stay inside since I had just watched the metal railings of my balcony and those of my neighbor swaying and loosening as the power briefly shut off; from the window the next day, I saw the fishing boats in Spinola Bay crashing into each other from the unusual waves and winds that churned and crested over the seawall, the streets covered with water and the waves smashing the some storefronts.

Fig. 2: Valletta, Malta in calm weather
Fig. 2: Valletta, Malta in calm weather

The news reported that in some seafront towns, people were gathering fish thrown onto streets by the storm. But families still chose to brave the storm on Sunday—not to go to church but to go to parents’ and grandparents’ homes to celebrate the traditional Sunday family dinner together. Two days after the storm hit, people were repairing their homes and their stores; everything quickly returned back to the way it was before the storm hit; I returned to my routine of gaining new colleagues’ trust, but each day continued to bring some new delight, new sights (Fig. 2).




February 2020—The Context:

Fig. 3: Students working at desks with computers
Fig. 3: Students working at desks with computers

Winter quarter was continuing apace at Santa Clara University. The two sections of Critical Thinking and Writing were part two of the required two-course sequence for students, so they were completing and presenting their podcasts on A Thousand Splendid Suns which they had worked on in pairs and written a script for. Then they would begin working on their research papers (Fig. 3) on one of the themes or works they found most compelling and engaging emotionally and intellectually from the readings over the two quarters, readings that touched upon our course’s theme, The Inhumanity of Humanity, drawing from course discussions and their papers and doing additional research beyond our texts from Ways of Reading, Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down, and the Hosseini novel. The two classes had students of different ethnicities from different parts of the country and from abroad, but after two terms together we knew each other’s personalities and quirks. We knew who would first raise his hand and answer questions; we knew who would mostly stay silent but be incredibly smart in peer and in individual work; we knew and liked and respected each other—we had become family. I worried about my student who had broken his hand; I worried about the student who’d fallen further behind due to getting mono right after he had begun falling behind due to pledging activities for a fraternity. I knew which student was on the equestrian team and spoke French well; although an English major, she is another colleague’s advisee. My advisee, also in the class, is also a theatre arts major whom we went as a class to see in the Fall term when he had the male lead in Eurydice. The students and I saw each other twice a week in class and often individually during office hours and conferences.  

I began looking forward to seeing my US colleagues in Milwaukee for C’s and to the paper I’d present in March on part of the Fulbright work I had done for and with the Centre for English Language Proficiency for the University of Malta, evaluating their writing program which I found unique:  instructors were not permitted to assign any work outside of class time, so all readings and all writing for the classes had to be done within the once-a-week class—a seemingly impossible task that they had made possible.

March 1-20, 2019—The Whirlwind:

Fig. 4: Carnivale in Valletta, Malta–a parade float and dancers
Fig. 4: Carnivale in Valletta, Malta–a parade float and dancers

Carnivale in Malta! The Triumphant Floats parade in Valletta was unlike anything expected—a mishmash of costumes and themes and music—from musical theatre to Italian to US Native American—but all with the conservatism befitting a highly religious country, including floats dedicated to stopping abortion (Fig. 4). Since the beginning of Lent in 2019 was followed closely by St. Joseph’s Feast Day, I was able to enjoy zeppole the size of a cantaloupe on the public holiday for the parades in most towns, the best one reputed to be in Rabat, where my fellow scholar and I went to enjoy the best pastizzi (warm ricotta in crispy phyllo dough) according to every Maltese person we had spoken with (at Crystal Palace) as well as the zeppole (like cream puffs). On weekdays, I worked at the University of Malta, visiting new colleagues’ classes and then holding debriefing sessions afterwards to correlate my observations with their intentions and perceptions. Weekend days I was exploring places like Marsaskala and Marsaxlokk or watching St. Patrick’s Day festivities in Spinola Bay or visiting the Hypogeum, an underground megalithic temple from 3300 BCE. 

Fig. 5: The author in a classroom with colleagues seated behind her working on laptop computers
Fig. 5: The author in a classroom with colleagues seated behind her working on laptop computers

On nights and weekdays I worked on my PPT presentation for the workshop on use of peer reviews in a writing class for my colleagues besides continuing to visit multiple classes they were teaching so as to have more than a single observation of an instructor or a class. I was also writing letters of recommendation for colleagues back in California who were re-applying for one-year appointments at Santa Clara University.  When I gave my workshop, I was relieved that my UM colleagues responded eagerly to the varieties of peer critique workshops that I had presented thanks to contributions from my SCU colleagues so that I could show them an array, not just an idiosyncratic, way of having students work with one another on drafts (Fig. 5). Various sites, tastes, experiences filled my days on which I’d often see my Fitbit recording nearly 20,000 steps and close to 10 miles a day!


