After the last piece I shared, so many people offered me words of care and support and gratitude. I’m truly grateful to be on the receiving end of such positive relationships. For those of you interested, I thought I’d offer up another glimpse into what a day looks like for a teacher. This, too, is just a glimpse. In a piece about the importance of diversity in text selection, Rudine Sims Bishop wrote that a text can be a window, a door, or a mirror, and I humbly offer to you a window into my classroom--and for some of you, a mirror. Welcome back to English 12.
Once upon a time, months and months ago, back in the year 2019, we used to have to keep our doors closed and locked at all times just in case someone wanders the halls with a gun, which, unfortunately, used to happen somewhat regularly in the United States. As a result, every few months, schools are required to perform “lockdown” drills. Although kids are no longer allowed to leave their desks, we still need to do these drills. We knew in advance that the drill would be happening early in the period. After I logged into the Zoom and connected my laptop to the projector and tried to get students talking about the question of the day, we had an announcement that it was time to start the drill. We blocked the windows and turned off the lights and became silent. The drill lasted longer than I thought it would. I texted the situation to the kids at home, since I wasn’t supposed to talk, and told them to just keep writing.
As a side note, I am curious why students who originally elected to attend school are now logging in remotely. Is it because it’s easier to stay home? Because 7:20 is a ridiculous time to start school and they slept in? Because they aren’t feeling well and don’t want to risk exposing others? Because of some other reason? It’s odd how hard certain members of the community are campaigning for in-person school while the students are simultaneously choosing not to come to school. The group in my room yesterday, however, was full strength, so I had almost half of the students in person.
I’m currently teaching my seniors about narrative voice, a nebulous and complicated topic. Even for a total nerd with a couple of degrees in English, it’s so often one of those “I know it when I see it” skills. As part of the mini-unit on syntax, we’re working on sentence structure. Yesterday’s focus was on combining sentences, and to break things up, I showed “Conjunction Junction.” After the video finished, and the kids were smiling (Ok, I can’t see their mouths, and I can't see the kids not in the room at all, so I pretended they were all smiling,) I started to explain how I wanted them to continue to learn about and practice using conjunctions. I was mid-demonstration when suddenly the projector disconnected and my computer screen started flashing black, blue, white and what I think was a frame of “Conjunction Junction.” I tried to click on something, anything. I tried to use “escape”--a word that always amuses me when I’m trying to use it in such technology-hostage situations--and asked my in-person kids if they had any other ideas. I showed them the screen and they all gasped and were sufficiently impressed with the situation. This particular group, as you will see, is a very satisfying audience. Meanwhile, though, I had no idea if I was still connected to the Zoom. I had been narrating the situation into my computer, a habit that’s starting to feel a little less awkward. (If I’m ever talking to you and start narrating my every moment--right now I’m stirring this pot of spaghetti sauce and then I’ll take a quick sip of water before putting the potatoes in the oven--you know why.) However, since I could not see them and they were either not saying anything or I could not hear them, I had no idea if they could hear me. Just in case, I shouted into my laptop, “I think I’m going to have to shut down my computer, but since I am the owner of the Zoom room, I think you’re all going to be kicked out! Give me two minutes and then try to rejoin! Hang on!” I hit the power button and my screen went dark. The students in the room were silent behind their masks. We stared at each other for a beat.
There were still fifteen minutes left of class at this point, and my lesson was already behind schedule, and since the next day was going to be asynchronous due to yet another standardized test, I needed to quickly adjust what was going to get done that hour and what would be shifted to the next day and what would get moved to next week. I did some mental replanning and tried to turn my computer back on. The power button lit up and then went dark.
I should maybe mention at this point that my schedule on “odd” days involves five hours in a row, but my computer battery only lasts about two and a half. It was possibly nearing the end of its charge although I still had more than half of the day to go. I have figured out that, lacking the technology that would make concurrent teaching work, I can almost jury-rig together a functional classroom if I just walk around with my laptop open and in front of me. I can sometimes move near someone who is going to speak, which is probably a nice change of pace for the students from me just repeating what everyone says for those at home, but I cannot do this if I am plugged into the wall with a charger. This, however, was an emergency. I went to get out my charger and...it wasn’t in my bag. I looked at my students, still wide-eyed and focused on me. I looked at the clock--only ten minutes left. I thought about the kids at home, some of whom were probably off microwaving pizza and some of whom were probably obediently trying to log back in. “This isn’t going to happen, is it?” I asked the kids in the room. They all shook their heads no. I had a choice. I couldn’t do anything about the kids at home. I could try to keep teaching the kids in the room about conjunctions, or I could teach them something potentially more valuable. I shut my laptop and said, “I can make and email you a video of what I was going to show you just now and have you do today’s assignment tomorrow. Do you want to just have a conversation?” They all exhaled, slammed their chromebooks and nodded. If I could have seen the bottom half of their faces, I think they would have been smiling. I imagined they were.
