A few minutes of TikTok while she heated up two spinach egg bites from Costco’s frozen foods section (toasted, not microwaved), a cup of decaf coffee (caffeine makes her anxious), hand sanitizer, wipes, a face mask (to protect against the spread of Coronavirus, of course), and she was almost ready for her fifth day of delivering care packages to her 180 students.
She checked the clock.
But the clock on the microwave isn’t accurate—it records eight hours in six. So it probably wasn’t so late in the day, if she’d just check the time on the stove. And that’s what she did, only to realize it was the stove that doesn’t keep time, not the microwave.
“It is 11:30!” she said, scooping the egg bites out of the toaster and shoving me into the care packages to get me to move them to the car.
My wife, Lisa Picarella, is an eighth-grade English teacher. During these Covid times, it’s been tough getting her students to do their assignments. And it’s been frustrating—many don’t even try. She put a Donors Choose project online to raise money for school supplies and snacks that she could hand deliver to her kids during the lockdown, and a teacher’s note, free of charge, to motivate them to do their work.
Walmart granted her a $1,000 credit to get the job done. She ordered pens and pencils, erasers, folders, and some fun snacks (bribery?) to stuff in bags (on behalf of my our 16-year-old son and myself, you’re welcome for the help) that would be delivered to each of the, yes, 180 individual homes.
Four boxes, 36 bags and several pages of her students’ addresses and phone numbers were ready to go on Memorial Day. She’d already delivered 109 bags in the previous four days, tough by herself the first day (got to 14 houses), better the second day (27 houses), a little easier with our son and my father-in-law on the third day (34 bags), and the same on the fourth day (before that same team was going to quit at 30 bags, my father-in-law insisted on doing four more to match the number they did the previous day).
My wife and I were doing the deliveries on this fifth day. My goal: 35 bags, just to beat the previous days that I didn’t help. But we packed 44 bags just in case. Why 44? No idea. Just worked out that way.
“Can you read my letter and make sure it’s good?” Lisa asked me.
“But you already gave it out to 109 kids, and today’s 44 bags are already packed and in the car.”
The letter thanked each student for being her student, begged for them to stay safe by distancing, etc., it described the contents of the bags, and then it instructed them to get to work, and to email if they had questions, concerns or problems. Mrs. Picarella’s signature and a personalized emoji of their teacher in a cartoon car (representing the drive we were about to undertake) closed the letter.
Another teacher with a similar idea mailed her care packages.
“Delivering these in person will make a bigger impact,” I said.
What else is a supportive husband to say?
My wife teaches in a low-income area. Is this project worth it? Yes!
A few hours of project planning, maybe an hour of shopping on Walmart.com, a living room full of huge Walmart boxes with the contents we’d use to fill bags, many hours of bag packing, many more hours of organizing addresses into clumps and devising routes to streamline the process (with an added dash of heartache trying to figure out how to plug multiple entries into Google Maps using Microsoft Excel and a pinch of I Wanna Throw This Computer Through The Wall), and multiple six-hour days of delivering the bags—that was the cost for a few snacks, some school supplies and a letter from their teacher.
As we drove into the area, we flew by a long, long row of mobile homes, buses, trailers, vans and tents of homeless families. Families! And even though we turned the corner, we were still there days later, alongside a barbecue that was the cooking area for several families, watching those little kids riding bikes through their “neighborhood.”
Lisa’s seen this before. She’s not naïve to think it doesn’t exist. But that doesn’t mean she puts it out of her mind.
She types the first address into our GPS. We deliver the first bag. And we’re on our way.
The message on the dash read: Check hybrid system, Stop vehicle at a safe place.
In addition to that note, the 2013 Toyota Prius, a car that saved us money when we needed it, went limp.
The tow truck brought me and my car back to our local dealership, almost 40 minutes away, and my father-in-law came with his Acura SUV for my wife and her packages. He said he’d foot the tow truck cost if he didn’t have to go back out delivering bags.
Lisa picked me up at the dealership in her car, the bags now in her backseat and in the trunk. We had some catching up to do.
We stopped by Starbucks for coffee and a light lunch. I got the tomato and cheese panini with a tall caramel Frappuccino, and Lisa got egg bites and a tall very berry refresher.
