By Gretchen Wehmhoff

I’m lucky. It may not seem like it sometimes, but for some reason, for every unlucky moment, I manage to salvage a bit of luck – if you squint. You know the story – two children are given shovels and placed in a room with two stinky piles of manure to clean up. When someone comes to check on them, one child is sitting on the floor, frustrated and angry about the situation, their pile untouched. The other child, who has moved half of the pile, is still digging, looking up momentarily with a grin to say, “There has to be a pony in here somewhere.”

That’s me. Covered in stink and shrugging off impossible – often to the chagrin of my siblings who love me. 

A week before Melinda and I left Chugiak, Larry Persily, the former owner, met with us one last time. We talked about the next issue’s story line-up. The Diamond Princess was in a pickle. A new virus had caught the world’s attention and was spreading rapidly through the ship, docked in Japan. As we started talking story ideas, I remember asking if that cruise ship incident would impact Skagway.

Well, duh. Here we are – not lucky.

Two weeks after arriving in Skagway, businesses were shuttering and spring break was extended. In another week, I had planned to return home to finish the semseter teaching at the University of Alaska Anchorage and the Anchorage School District before returning to Skagway.  Suddenly, I had to hurry back to Chugiak early due to border closings with little concrete information as to who would be allowed through.  Ironically, days later, all instruction for ASD and UAA went online. 

I’ve always dreamed about working from home. A casual stroll by the coffee pot with the only traffic to my office being our 12-year-old dog, Athena, trying to squeeze through the door with me. It all sounded romantic. My desk would be organized, I’d have a comfy chair for reading.  Blissful. Relaxing. My time, my schedule.

Now working  at home is my reality and the lucky part is a bit elusive. I lay out the paper, build ads and manage our bookkeeping from my home office. Of course, I am also Zooming with my UAA and ASD classes and trying to keep my 100 students on track. It took a while to find the “Lucky me! I get to work at home” attitude. There is no comfy chair and cleaning up my office didn’t happen. Clutter is everywhere: personal bills and finances, medical paperwork for my family and mother-in-law and 17,000 emails with more piling up by the hour.

Last issue, I was still working out kinks with the Skagway News website. I didn’t have contact information for subscribers and advertisers at my fingertips and my days became very long.  I’m trying not to make my husband feel like a newspaper widower, but I think it’s happening.

Did I mention I’m a workaholic? I sit down in front of my computer early in the morning and stay there until after bedtime.  My derriere hurts and for the first time in my life I don’t like to sit. I think about going outside for a walk but keep saying, “just one more paper to grade, one more ad to change or one more class to Zoom.” Days start to blend together, while my motivation and enthusiasm wanes. 

Where I used to drive to my UAA classes, teach, then grade papers, I now teach from my desktop.  Instead of winding down on my drive home, I close class on the screen and open my email to an important task for the paper.  

As for my high school classes, I normally drove to school, spent my day (including lunch) with students, then graded papers after everyone went home. The quiet of the classroom kept me focused. Everything was in place. Every job had its space. 

Now, with everything happening on my home computer, my worlds are colliding. Emails fly from everywhere, kids don’t show up for the online class and I have to track them down. I am no longer walking as much so my body is starting to stiffen. My only break is to crawl to the coffee pot, stepping over my sleeping dog who has taken up napping outside my office – her only way to get my attention.

 In a reflection assignment, my UAA students shared how the isolation has impacted their interpersonal life. While most discussed improved family communication and the frustrations of giving up workout schedules and time with friends, almost all of them mentioned that motivation was the biggest issue. They explained that the reasons they had decided to attend college included doing something for themselves, working with classmates, learning something new and enjoying time out of the home. Some mentioned they have not been able to organize a place to do school work in a home busy with family. Others have to share computers and a few, well, they just don’t have internet at their off-the-grid home. However, in all of this, I may have found my “lucky.” 

During one of my junior English classes on Zoom, I noticed a small cat walking behind a student in his room. I asked him about it. He quickly grabbed the kitty and introduced us. Soon all of the kids left their chairs to find their pets. We met dogs, cats, a bird and a snake. The kids were excited just to have a moment of sharing. The class went overtime as we visited. This is new. Usually I see students at school, not in their personal world. It changed my attitude.

Now I might ask a student about a picture on their wall or an instrument in the room.  I get to wave at parents. Cats and dogs make regular appearances, as do little brothers and sisters.  We start class with small talk, move into the lesson and finish with a “plan” to get through the novel or the next speech.  I get to see their space, their rooms, their pets and their parents. I get to know them on the best level.

I am so lucky. 

I am so truly lucky.