On Teaching at the End of the World
Rashaan Alexis Meneses Confronts a Season of Pandemic and Fire
This piece is part of a series from teachers on the ways their classrooms have changed over the last year. Read others here.
“At least the sky’s not raining ash,” I say quickly in passing to a colleague on the first day of classes of this new academic year. “At least we can breathe,” another colleague says to me on the second dash of my three back-to-back classes that very same day.
Last year, in fall 2020, the very first week of the new semester, the sky fired into an apocalyptic orange. Our 8 am seminar was dark as night. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on the students faces, all experiencing our college for the first time in their first class of the year: shock, fear, confusion. Some of them were on standby for evacuation, logging on from Santa Cruz or Sonoma.
That weekend set off the CZU, SCU and August Complex, all megafires raging after dry lightning strikes lit up the state. I knew, when I looked out the window, what my charge was for that first day of class on Zoom. Wellness checks. Transparency. Establish some sense of security, continuity, and above all else a sense of community.
This time around, I begin all three back-to-back classes acknowledging the challenges we’ve faced and the challenges yet to come. For the graduating seniors in their final seminar course, we recall how difficult 2019 proved, between electrical outages across the state, and the air quality index shooting through the roof to dangerous levels from the Kincade Fire in Sonoma; our eyes watering, our throats scratchy, and our difficulty breathing as we made our way from one class to the next. “You’ve all faced so many struggles, yet here you are,” I say. “At the finishing line.”Though the Caldor and Dixie fires burn to the north and east, for this stretch of space and time the skies are blue.
To the first-year students in our College Composition course, I confess that I couldn’t imagine what they had to overcome during their last year of high school. “I know in abstract about the losses you endured, and I’m here to support you. To help you find your way on campus and with your college career.” I made big promises because I believed they all needed something big to believe in, to get them going that first week, to move forward with their first or final academic year.
Later, I read their introductory free-writes. Many of them worry we’ll have to transition online; they express anxiety about performance, isolation, disconnection, and memories of feeling lost and disengaged the last time we went virtual.
On the second day in senior seminar we speak about Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and I can’t help but nudge them to the subject of illness. We wonder who is truly sick, Gregor or his family? Who is truly human? What does it mean to be healthy? How does time pass differently when healthy or ill?
As a mother of a six-year-old, I’ve spent the last four years catching every cold and flu on a near-monthly basis. Sickness became routine, and time paced differently from one illness to the next. I hold onto their questions and insights as if they are keys to unlocking some truth. No one mentions Covid-19. That illness all too present on everyone’s mind.
The discussion continues. We edge toward the inscrutable. We teeter on nihilism and then find ourselves skirting the unanswerable. I sense both a recoil among the seniors and a palpable hunger, and I feel like they aren’t necessarily looking for answers. Perhaps they’re ready to embrace the mystery, which is what writers like Kafka invite us to do—maybe demand of us.
I know at some point this fall semester we will replace our cloth masks for N95s. We will have to shut the windows and keep them shut. We will be forced to stay indoors while fire eats up the land around us. We will breathe in that land and fire and watch as our cars and every exterior surface gets covered in the remains of destruction. Yet these first few weeks, all of us are amazed to be in one another’s presence. Though the Caldor and Dixie fires burn to the north and east, for this stretch of space and time the skies are blue. We can breathe freely now. We are not in the dark. For now.