Trying to Teach High School During a Global Pandemic
"Our school year was already in its final act, and now its climax
was stolen from us."
It was the winter of no snow.
No closings. No delayed openings. No early dismissals. No lopsided snowmen, no sledding down empty roads, no wayward snowballs thrown across yards. No walking out of basketball practice into the night, the streetlight-illuminated snowfall glinting like some long-awaited promise.
It was the winter of no snow, and we should have seen it as an omen.
High school teaching is a seasonal profession. I don’t mean that we only work during the academic season—this job truly never stops—but that our work is defined by season. The first weeks of school are full of promise; the residual optimism of summer. Then things get a little slow during autumn. The year seems so long. But once Thanksgiving hits, the days speed up, and all of a sudden, we are back from winter break. Spring break feels like years away, but winter is usually broken by snow days. They arrive like gentle surprises. We go away for a little, and then we return. That rhythm was fractured this year.
Then the chatter started in early March. Kids talking about a virus. In what we call in the profession a teachable moment, my students were discussing the surreal final paragraphs of Blake Butler’s “The Disappeared”—a story about a boy’s longing for his missing mother during a pandemic, and how we have to hold on to hope even when the entire world feels like it is falling apart—when an announcement came over the loudspeaker. County health officials are closely monitoring the coronavirus. This is a serious situation. If you have a fever, don’t come to school. Wash your hands. Stay safe.
Everyone in class agreed: that was weird. Yes, I told them. Be ready, but never despair.
Yet no one was prepared for Friday, March 13. Students were told to empty their lockers. Sports practices were canceled. The spring musical was canceled. The talent show was canceled. The final bell rang, and the students headed to their buses, backpacks overstuffed, hands full of the detritus of lockers.
I watched the seniors—my seniors—drift to their cars in the student parking lot. They carried lacrosse sticks and trumpets; art projects and textbooks. They carried whatever they could, because they knew they might never come back.
Some kids honked their horns, but this wasn’t the blare of the final day of school—when seniors burst into the summer, and into the rest of their lives. This was more like a threnody; the last wail of innocence.
We are making the best of remote learning, because that is what teachers do. We make the best of every day, because we owe it to our students. We know kids complain about school, but there are blessings to our daily structure. For some kids, school is the warmest place they will be all day. School is where they will eat food. School is where people will listen to them. School is where people will love them.
Now we are living and learning remotely. The first thing I told my colleagues was to be asynchronous in their instruction: although students in my district are given chromebooks, we truly don’t know what life is like in a child’s home. Teaching from a distance needs to be radically different. Instructions have to be especially precise. Assignments have to be simplified. Due dates have to be bumped. We have to slow down. And patience is everything.
The kids have been resilient. I think it is because they—all of us—are scared. As people have so often done before, we seek solace in stories. Some stories—like my creative nonfiction students—come from themselves. I had to cancel their literary journalism project for obvious reasons, so our focus has turned inward. We are reading “The Pain Scale” by Eula Biss, and talking about trauma. We are sharing the stories of our lives, and our virtual workshops have been generous and heartfelt. They say they’ll remember these months for the rest of their lives. They are right.
My Modern Fiction students are reading “The Second Bakery Attack” by Haruki Murakami. Some of them work at McDonald’s, and joke that their job never gets that weird. Others talk about the hunger of waking in the middle of the night and staring into a nearly empty fridge. They get it. Soon they will read The Bald Soprano by Eugène Ionesco. We should be laughing and cringing together, but instead we will experience that absurdity alone.
First, school was going to open in two weeks; now we’ll be away for much longer. Other states have closed their schools for the rest of the year. It is only a matter of time. Our school year was already in its final act, and now its climax was stolen from us. The sentimental rhythms of those final months are gone.
Our emails to each other have become epistles, and they always contain some variation of “I hope you are ok” or “I hope to see you again.”
By coincidence, my AP Language students are scheduled to read No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre. Some people joke that high school is hell. Unfortunately, it might be for some kids. Yet school should be a place of caring and respect; a place where they can discover themselves.
Hell isn’t other people. Hell is the absence of hope. Hell is despair. Hell is thinking that we won’t get through this. We have to believe that we’ll find our old, true rhythms again. I might never see my seniors again. I might never again read a story with them, or joke with them in the hallways, or console them after class. But, I won’t forget them, and they won’t forget this time. None of us will.