Leftovers: Lone Star state of distress

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As the old campfire song goes, “Second verse same as the first.” In other words people, here we go again. 

The map of the United States, as posted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control this week, is lit up in fire engine red with a few stripes and dots of grey. The red identifies the counties with elevated new COVID-19 case rates or higher positivity tests. The grey shouts out those counties still reporting acceptable levels of both.

For now. 

There have been too many reports and startling photos of anti-vaxxers in ICUs all over the world saying they wish they had gotten the vaccine instead of the ventilator. And, parents in Florida are furious with their governor, Ron DeSantis, over his stance on making masks “a personal choice.” Not surprisingly, things aren’t any better in the other good ol’ bad boy state of Texas. 

My brother, Michael Williams, 59, works in finance for the statewide Texas Juvenile Judicial Department. He’s a senior-level guy who plays the shell game with line items to find resources to get incarcerated kids stuff like new soccer equipment and better toiletries.

“I work a lot with building facilities and other mundane must-haves,” Michael said. “But I also look for ways to get the kids extras. We now have a hairstylist, and they get $150 vouchers to a local department store to buy clothing, and we’re always looking for ways to feed them fresh fruit and vegetables.”

He went on to share that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott says masks are recommended but not required and are a personal and parental choice.

“For me, it’s different though,” Michael said. “We are required to wear masks because we’re around kids. I only wish it were the same for Renee.” 

Renee and Michael Williams relax during an unmasked moment at home in Texas.

Renee, 54, is my sister-in-law who has been a special education teacher for the Round Rock Independent School District for 30 years. Round Rock is a close suburb of Austin and home to Dell Technologies. Not only the state capitol, but Austin can also boast the Tito’s Vodka distillery, the South by Southwest music festival, and many great restaurants. However, as woke as the area is, local school districts are keeping in line with Abbott’s wishy-washiness and not requiring teachers to wear masks. 

“Most of Texas is at level 5,” my brother said. ”That’s the highest state of COVID-19 emergency, and Renee feels she’s at risk. Even though there are empty classrooms and more than enough special ed students in need, her principal crammed her into one classroom with two other teachers. Apparently, they think she can guide and mentor one of the new teachers.” 

When asked if she is receiving compensation for this supervisory role, my brother snort-laughed, as only he can do. 

“Seriously,” he continued. “They lost 29 teachers last year out of around 80 in her school alone. Many retired early, took new jobs, anything to get away from the stress of the pandemic, which is magnified in the schools, and just feeling like their safety doesn’t matter. When Renee walked out this morning for her first day of the school year, she said, ‘Back to Hell.’ It’s terrible.” 

Being a finance weenie through and through, my brother is a nervous wreck about the upcoming year when both his daughters are in college. My niece Ilana will be a sophomore in Maryland and her sister Ariel a freshman in Indiana. Hellbent on avoiding student loans, Michael and Renee have long adhered to a solid budget plan including exact dates of when they can retire. 

With all of this on the table, I’m proud to report my brother is detouring to an uncharted fork in the road. He has both encouraged and supported Renee in her wishes to retire and look for something that will make her feel safe, happier, and appreciated.

“It isn’t really retirement, although we are looking at the best time for her to do it,” Michael said. “It won’t be years, it’ll be months. And, I’m really good with it. We’ll be fine. Her health is more important than a financial plan.” 

My brother knows he’s in the “privileged old white guy” category for even having life options. Intensely grateful, he’s also humble and sweet. But that doesn’t keep him from harboring anger and frustration about COVID naysayers. 

“I went for routine blood work last week and the phlebotomist at the medical center really pissed me off,” Michael said. “I asked if he’d been vaccinated and he said no. ‘It’s a government hoax. Why should I get vaccinated if everyone else is?’ Can you believe it? I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.” 

I’m sure Renee feels the same way about her unmasked, crowded classroom. Kudos to Michael and let’s hope Renee’s second verse is from a happier song altogether.

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected]