I hold that New York trip close to my heart like a favorite toy carried out of a house on fire. I hold it as a symbol of what we’ve lost. I hold it as a testament to general day-seizing and gathering one’s rosebuds while one may. I take comfort in knowing that we lived our pre-pandemic lives so freely and in robust pursuit of happiness.
I’ve also taken comfort – maybe weirdly, or maybe not – in the fact that we, all of us, are living out a chapter of history. As someone who teaches history, there’s a certain satisfaction in recognizing that we are living it. We have a front row seat to what will one day be a blip on a timeline; a PBS documentary; someone’s obscure graduate thesis; an introductory textbook paragraph leading up to a century’s worth of whatever-the-heck is going to happen next.
I talk to my students about it a lot. They lean in and sit up a little taller when I explain it to them that way. (I mean, as best I can tell with all their cameras off. But they do have a lot to say about it.) We are the primary sources now. Our emails, our social media feed, the Chat from this very virtual class – all relics of a history that we are living.
I hold myself up as an example. “Remember that day when [student] was on his phone during class and announced that someone in our state had died from coronavirus? Remember how I got annoyed and told him that was just click-bait, that we’d all be fine, and to put his phone away and focus on the lesson?” They laugh and nod and murmur. “He was right. I was wrong.”
I’ve been wrong about a lot of things as I’ve grappled my way through pandemic teaching. Hard not to be when everything around us is so shaken and turned upside down. Almost a year later, I find myself wary of doubling down on any particular conviction as we hurtle and tumble our way through real-time history, holding on to what I know that still works and desperately scrambling to learn what I don’t know yet.
I have moments of feeling peevish, resenting the ever-increasing distance between ourselves and the return to so-called “normal.” Then I think about what school was like back in the so-called “normal” times and remember how brutal an experience school was for way too many of our students. Why are we in such a hurry to get back to that?
I have moments of something even deeper than fear – not fear of the virus itself, but fear of my own community that wants to march us teachers back to school, vaccines or no vaccines, because they’re feeling done and fed-up with being so far from “normal,” too. The crops are dying and they’re ready to drown the nearest witch.
Someday – maybe sooner than we want, maybe a painfully long time from now – we’ll go back. I’ll wake up early, get my coffee and oatmeal, drive my car up Aurora Avenue in the dark, walk into that school building and up those stairs, and let myself into my classroom. I’ll check my email and put the finishing touches on the day’s lessons as I hear the roar of children downstairs pouring out of their busses and into the cafeteria for breakfast. I’ll welcome my own students into my classroom. The bell will ring. I’ll close the door. I’ll take attendance and start our day.
And NONE of it will be normal.
Because we will have survived something. We will have endured tremendous loss. We will have been tossed and turned and tumbled through a rocky passage of raw, unfiltered, pre-textbook history.
My students have witnessed crowds of white adults screaming in the streets that our lives don’t matter, trashing everything from a mask-mandating grocery store to the United States Capitol building 9/11-style just to prove it. My students have witnessed a would-be coup incited by the despot we never trusted – a man who mocked their disabilities, criminalized their religions, brutally caged children just like them for attempting the same journey to safety they themselves might have made years ago.
We were broken before. We are broken now. We will be broken when things go back to so-called normal.
These aren’t the same people we sent home last spring. They have survived a terrible loss by becoming new people. It hasn’t been easy. As schools re-open, let’s begin by celebrating who they have become, then make it our business to understand them as they are right now. We can’t let the hyperventilating over how far our children have “fallen behind” cause us to plow ahead as if a return to normal is even possible. Because everything has changed and the children we teach have changed as well.
And I couldn’t have said it any better myself. Whatever happens next, the skills and convictions we’ll need to meet it will be the ones we’ve always known and practiced all along: Honor their brilliance. Meet them where they’re at. Help them lead. Let them heal. Find joy in their joy. Have hope.