On the sixth day of social distancing, I sat on my couch and finished rereading “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” which my AP literature class is — or was — studying. Even after teaching the novel for years, I still don’t get the title.
Near the end of the book, a hurricane whips and cracks against the cabin where Janie, Tea Cake and their friend Motor Boat are riding out the storm. Along with the people in the other cabins surrounding them, “[t]hey seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”
For a book so invested in exploring the individual and her relationship to the community, this sudden turn to nature, catastrophe and God has always felt random to me. But perhaps that is the point. Because that is just how all life is — struck down by random turns of the divine.
Just over a month ago, my life was dedicated to lesson plans, critical theory and equitable grading practices. I took my students on a field trip to Pittsburgh Public Theater on Wednesday, March 11. On Thursday, my colleagues and I watched in real-time as businesses, schools and states began to close — including the theater we had visited the day before. On Friday, only half of our students showed up at all, and instruction was nearly impossible.
Over those three days, a lump grew in my throat, anxiety choking me as I refreshed news sources and my Twitter feed, trying to see the future. But even then I recognized my anxiety as something deeper, something harder to fix: grief. We were losing all the best parts of the school year. All of our hard work, both student and teacher, had been about to pay off. But the doors were slamming all around us.
That final Friday of school, I circled up with nine (out of my usual 10) AP Literature students to talk about the coronavirus and what would happen next. Each of us drew two cards from a large pile of Tea and Empathy emotion cards: one card for how we felt at the moment and one card for how we wanted to feel. I bought the cards a few years ago because I am bad at discussing emotions, and they have turned into one of the most powerful tools in my classroom. We’ve used the cards in the past to discuss a student’s pregnancy, the shooting of a classmate, and more mundane events like first-day-of-school jitters. On this day, nearly everyone felt “uncertain,” “scared,” “sh*itty” or “anxious.” Nearly everyone wanted to feel “relaxed,” “relieved,” “in control” or “hopeful.”
I was not able to reassure them of anything. Zora Neale Hurston wrote in “Their Eyes Were Watching God” that “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” And there we were, asking question after question.
As the school closures spread, teachers rose to a new challenge: continue educating students in the middle of a pandemic, from home and with limited resources. My social media is filled with memes about parents failing as homeschoolers and earnest hosannas about how quickly and capably the American teacher has adapted overnight to create distance learning opportunities for all of their students.
My suspicion is that teachers who were able to set up remote learning so quickly were able to do so because they were looking for control over an uncontrollable situation. They needed answers, not more questions, so they did what our culture has taught them to do — put others’ needs first and calm the distracted mind with ever more productivity.
When my district began remote learning, it consisted entirely of enrichment and review because not all of our students have access to technology. And then Gov. Tom Wolf officially closed all of the schools in Pennsylvania for the remainder of the year. We all knew it was coming, but there is a difference between preparing yourself for the worst case and the commencement of the worst case.
I won’t see my students in person again, possibly ever. None of us knew we were saying goodbye for the last time when we said goodbye. I try not to think too long about it.
I read the internet too much, gobbling up any articles and tweets about how remote learning will work and who it will inevitably leave behind. It should surprise no one that the students who will lose the most are those who already have the least: students living in poverty, students with disabilities, students of color in segregated districts. My students. What will it look like from the inside, these months of lost education? I know all about the education gap and the education debt. But never has it been more clear to me that my students are losing farther, losing faster than my own children, who are white and go to a tony public school in the suburbs. I have already seen people suggesting that any gaps or shortfalls brought on the coronavirus lockdown this year can be remedied in the coming school year. But my students are seniors, and there is no next year for them.
America stacks coming-of-age traditions in high school students’ senior years, and my seniors this year will be locked out of nearly all of them. Every year, pictures of my students at senior prom make me cry; they are so beautiful, so gleaming and new. Every year, the senior team teachers cook the senior class a pancake breakfast and pass out senior awards. Teachers give a speech about their best student, and that student receives a medal for their work, to raucous hoots and hollers from their peers.
After the dress rehearsal for graduation, the students try on their gowns and mortar boards and parade through the elementary and middle schools. Teachers and students line the hallways, clapping and giving high fives, and suddenly the seniors seem so mature and so clearly grown, on their way to the future. There will be no parade through tiny high fives this year.
My grief goes beyond my students. I am human, and I grieve for my own lost sense of purpose and direction. I love teaching, and I am good at it. Showing up for the students every day brings me pleasure. But we will not read “The Piano Lesson” by August Wilson and debate reparations this year. We will not write and analyze oral histories based on interviews with family members. We will not plan and execute a monthlong Poem-A-Thon raising money for the Wilkinsburg Community Ministry or throw a large reading at the end of the project for all students, grades K-12, who wrote poems.
We will not read “Hamlet” and talk shit about how Hamlet himself is a spoiled party boy and how Gertrude is much more sympathetic than the text gives her credit for. We will still have some kind of school, but I know that it will be greatly reduced — that it should be greatly reduced. I grieve the intellectual rigor that I am losing — the ways my pressure-cooker of a career pushes me to learn faster, teach better, give more.
I mourn what we have lost and what can never be regained. Embarrassingly, I often feel like Claudius from “Hamlet,” trapped by my own ambitions. So it is no surprise to me that I am now like Claudius again, praying to a God I know cannot or will not hear me: “O wretched state! O bosom black as death! O limed soul, that struggling to be free, art more engag’d! Help, angels! Make assay…”
Like Janie, Tea Cake and Motor Boat, like Claudius, all I can do is look to the future, to the heavens, with questions, questions that drag me deeper into my grief with their intractability. All I can do is resign myself to what is to come, ending my prayer with a half-hearted “all may be well.”
Sarah Boyle teaches AP Literature, 12th-grade English and creative writing at Propel Braddock Hills High School. If you want to send a message to Sarah, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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