March 1-20, 2020—The Whirlwind.

March 1-8 were festive since others chose to celebrate my birthday in early March at different events the first weekend—lunch with my sister at the Asian fusion restaurant Out the Door in San Francisco, dinner with my husband at a fondue restaurant on a Saturday, and then Sunday lunch with my friend who shares the same birthday followed by a theater matinee in San Francisco—seeing Sting in The Last Ship! There was fun, there were meals out, there was laughter, there were different things to do daily, including interacting with my classes, my beloved students that I’d taught for two quarters and grown quite fond of, even adjusting to that one odd duck as he doubtlessly adapted to me and my style of teaching.  

That evening I suddenly felt ill, beginning to cough a bit. The next morning, Monday, March 9, the start of the last week of Winter quarter, coughing heavily and blowing my nose, I wondered all day whether I should email students I wouldn’t be in for their peer critiques or wait to see how I felt the next morning since I routinely get over such maladies in a day.  

Then events and news began moving swiftly.

  • March 9: an email just before 5 pm from the President and Provost of Santa Clara University that, effective the next day, the end of Winter quarter would be online and all students should leave campus as soon as they could arrange transportation. Further, students and faculty were to plan to be online for the first two weeks of Spring quarter as well. I quickly put together a video for my Winter quarter students to reassure them that they could do the peer critique on their own and provided them with guidance. 
  • March 12: I received the email announcing that Cs was canceled.
  • March 14: I cancelled airfare to Milwaukee and waited to hear from the hotel, which I had reserved through the Cs website. 
  • March 16: Finals week for school began—as did Shelter-in-Place in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was still coughing, but I clearly was recuperating.
  • March 16: The Provost of Santa Clara University sent an email saying that all spring classes would be online for the entire spring quarter. The first day scheduled for classes, March 30th, through Tuesday April 7th, would become preparation days for faculty to design their online materials and structures for classes. The date for turning in grades would also be extended from the 25th of March until March 30th.
  • March 17: I sent a reassuring video to my spring quarter classes to let them know that I had experience teaching online writing classes and that they had mad tech skills and were able to do the work since they were already familiar with our course LMS, Canvas. I begin trying to work on final submissions from both my classes, their further researched papers.
  • March 20: At the referral I finally got from my primary care physician for my shoulder, which still hurt from a fall while jogging the last Sunday in December, the orthopedic sports specialist let me know my left shoulder was now frozen and gave me a referral slip for working with a physical therapist. I hoped a physical therapy clinic would be open so that I could increase the range of motion beyond that of a T-Rex. 
  • March 20: I returned home to find that the biennial meeting of the Rhetoric Society of America in May had been canceled. But that weekend I truly tried to concentrate on getting at least one class’s grades completed, despite the pain in my left shoulder keeping me from sleeping well. 

March 22-28, 2020—The Week of Cs, The Week Crises Continued, The Week COVID-19 News Changed Rapidly—and The Week Realities of Routine, of Irritation, of Privilege Set In.

On Monday 23 March, I called various physical therapy clinics near me: all were closed due to the Shelter-in-Place (SIP) order. I worked this week on reviewing final papers with the goal of computing and turning in grades by Sunday so that I could work on materials for my Spring quarter classes, Creative Nonfiction and Argumentation, during late March and early April, the period the University set aside for preparation for Spring quarter’s online classes. 

Mornings I jogged as I routinely have done with my dog on days I don’t go down to school, days which now are every day since I no longer awaken at 5 am to drive 10 miles to catch a 6:39 am commuter train to work 45 miles from home. The dog and I started, as usual, from my house three blocks from cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, breathing fresh smog-less air, and I used the uphill time back home to say my daily prayers as usual, adding to the customary list of family members and friends now the victims of COVID-19, the first-responders, the homeless, the differently-abled. When we saw the usual few people, mostly familiar—others exercising or some of the homeless who live in the trees across from the cliffs and dunes—we exchanged greetings as always, checking to make sure the other was doing ok. My husband and I agreed that, especially for him as a retired person, not a lot seemed to have changed, for he routinely gets up late, perhaps going for a long walk, but then settles into watching television and playing card games on his computer except for the weekly grocery shopping and the nightly making of our dinner.

After the jog, I made my usual tofu-OJ-frozen berries-banana smoothie, now augmented with a shot of coconut rum since I didn’t have to drive anywhere—and under SIP order, I wasn’t supposed to go out anyway: we heard regularly on the daily briefings from our governor that everyone should “stay home” to flatten the curve. 