“Egg bites again?”
We had to use the drive-thru since we couldn’t go into the store (this was to be expected in these Covid times). That meant I also couldn’t use the bathroom. Wasn’t able to use the bathroom at the Rite Aid next door either (bathrooms closed during Covid times). I definitely wasn’t going to wait in the line the Ralphs grocery store across the street (people in “desperate” need of TP, paper towels, wipes and meat, all rare finds in these Covid times).
There was no line at home.
By 2:30 p.m., Lisa was walking up to the second house on the list. The next address was already in the GPS.
By 4 p.m., that Mexican restaurant we passed six times looked real good. But we kept driving.
“Look, there’s a line for that strip club right there?” my wife said.
“How’s that work with social distancing?” I asked. “Sneeze guard around the stage?”
“Wanna stop?” my wife joked.
“No!” I said. “Look at the line.”
We passed by many parks and front yards with families and friends celebrating Memorial Day. Lisa pointed out that not one person at any of these social gatherings was wearing a Covid-era protective mask. At our next stop across the street from one of these parties, she turned around halfway to the door, came back to the car …
“Forgot my mask.”
Students’ families were more than appreciative. Many gave her thanks and blessings, bags of avocados and fruit from their trees. Messages blew up her phone.
“I got mines,” read one text from a student not doing his assignments. English class would do hims well.
At another house, a mother answered the door, called for her child to come out and say hello to her “beautiful teacher” delivering bags to her 180 students!
“Ms., I heard on social media that you were going house to house,” the student said. “I thought it was fake news. You want water?”
At a two-unit apartment building, which we’d find out actually consisted of 14 units, the tiny walkway through the center of the complex became the common barbecuing area. The place was so packed, some residents had overflowed onto balconies, with plates of barbecued chicken and corn on the cob, cans of soda, and large smiles that rounded their faces.
Lisa returned to the car empty-handed, but only by choice. Families offered her barbecue.
“You smell good,” I told her.
“Thanks,” she replied with a renewed hope for courtliness. (For the record, I do this kind of thing more than she thinks.)
“You wanna barbecue tonight when we get home?” I asked.
I couldn’t help it—she brought the smell of barbecue into the car with her, and that Mexican place we passed for the 16th time was no longer in my thoughts. It was barbecue I was after!
“Well, do you at least have another student in that complex? Let’s go back.”
By 6:30 p.m., we were only up to 25 houses. Unacceptable. Lisa was worried I was getting tired, hungry and overextended in this favor I was doing for her.
“You wanna call it a day?”
“At 25?” I shot back with a wallop. “Once we beat the 34 bags you guys did yesterday, then we can go.”
Her ultimate goal was to get her students to do more of the work (or just any of the work) she was assigning via Schoology, the virtual learning service the school uses. Checking her phone between houses, Lisa saw her assignment inbox filling up. She seemed to be accomplishing her goal.
“I have a present for you,” Lisa told one student over the phone before arriving at his house.
“OHHHHH?” he responded with some Christmas-like excitement.
“It’s to motivate you to do your work.”
“Ohhhhh,” he said, the enthusiasm squeaking out of his voice like a deflating balloon. “Are you gonna talk to my parents? Are you gonna ask questions? What are you gonna say?”
At the drop-off and during a brief dialogue with the student and his mom, Mrs. Picarella told the child that she expected to see an assignment by the time it took her to visit the next five houses. By the second house, her inbox indicated that he’d finally turned something in.
At another place, one student wouldn’t come out of her room.
“She was afraid to come out because she’s failing,” Lisa told me back at the car.
“So what happened when the parents made her come out?” I asked.
“They didn’t make her come out.”
“They didn’t make her come out? I think my dad would’ve put his foot in my rear if I even thought about not coming out.”
But 30 minutes later, the assignment inbox showed the student’s first work since this quarantine began.
No one was home at the next stop. Lisa sent a message through Schoology:
“Hello. I dropped a gift off at your gate. It’s a reminder to get back to work. Let me know if you got it and if you need help with your work.”
The return message from the student:
“i didnt get it 🙁 someone must have grabbed it before i did. sorry i haven’t been doing my work. im gonna start getting back to it.”
“never mind my neighbors had it.”
