With a newborn, 5-year old and new diploma, I am juggling it all amid the pandemic. Because is there even a choice?

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(Courtesy photo)

Ra'naa Billingsley's 5-year-old son and infant who was born March 1. (Courtesy photo)

It’s Feb. 28, the Friday before my due date and the last day with the students I have been learning along as a student-teacher. I have grown so attached to the students since I started two and a half months earlier.

Even though it has been a process acclimating and learning the gears and grooves of everyday teaching at a charter school, I am thoroughly enjoying the uphill process. My timing is improving, lessons becoming smooth like jazz, and I even have some inside jokes with the students. It is bittersweet leaving this crew, but now I have to prepare to welcome my baby boy. The time arrived so fast.

I give birth to my sweet baby boy on March 1, 2020, at 7:30 p.m. Even though I have been in the hospital since 7 a.m., when the time comes to push, I break into tears.

“What’s wrong?” everyone frantically asks me, while simultaneously reassuring me that everything is going to be OK.

“I’m nervous!” The admission makes me feel juvenile. If a woman is ever nervous about anything, the response is, “But you’ve already had a baby, you can’t be nervous!” For me, though, the unknown is the most nerve-wracking. What if I can’t do this? Then comes the chuckle, because, of course, it has to be done.

A few days later, I send pictures of my newborn son to the teacher I was shadowing, so she can share with the students. I cannot wait to return to teaching. I only plan to be out of school for two weeks following his birth, and I ask that she pass along the message that I will see them soon.

On March 12, my phone alerts me to a new message.

Ding! 

“Hey! I hope you are doing well. We are currently working through emergency procedures in case of a closing due to the virus. Most instruction would be moved online. It is a high possibility that we will be closing for some period of time. I’ll keep you updated.”

I respond while my mind is moving at the speed of light with all of the different possibilities and outcomes of the most important time in my educational journey thus far. Everything is escalating so fast.

Ding! 

“You may notice a small star stamp on your child’s hand. We are working on proper hygiene and washing our hands.” This one is from my oldest son’s kindergarten teacher.

Ding! 

As more messages flood in, I begin to think through the logistics of navigating a pandemic with two young children. “Everything is going to be fine,” I tell myself. My thoughts race, though. If he is not able to go to school, then how will I be able to go to student-teaching and be able to graduate… I continue to talk myself down. No panicking. Everything will be fine, and I will graduate. I reassure myself.

The next day, I receive word that we will not return to the school I had been teaching at until after spring break, in accordance with a state mandate. My heart plummets. I guess things can change this fast. I respond with fumbled words, offering any help that I can provide. I am concerned about graduation immediately. What does this mean? I automatically create a plan. If we can return by April 14, then I will still be able to get my appropriate hours in to graduate. At least I will be able to have more time at home with the baby…

Ding! 

My son’s school: “SCHOOL CLOSED. EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY.”

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Ra'naa Billingsley's older son shows a book to his new little brother. (Courtesy photo)

I thought we weren’t panicking? I thought we were preparing. Only two weeks into my maternity leave, I now have no choice but to have my 5-year-old son full-time as well. How am I going to juggle it all? He is so busy. I can’t prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner. The baby eats every 40 minutes. I don’t want him to watch television all day. I am panicking. Only yesterday, there was still hope. How can things move so fast?

Over the next month, I am constantly re-calculating the latest that I can return to student-teaching in order to fulfill my hours and still graduate. I spend an entire day browsing the internet for the perfect graduation outfit. With each new look, I visualize twirling around the PPG Paints Arena as my name is announced and I can glide across the stage. I get constant emails from Duquesne University, none with anything reassuring. What will happen with the required hours? What will happen with the required weeks? Will there be a graduation? Will I be able to graduate?

No one has answers for me.

Will everything be put off until the fall? I’ll be stuck struggling on welfare still, rushing the boys to daycare and school, crawling to class. I try to reassure myself that everything will be OK. It can’t be that bad.

One day, a student commented on the online classroom forum that she can’t wait to return to school on April 15, and my immediate thought is, “Oh, honey, we aren’t going back to school.” In that moment, my optimism crashes into my realism as the full situation settles in. I will not get to see those students that I built a connection with again, or at least not this school year. Luckily, I still get to teach a writing class online, but it is not required. So, attendance and participation constantly waiver.

My oldest son won’t get a chance to complete kindergarten in the brick-and-mortar building. His energy is unending, and his behavior is frustrating. I am unable to wrestle and run like he would like me to because I am constantly bouncing a crying, wiggling infant in my arms. Each day is overwhelming.

My quarantine life is like a trolley ride, and I don’t know where I am going and I can’t get off. It seems like we are going forward even though we are still encompassed in darkness. All of a sudden, we’re speeding backward and I’m tugging on the yellow cord, requesting to stop.

“Please stop, please stop, please stop!” I beg the conductor.

“Please don’t jump, your brother is trying to sleep! Please don’t yell, your brother is trying to sleep! Please pay attention in class!”

(Courtesy photo)

Ra'naa Billingsley. (Courtesy photo)

“Go back to your virtual class. Please, just give me a second. Let me just finish this paragraph.”

The repetition of my requests echo throughout the days. I am alone on this trolley. My only company is a 5-year-old and an infant. There is some reality TV blaring in the background, and I’m exhausted. We are still going fast. The isolation is starting to get to me: I don’t have many friends. I only use my voice for short FaceTime conversations with my sons’ father, who hasn’t been able to see his 6-week-old in a month because of this.

What about graduation? How am I supposed to get to graduation if I’m not allowed to leave this train? When I was crying my eyes out from pulling all-nighters, I told myself it was all for graduation. When my car broke down and I had to walk what seemed like miles to the bus stop, it was all for graduation. The past five years of my life, running and rushing. Coordinating with daycares and my mom for child care for late classes. Crying because I can’t find parking Downtown. Doing whatever was required, because nothing would get in the way of graduation.

On April 17, I receive the news I have been waiting for, what all of my anxiety has been hinging on.

“Congratulations! Your dean has approved your application for….

“Mom, can I…”

“To celebrate our May graduates, a virtual commencement…”

“Mom!”

My mind spins as the final confirmation has been sent and I can’t process the words because they’re whirling around with a crying baby and my kindergartener begging for a snack. The monotony is wearing on me, but I am holding out hope. I don’t know if I will be able to even teach in the fall because I don’t know if schools will be open yet.

I am ecstatic for the time when everything returns to normal and my boys will be able to sit in a public park and play. I am looking forward to chuckling over the latest in the teachers’ lounge over coffee. I constantly remind myself that this is temporary. That even though the most important transitional time in my life is being infringed upon by this virus, I am still transitioning. I am still obtaining my degree and applying for jobs. The future is bright and inevitable. The thought, the same one that infringed on my mind during labor, comes again. “What if I can’t do this?” And then comes the chuckle because, of course, it has to be done.

Ra'naa Billingsley can be reached at billingsleyranaa@gmail.com.

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