I’m a High-Risk Disabled Professor. Am I Teaching In Person?

In a few hours, I will be starting my first class for the spring semester. I still do not know if I’m teaching in person or moving the class online. Governor DeSantis says I’m teaching in person. The university, where I work, says I’m teaching in person.

“I have tenure. Why the hell am I teaching in person?” I ask my partner.

“I don’t know,” he says.

“Do you think I’m going to die?” I ask.

“Good news: we’re all going to die,” he says, and this makes me laugh in a macabre way. We’re both poets. He teaches at Harvard and returns to his home in a matter of weeks.

I go into my home office to listen to music. The playlist I want is bizarre, but at least I’m clear on what I want to listen to: Aphex Twin’s “Alberto Basalm,” Tristen’s “Baby Drugs,” Schubert’s “Trio No. 2” and Hole’s “Malibu.”

I apply makeup, and then I think: What would Courtney Love make? Courtney Love has a disability. What if Courtney Love was a poet professor who wanted to teach in person?

She’d cancel, I decide. She would definitely cancel.

I changed my mind. No, she would mask up, walk in the classroom and say, “Well, here we are.”


Fall 2021 was not a time when I deliberated as much about teaching in-person. It was just what I did.

I had applied three times for the job of a Florida State University (FSU), creative writing professor. Twice I had been turned down. I almost declined to apply when the job advertisement came up again.

“Why give them the chance to reject me again?” I asked my partner.

“The search committee changes,” he said.

So I applied again. I was offered the job.

I was delighted. I was thrilled to return to my alma mater and teach. I was an undergraduate and had never appreciated the FSU education or the 14 practicing writers on the faculty. I was an in-state student, and could not afford to go to out-of-state schools.


On the road to teach in person, I call my colleague, the novelist Mark Winegardner, and say, “Mark. What are we doing? Talk to me like I’m your high-risk disabled friend. And I’m about to teach in person.”
“You’re vaxxed, right?” Mark says.

“I’m vaxxed and boosted and I’d take a fourth hit if they’d give it to me,” I say.

“I think you’ll be fine. But don’t take my word for it. Do what you think is right,” he says.

“I just passed a COVID testing site. The line of cars is out of this world,” I say.


I felt a sense camaraderie in the Fall about teaching in person.

I’m tenured, I thought. What can I do with my tenure, I thought? Okay, I’m not going to sit at home and luxuriate. I’m not going to teach online because I have job security. Not while adjuncts, graduate students, and staff need to be present on the job.

I’m a disability rights activist, so I know how much it means when allies show up. And I know how much it hurts when allies don’t show up.

But I’m no martyr, no moral authority. I can sailor-talk like a sailor. I have been a coward on more occasions than I’ve been a hero.

This was an adventure in the Fall. It was reckless to venture into the unknown.


But here we are. Omicron is on the rise. What are the risks?


It may help if you know that Agent Orange caused my disability. My dad was drafted into Vietnam in the 70s (“what a stupid war,” he has said), and he served as a pharmacist in Long Bình. He sat on a barrow and dispensed pills.

The barrel he sat in? It contained Agent Orange. But then again, so did all the fields around him. Did the barrel or fields cause my disability? Is it important?

Reformed hippies my parents wanted me to have all the information. Even though I was just a child, I learned about the possibility of my own death. Each surgery came with a new talk about “the risks.”

“Do you understand the risks?” my parents would say.


What is the best way to teach? What are the potential risks? Not only for me, but also for my students. Where is the revolt of professors? Where is the Change.org petition?

Percy Shelley, of all people, keeps popping into my mind: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

If that’s true, then I am the legislator. I am the keeper and maintainer of attendance.

I could turn the car around. I could send one email: “We’re going online.” I could disobey my superiors and the State. But I don’t. I go in there, double-masked, and say to my students, “Welcome to class.”


To my critics, who wonder, “Why don’t you just get an accommodation?”

Have you ever applied? Would you risk additional exposure to visit your doctor’s office for his or her signature on the paperwork? You could be subject to re-traumatization if your university requests your entire medical history since 1981. Even if your university declines your request, would you be okay with this? Or would you rather not have asked?

If you don’t ask, you will never be denied.

If you’re never denied, there’s no record.

Online classes are available if there is no record. Wait to be reprimanded. Reply, “I didn’t know what to do. I was afraid of dying.”


Although I may feel isolated, I am not the only one. Mia Mingus has just published “You Are Not Entitled to Our Deaths”Visit her blog. One part of the essay reads, “We know the state has failed us. We are currently witnessing the pandemic state-sanctioned violence of murder, eugenics, abuse and bone-chilling neglect in the face of mass suffering, illness and death.”

I don’t have any answers.

I’m walking to class again in 20 minutes. Dramatic Technique.

Today we will talk about Sarah Kane’s play Crave. Kane was a queer and disabled playwright. Here is one of the lines from her play that I’d really like to believe: “You’re never as powerful as when you know you’re powerless.” Another line? “I have a bad bad feeling about this bad bad feeling.”