This school year, which started in silence, is ending with a quiet fizzle of burned-out teachers and students.
Those outside of education might imagine that this year has been something of a sabbatical. Allow me to disabuse you of that notion with an analogy. Let’s imagine that teachers are bus drivers. They show up to work knowing full well how to drive a bus. They’ve been doing it for years. But this year, the steering wheel has been replaced with levers. Let’s also switch out the gas pedal for, say, dials on the dashboard. We’ll put the driver’s seat on the right side of the bus. No, the middle. Actually, the back. Yes. Put the driver’s seat in the back of the bus, steering wheel is levers, gas and brake are dials, bus full of faceless passengers, and off you go! To be most realistic, we should also have the bus screech to a halt in the midst of a route a few times a week. And we should include a cluster of angry pedestrians shouting that you’re doing it all wrong.
It’s been that kind of year.
Teachers have been simultaneously isolated and on display. While we emoted and explained, our students were little faraway stars, their names shining on the Zoom screen, but no real proof they were there. A teacher might have been balancing equations, explaining the build-up to World War II, or wondering aloud at Gatsby’s motivations, but their students walked away from the computer 30 minutes ago. Or they were asleep. Or, my personal favorite, microwaving a burrito.
In the classroom, it’s easy to tell how well a lesson is going: body language, eye contact, noise, questions all inform the teacher and make it possible to adjust a lesson. Online, there is nothing but blistering silence. It’s never really clear how something is going. There is just the void that one calls into, occasionally getting a ping in return.
Students struggled too. They gave up over a year of their lives. They lost graduations, friendships, rites of passage, and the easy peace of a secure present and future. They’ve suffered from depression, anxiety, hopelessness and the numbing monotony of day in and day out staring at a computer screen.
Learning has happened. It’s not been an entirely lost year, but I hesitate to put too much of a shine on this experience. We did what had to be done, and I look forward to never doing it again.
This past year our country has alternated between exploding and imploding. While talking heads have blustered about governmental tyranny or incompetency, while statisticians have proudly boiled down the complexities of the human condition to little red and blue bar graphs, and while people have taken to the streets and shot each other, and rammed each other with cars, and burned buildings, and sprayed each other with chemicals, and screamed in grief, and screamed in rage, a nation of teachers has woken up each day and turned on their computers.
They have taught all kids; kids of the maskers and anti-maskers, kids of the vaxers and anti-vaxers, kids of those who value civil obedience and disobedience. Because everyone needs to learn about algebra, photosynthesis, and the stories of the Ancient Greeks. Everyone needs to understand that when you shade and shadow one area of a picture, it emphasizes the light in other parts of the composition.
And so, dear reader, just know, that things got hard, and then harder and then perfectly impossible. And still, every day, people turned on their computers with a sigh and did what they could to get our children through this terrible year. They are our teachers.
Kelly Damian is a writer and teacher who lives in Bakersfield.