During this week of finals, I would have been doing the same thing, staying at home after the morning jog—but this year I would have already been close to completion of work on final papers with grades originally due on Wednesday so that I could turn them in on Tuesday: Wednesday was the same day I would been on a plane bound for Milwaukee to attend C’s, leaving to attend the Documentarian reception Wednesday evening. This year I was working with less pressure on myself since the deadline was extended: I work to deadline, always.  ‘

Instead of working diligently on my classes’ papers, I instead had time  obsessively to watch the news, to hear from my retired husband about the latest news about COVID-19, about the president’s latest claims, about the local government’s responses to those claims and to COVID-19. On Wednesday, debate over the economic stimulus bill continued, and I wondered whether we would qualify for any funds since we have two incomes, his retirement from construction work in the sheet metal industry and my full-time pay at SF Bay Area levels, pay that routinely was increased annually due to high evaluations, so reasonable for an academic in the humanities. (Sidebar: yes, we still qualified.) Primarily, I was pleased that the bill contained a restriction on any money going to companies owned by POTUS or the VP since I believe POTUS has benefited economically enough by all his actions while the 99% have suffered economically, particularly the most vulnerable, such as the differently abled. 

I thought frequently of my youngest sister who lives in Berkeley with each breaking news story—my sister who has never walked a day in her life but has outlived her prognosis by decades; my sister who has to have different attendants come to list her out of bed and into her wheelchair and to get her dressed for work at home; my sister who needs someone to cook for her and help her eat. During this week when I would otherwise have been in Milwaukee, perhaps having lunch one day at The Safe House for fun, food, and drinks with a colleague, I received a text from my youngest sister: a new attendant had accidentally crushed her foot, so she was in great pain. Yet she didn’t want to go to the hospital since she didn’t want to risk going out, risk exposure to COVID-19 either en route to the hospital or at the hospital. And because of SIP, I couldn’t go over to help her out, to hug her, to wipe her tears as she vented. 

I thought frequently of my younger sister who had retired early as soon as her last son was off to college in Washington state—but then suddenly had her 18-year-old son back home living with her, with a healthy 18-year-old male’s appetite, after his spring term was cut short. This sister had planned to move out of San Francisco, out of the flat she rents at exorbitant SF prices, perhaps out of state, perhaps out of the country, but definitely to a location cheaper than San Francisco. She has many health problems due to her work—high blood pressure, depression, bad knees that really should be operated on—and now she was again supporting herself and her son from a retirement fund she had begun to draw from about 10 years earlier than the customary age for retirement. 

My younger sisters could use that Economic Stimulus money so much more than I, a homeowner with a paid-off house (albeit a modest 3-bedroom, 2-bath rancher) and with a healthy retirement fund. And I still work. And I have sometimes been the person who helps out with their bills.

I made time that Wednesday when I would have been flying to Milwaukee to listen to and comfort a friend after I began receiving texts early in the day from this friend, an adjunct faculty member dismayed that the person had not even been a finalist in a search for a continuing lecturer line. The person needed to be heard; that person needed to be validated; that person needed time and care. I made time to respond also to the emails from students about our class and the emails from colleagues asking questions about communications from our university administrators that seemed to aim to reassure us but that seemed to imply there may be changes in pay due to loss of room and board fees for the spring quarter.

My emotional states shifted more often than usual, primarily according to the news of the day coming from the White House and from my school. When I heard proclamations of hope or promise about opening parts of the country soon, by Easter, I grew angered by his ignoring the medical personnel who advised against releasing people from shelter-in-place too soon. I grew angered that he seemed more concerned about helping out big businesses and having a booming economy to boost his campaign—that he actually wanted to do something that would spike the numbers succumbing to the virus. I grew angered by the disregard so many seem to have for science, for scientific facts which disagree with their wants and desires.  

Yet, the daily jogs balanced that anger somewhat: who could not become happy when looking at the Pacific Ocean in the beautiful sunshine in which the dog and I jogged and walked? Who could not feel blessed to have a secure and warm and quiet home environment in which to work, calmed even with still having grades to turn in and two courses' worth of creating online materials to do since years of experience have taught me that things always get done on time?  