In the five days since beginning this project, Lisa’s classes had turned in triple the work they’d previously been turning in (or not turning in). One mother went to a social media group called Parents Supporting Teachers and posted pictures of Lisa’s letter and her gift, and this parent included a message of her own:
“I just want to share what an amazing teacher my daughter has. My eighth-grader got a visit from her English teacher on Sunday, and she brought her home a bag of treats. Ms. Picarella is an amazing teacher, I’ve had the opportunity to meet her and she is very sweet and loving.”
More messages like this came flooding in, as did more student work, and Lisa’s renewal of energy was an indication that she had more in the tank to keep going.
“Hi we’re just around the corner we’ll be out front in two minutes in a white Mazda thank you,” Lisa said in one sentence over the phone.
“I don’t think you took a breath,” I told her.
“You always tell me not to chitchat.”
“I’m not saying it’s bad. I’m saying it’s funny. I’m saying to keep doing it because we still have to beat your dad’s numbers.”
She made more of these calls.
“Is this the parent or legal guardian of (insert student name here)? Hi, I’m (insert student name here)’s English teacher. Do you live at (insert student’s address on file here)? I’m in front of your house. Are you and (insert student name here) able to come out and meet me?”
I suggested she put the meaning of her visit at the front of her conversation: Hi, I’m so-and-so’s teacher and I’m dropping off gifts for all my students. Do you live at this address, and are you able to come out and meet me?
“Do you think anyone thought I was rude?” she asked me.
“No, I think you might be sending people into a frenzied panic when some random person calls them and rattles off their home address, and then asks them to meet you out front because you’re already there. But that’s just me.”
“Don’t be so critical. I’m doing a nice thing.”
She switched up her script. And she continued making calls.
One of the phone numbers for a guardian on file went to a corrections facility for men. Other numbers were wrong. Many addresses in the school system had not been updated, and some people asked if we could wait 10 minutes for them to return home or if we could come back the following day, which was “more convenient” for them.
During visits to her students’ homes in her tougher classes, we got closer and closer to that row of campers, buses and tents we’d passed earlier in the day. Maybe these students had more on their minds than school work. To some, that’s exactly what was on their minds while they completed every bit of the work.
By the time my wife finally perfected a system to map out her route more efficiently, we were done. It took a total of seven days to complete.
“Thanks for doing this,” Lisa told me as we cleaned up all the empty Walmart boxes and bags that had filled our living room for days during the project. “I know this was an inconvenience and not what you wanted to do on your days off.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “In another year, I’ll have totally forgotten it.”
“Do you think it was worth it? Do you think I should’ve mailed the packages instead?”
“Look at all the messages you’re receiving,” I told her. “And all the work you’re getting. Do you think you would’ve gotten that if you just mailed these things?”
In the coming weeks and the final days of the school year, Lisa would find that her students made much more of an effort to complete their work than before her little project. There were still those students who just didn’t care. They knew their grades couldn’t drop, per the school district’s rules during these unusual Covid times with online instruction. They could do no work at all, not even respond to their teachers, and their grades would remain the same. However, they could raise their grades. Still, some were fine with their C’s and D’s and their subpar work.
“Would you be happy with a ‘C’ girlfriend or a ‘D’ job?” Mrs. Picarella would ask those who had no desire to do better. “Wouldn’t you rather dine in a restaurant that had an ‘A’ rating instead of one that had a ‘C’ rating?”
Well, she was disappointed to learn that some didn’t look at it that way, and some of their parents just didn’t look. My wife’s little project reached a few of those students, and it made some parents more interested as well.
As we finished cleaning up the last of the mess in our living room, Lisa looked over her list of students, every one of them checked off. She’d made contact with each family. This is why she became a teacher.
“I’m proud of you,” I told her.
She looked up from her list, and if she could say, “Go on,” she would have done so. But it’s not in her DNA to ask for compliments.
I am proud of her, and I gave her the kudos she deserved to feel good about what she’d accomplished. And then I said, “You should be proud of yourself … Just let’s agree that we’re never doing this again.”
E-mail Michael Picarella at email@example.com. To read more of his stories, pick up his book “Everything Ever After” at MichaelPicarella.com. Also check out his work on JackoLanternPress.com.