A Year in the Wilderness
Reflections on a year of teaching middle school English through a computer screen.
The last time I taught students in my classroom was one year ago today.
It was towards the end of second period at 10:40am when my phone vibrated with the news that our school district would be closing for two weeks.
Even then we didn’t quite understand how serious the epidemic would become — because how could we? — but it was still the first time it became personal for many of us.
My students reflected the truth of that realization. Because they were eleven years old, several of them couldn’t hide their glee at this unexpected early extended spring break, but others were rightly concerned. A constant had been removed from the daily equation of their lives and replaced with a variable unlike anything any of us had ever seen.
Before that text alert, I had been talking to them about what we’d be doing the next week; after the buzz I was frantically trying to explain how we’d stay in touch and keep learning during the hiatus. I finally gave up and made them promise to check their email for more details.
The uncertainty was the most difficult part. Within a few days that two-week closure was extended to three, and eventually we got the news that we would not be returning to campus that school year.
I made a video for my students the day that decision was announced. My goal was to assure them that everything would be okay, and that we would keep working together, but the tears I brushed away revealed the truth — I was devastated. I missed them, and the realization that we would never again share the same space as we read poetry or juggled adjectives or crafted essays was almost too much to think about.
As March became April and then May, I kept teaching while my students kept learning. Any teacher anywhere will tell you stories of how we managed — buying new laptops, learning new software, and making countless phone calls to parents who were just as confused as their children. We discovered that a five dollar piece of shower board from Home Depot worked just as well as a fifty-dollar white board from Staples. We stacked books and rubber banded cell phones to rulers to create document cameras that would’ve made MacGyver proud. We taught in pajama pants because we were too exhausted to worry about how we looked below the camera.
More important than any of that, however, was what was happening on the other side of my screen. Students who had thrived from September through March were suddenly struggling. Faces that had once been eager and excited as they bounded into my classroom were now somber and reserved as their video boxes opened on my computer.
And it wasn’t long before most of those video boxes went dark.
Once students realized that they could choose to keep their cameras off, most of them did, and when those visual links were severed, everything became much more difficult. Visual triage was impossible. No longer could I tell at a glance which students were paying attention, which students understood the lesson, or which students needed a kind word because they were having a bad day. Most teachers will tell you that connections come before curriculum. Without these daily connections — quick conversations about the Laker game, a comment about a new haircut, a round of applause for braces installed or removed — the curriculum became even more challenging.
Personally, the most difficult days of the spring surrounded the killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed. The images were difficult for me to process, and because the story was everywhere, I had to address it with my students. My teaching couldn’t end with subjects and predicates. George Floyd demanded more than a grammar lesson.
I recorded a six-minute video to reassure them, but also to challenge them. For many, those days and weeks were the first time they looked to the other side of childhood and began to imagine themselves as adults. During a book discussion with a handful of students during that time, one young girl looked at us through her camera as she sat alone on her kitchen floor and tearfully asked me something I’ll never forget.
“What can I do? What can I do to make this better?”
My answer to her was simple but complicated. I explained the need for everyone to open our eyes — not just to the world, but to those around us. I told her that I wanted my students to remember not just the content of my character but also the color my skin. The hard truth was that all that separated me from George Floyd was circumstance and geography.
None of it had anything to do with distance learning or content standards, but it was some of the most important teaching I’ve ever done.
As the summer months wore on and thoughts naturally turned back to school, there was a palpable change in our community. Teachers had been lauded as heroes in the spring as parents gained an appreciation not only for what we had done in April, May, and June, but for what we had always done. My wife is also a teacher, and we woke one morning to beautiful chalk art on the sidewalk in front of our house, “Amazing Teachers Live Here.”
But that goodwill ran thin once it seemed that the virus might still be too prevalent to allow a standard reopening of schools. Now people were wondering why teachers weren’t going back to work, as if we had been lounging on the beach reading romance novels. A carefully stenciled cardboard sign appeared in my neighborhood: “TEACHERS BACK TO WORK.” It was disappointing.
There were personal losses. Our older daughter had started her first college lacrosse game the Saturday before classrooms closed, and a week later her season was cancelled and we were helping her move out of her dorm room.
Our son was a senior in high school, which meant he lost more than any of us, a host of senior events he had been looking forward to for years — prom, class picnic, and grad night among others. Instead of walking across a stage to receive his diploma, he sat in the passenger seat of a car during his drive-thru graduation. My wife and I wept, but the tears were different than the ones we had shed two years before at his sister’s graduation.
While our younger daughter has thrived academically, we worry about the emotional weight she’s borne during this pandemic, sequestered from her friends and often even from us as she spends hour upon hour alone in her room.
None of what I’m describing here begins to compare to the pain connected with the half million deaths during this pandemic, but we’ve all suffered to some degree. We’ve all lost something.
When the world returns to normal and I once again have thirty-five students sitting in front of me in thirty-five desks, there will still be bright moments I’ll remember from this year of wandering in the wilderness.
In May my seventh period class won an attendance incentive contest and got to choose what color I’d dye my hair. (They chose pink.) The book club I started two months before we closed campus actually grew during the pandemic as students latched on to a rare opportunity to socialize with their peers while reading good books. Last month I rented the top half of a tuxedo and hosted a Zoom Awards Night to celebrate our first semester.
That awards night was one my happiest teaching memories of the past year, but when my top overall student met me on campus to pick up the certificate and plastic Oscar she had won, I didn’t recognize her because it was our first time meeting. Another reminder of what we’ve lost.
Even so, when I look back at this year from the presumed comfort of the future, I’ll remember the resilience shown by those around me. Students who learned from the kitchen table with two or three siblings in the room with them; teachers who kept teaching as the rules and the tools changed from one week to the next; a principal who regularly mailed hand-written notes of encouragement to her teachers.
I’ll remember a core group of my colleagues who formed a book club to read four different titles about social justice, an act of ally-ship that continues to mean more to me than I can describe.
Finally, I’ll remember the February afternoon I spent shivering underneath three comforters as my body begrudgingly accepted my second Covid vaccination. It was the moment I knew we were starting on the road back out of the wilderness.