A kid in the front row said, “So what do you think is going to happen?”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Happen with what?”
“Oh, you know...everything!” he said. “Do you think things are about to get really bad?”
I suspected I knew what he was talking about, but I also do not know the political persuasions of all of my students and I do not want to alienate any by being too political myself. “What things are you asking about?” I hedged.
“You know, all the things. Like, do you think when there’s a new president... or the same president... things will just...get better?”
I paused. “No,” I said. There were gasps in the room not unlike the gasps that occurred when, earlier in the class I had said the word “sh**.” Seriously, these are some innocent seniors. I asked if anyone was 18 and able to vote. No one was. “Take a deep breath now,” I said. “You’re up next. I think that regardless of who wins, everything won’t be magically better. I’m sort of bracing for that to be the case. I have scenarios in my head that it’s not really my place to talk about here, but I do think we have some serious moral differences in this country, and I don’t think one election is going to change that. We have some hard work to do as a country. I think things might get worse before they get better. The next few months are going to be...rough.”
The same kid pressed, “But do you think they’ll ever get better?”
“Yes,” I told him. I didn’t pause on that one.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because I’m a teacher,” I told him. “For a career I meet and get to know a LOT of people. And I know a lot of people just from living this long. Leaving out the people in power who I’ve never met, I’ve actually MET very few people who were just...bad. I believe that we’ll turn things around because I believe that most people have some good in them. Most people, when you meet them face-to-face, don’t want to hurt you. I wouldn’t do this job if I didn’t think that most people have some spark of goodness in them. So I think that in the end, we WILL make things better. It might get worse before it gets better, but I think it will be OK in the end. I believe there are enough people who want to do the right thing.”
I stopped talking and looked around. I met the eyes of the teenagers looking back at me over their masks. A few of them nodded. “Yeah,” said a kid in the back. “Ok,” said the kid in the front who had started the conversation. We looked at each other for another beat. We nodded again.
I looked up at the clock. Time to go. I told the class I’d send them and the kids at home an email about what to do, and I apologized for the lockdown and chaos and technological difficulties. As they left, they told me goodbye. They looked me in the eyes, and their eyes smiled. I apologized more and told them to have a good day. As he walked past me, the student from the back said, “Hey, it’s all good. Really.” A couple of weeks ago, during an office hours meeting with this young man, I had complimented him on a stand-out detail he had included in his personal statement. “You know it!” he had responded. “I’m learning from the best!” Maybe it’s idealistic of me, but when he said, “It’s all good,” I believed he truly meant it. We are part of that good.
I ended my previous post by saying that this situation is eating me alive. That wasn’t a lie. After this class, I still had two more classes to teach, each only half in front of me, and I still had a dead computer. I was so tired afterward that I could hardly sit up to eat lunch and seriously contemplated lying down instead. I only stayed upright because I thought I might not have the energy to save myself if I started to choke. But what I thought about later that evening was not the list of frustrations from the day but the sound of the kid’s voice as he met my eyes and said, “It’s all good. Really.” I thought of the feeling in my chest when he said that. I thought of him telling me he was learning from the best. Yes, this job eats me alive, but sometimes it also feeds my soul. It is frustration and hope in alternating and sometimes bewildering flashes, like a dying laptop screen that can’t settle on one view and doesn’t respond to a repeated pounding on the “escape” key. I suspect we’re making some poor educational choices as a society, but I’m also pretty sure we’re doing some good as individuals. It’s hard to tell where the lines are sometimes. These days, when I’m speaking into a silent laptop and flipping through blank assignments, it’s easy to despair. As cases of COVID and hospitalizations and death counts rise in our country and our county but local restaurants sue the governor when he tries to keep the pandemic on the level, it seems likely things might get worse before they get better. That said, the other moment I replayed in my head that evening was the moment when I told my class that I believed it would be OK in the end, the moment when I looked in my students’ eyes and believed that we’ll be OK. These are hard times. They might get worse. But there are reasons why we’re still trying to stumble through an impossible task. Sometimes those reasons speak up and promise that it’s all good. Really. And sometimes I believe them.