The daily work on papers in my home office also balanced the anger, for this work matters: helping students become effective communicators, helping students make their ideas sing, helping students use rhetoric effectively and ethically. I worked on papers in my home office, a place that comforts academics, gives an academic that quiet space needed for thinking. Two walls are lined with books, one four shelves high with my literature books arranged according to century and then authors for the most part; the other wall has two shelves high beneath the window that has my work books related to writing studies. Its top shelf (somewhat) has miscellaneous items such as different hats and gloves. A third wall has my closet of work clothes; the fourth wall has two cliched paintings but also a lovely print of a young David Bowie. Three file cabinets are in the room, two four-drawer and one two-drawer next to my wooden desk with a rarely used printer atop it (since we have another one in the living room where my husband prints documents out such as receipts for items he orders on the internet or recipes he wishes to try). Sitting in front of the two-shelf bookshelf under the window are some boxes filled with paperwork, unpacked since being packed by my husband last spring while I was on the Fulbright abroad and my husband was overseeing a kitchen remodel. Here in either the desk chair or in an easy chair, I sat (during the week I otherwise would have been at Cs) with my laptop and books and writing implements of some sort, in the happy comfort of books and work, able to stop writing and ruminate more before I write, in control of environment and time of day to work, reflecting on the students I had taught for two quarters, seeing the progress they had all made, delighted by the progress in thinking and in writing. Constant, always, was a drink of some sort—hot tea, a diet Dr. Pepper. Constant, also, was the presence of good light, natural light whenever possible with the blinds drawn, although I used a lamp as well if I wished to Zoom with a student or colleague.  

The calmness from the quiet space of privilege and the familiar routine of work turned to irritation some evenings when we watched the news together. Different visuals about the spread from spring break in Florida to myriad locations in the US clearly suggested to logical, thinking adults that we ought not be cavalier about this virus. I had read a McSweeney's article, comprised of submissions by those over 60, that was making the rounds during the time I would have been at Cs, delivering my paper and learning from colleagues in the audience, their perspectives on the issue. The over-60s in the article explained how they felt they were seen and treated as disposable, as sacrifices so that the economy could get back on its feet. As one in that age range, I knew I had lost tens of thousands of dollars in my retirement fund since this calendar year began, but I would still put health before economy—my health, my younger sisters’ health, my nephews’ and nieces’ health, my colleagues’ health, my students’ health. Yet I did not feel fully as those over-60s did, for I could work from home, I was working from home and drawing my customary salary, and I was in control of my environment and my health for the most part.

The irritation returned some mornings when I was in the part of my environment I was not in control of: on the curb by the sand dunes a third of a mile from home, the line-up of cars that had not been there before the SIP order. Now individuals not from the neighborhood, perhaps not from this town, were using the stay-at-home order as if it were a vacation, a time to go to park next to cliffs and sand dunes and look at the ocean. Some seemed just to sit in their cars and look at their phones. Some ate meals and tossed their burger wrappers and drink containers onto the dunes. Others opened their vehicle doors to let their children and dogs play right outside their cars or SUVs.  Several big campers began parking there, some smelling of human waste by the weekend. Meanwhile joggers or walkers had to veer out into the street to get by and sometimes were blocking traffic coming down this two-lane street, potentially dangerous when a bus was coming downhill. We regulars knew we didn’t recognize these newbies, and we also knew we were wearing masks or had buffs to pull up even if they were just blithely opening their vehicle windows on our regular routes. The SIP order did permit going outside to exercise within 5 miles of one’s residence, but these individuals seemed disinterested in exercise.  

But on the jogs and afterwards, I reflected on the fact that I had the privilege of being able to do work from home and the privilege to live close to views of an ocean.  I had no idea what these individuals parked there were facing: might they personally be challenged in ways similar to the ways my younger sisters were being challenged? The privilege of higher education for me and my colleagues was underscored by my email correspondence with colleagues in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean during this time—and the distinctions between those two sites. We in the US are indeed privileged.

As the week progressed, I regained my calm, my balance, in part from maintaining some of my routines, in part from my work, in part from having to reflect each day for my Documentarian role. From work emails, I saw my university was intending to be kind, to ease student and faculty anxiety over going solely online by relaxing the Pass/Fail rules and permitting students to take even core requirement courses that way. Fulfilling the role of Documentarian for Cs 2020 highlighted for me that gratitude is always important and that I always work to deadline. As an academic for 45+ years, I generally have felt less accountable to people other than my students and have been driven by deadlines, which determine how hard I’ll work during earlier days leading up to the deadline. I do a lot of my pre-writing by thinking. As the week progressed, I also felt more gratitude about the privilege I enjoy due to my job, my socio-economic status, and my age—and also felt I should provide what aid or kindness I can to others. And I have done so. 

I remain generally a happy person; I worry about those without my privilege. But as the first-born in the US from parents who emigrated to San Francisco from two different countries (Haiti and Japan) with limited financial resources, I remain hopeful as they did when they crossed seas away from their families, with whom they could communicate solely by what we refer to snailmail now; I remain committed to kindness; I remain committed to remembering that we do not know what another is/has been going through. I remain grateful and believe in paying it forward whenever we can.