The seeds of this email were planted on April 5th, 2020: “I, Annie Tan, am resigning from the DOE effective September 1st, 2022.”
April 5th, 2020 was when Kimarlee Nguyen died of COVID. Kimarlee’s death shook me to my core. Kimarlee was 33, the same age I am now, and was an Asian American writer aspiring to write about her family’s experiences, just as I do. And, like me, Kimarlee was a New York City Public Schools teacher. Kimarlee was among 87 educators in the NYC public schools system who died from COVID, that we know of. Although I did not know Kimarlee, I have many, many friends who did, including fellow writers who took classes with her and fellow teachers who taught with her.
I should have gotten the chance to know Kimarlee. And I very much could have shared Kimarlee’s fate. Kimarlee’s death shook me, and I realized a number of things.
One, I would continue doing everything in my power to keep people safe from COVID and be able to live their lives. When it came time to return in-person to schools, educators, parents, students, and community members organized, rallied and protested for safe school conditions. I spoke with basically every New York City publication, then some mainstream and national ones, and was interviewed constantly to get the word out on COVID school safety. I and the MORE-UFT Caucus surveyed over a thousand NYC educators and publicized the findings. I know, by amplifying information throughout the pandemic, I helped people make schools safer.
Secondly, I was reminded life is short, and I must, like Kimarlee, make moves and write. I had written some very important pieces in my life, but Kimarlee was prolific, writing bravely, vulnerably. Kimarlee was where I aspired to be: writing regularly while also maintaining her full-time job teaching. She was working on her first book, which would never come. That propelled me to get serious and write my book.
And I wrote. I signed for virtual writing classes. After I had finished ten-hour, sometimes 12-hour days, somehow I wrote. I wrote so much about my family and our legacy, buoyed by the love and support from my storytelling over the years. By December 2021 I was about two-thirds done with my memoir and over 100,000 words in. By that time we were all back in school in person, and I wrote while continuing to advocate and teach in a windowless classroom Fall 2021.
Then, Omicron. I think at one point 30 or so staff at my school were out sick. We could have and should have gone remote after the Winter Break. Instead, we returned to classes in person in January. Again we were forced to rally, protest, and speak to show what was happening. At least 100,000 students were confirmed to have tested positive for COVID in January alone. More than half of my class was out sick then.
This, this was what finally broke me. I stopped writing. Despair hit.
For over a decade I’ve fought with my unions and with colleagues for better working conditions and better learning conditions. I’ve fought against budget cuts, time and time again. I’ve gone back to not just finish my masters in special education but to get an English as a New Language certification, because like Kimarlee, like myself, most of my Little Village, Chicago, and then Sunset Park, Brooklyn students were first-generation Americans, immigrants or kids of immigrants. I’ve comforted students through crises. My love for the kids and my want to improve my teaching craft to better kids’ lives kept me in the classroom.
But there’s so much now taking away from us being able to do our jobs, and from being healthy and sustainable. In eleven years in the classroom, I’ve never been more irritable, impatient, fearful, sad, and frustrated than this school year (and I never thought any year would be worse than my first year teaching!).
I’m not okay. Most K-12 educators right now are not okay.
Our kids are not okay either. They’ve needed socio-emotional time with our community. They’ve needed arts and music programs, which are currently being cut. They need time to play at recess, not just for 15 minutes, and have physical education multiple times a week. I’m not here to give my students standardized tests in windowless classrooms and at least nine times a year to feed a flawed learning loss narrative. It’s been heartbreaking to hear our kids ask for more, me having to say we don’t have that, then made to feel that I wasn’t doing enough.
But it’s not our fault. We don’t have the counselors and social workers or staff or time or resources to get the kids what they deserve. And that makes me the saddest, that our leaders won’t do these things and proactively help kids. We just let them get sick. We talk down to them like their experience doesn’t matter. We don’t protect them from mass shootings.
Everyone in our society is trying to move on, but far too many are trying to pretend nothing happened. I am not ready to move forward, and certainly not like this. And if this system won’t allow us time to rest and heal, I’m going to have to take it for myself.
My principal, assistant principals, students, and staff were sad to see me go but understood fully why I was leaving. Many teachers who I’ve told this news to have told me they can’t afford to leave but would if they could right now. I can afford time off precisely because I have no debt, no kids, have savings from working over a decade, and I have access to my husband’s health insurance (oh yeah, I got married in March, a week after NYC mask mandates lifted).
I am not sure yet if I will return to teaching. (For those wanting to know logistics, I can rescind my NYC schools resignation within five years and hold onto my sick days, salary steps, and tenure.) It is so hard being this heartbroken over the only career I have ever considered. Maybe with some time, I will have recovered enough to come back.
What I do know is that I’m excited for a break, to focus on writing and finishing this memoir, and to take on part-time jobs. (I’ll be working at Yu & Me Books in Chinatown, Manhattan August 2nd and 9th, come say hi!) I just created a speaking engagements page on my website and am open to providing keynote speeches and presentations. I would love to connect with other writers also working on books, especially memoirs. I would also love to know what other roles that you think I might be amazing at: I’ve never really considered a career outside of teaching, so if people have ideas it would be much appreciated!
Kimarlee Nguyen, you are not a martyr, and we will not treat you as so. Just as my cousin Vincent Chin’s life has shifted my perspective on this life, you have encouraged me to chase after my dreams. Sadly, life is too short to do otherwise. May you, Kimarlee, and the million-plus Americans who’ve died of COVID rest in power. May your memory be a blessing. And remind us all too.