Little Black Boxes

Each black square represents a student who has logged in to our ESOL 5 Zoom class. Their video is turned off and the microphone is muted. I stare at my face in its own little box as I pose the circle question to get started. “If you could create the ideal society, what would you be sure to include?” One at a time they unmute their microphones and speak. “Free health care for everyone, equal opportunity, no race discrimination, free university, and free food.” We were reading a short dystopian fiction piece, and I was pleased with their thoughtful responses. It was before George Floyd and the marches for racial justice. It was in late April, a long time ago, and students were worried about COVID-19 and getting their next meal. They were still engaged in online learning. I was still wearing lipstick and earrings to class.

Now school is finished and I’m heartbroken that it was so anti-climactic. I didn’t get to return their Reflection writing from the first week of school and have them comment on their goals. We didn’t have a party. I didn’t get to send the seniors off with a final celebration or watch them march across the stage to Pomp and Circumstance. I didn’t get to remind the ESOL 1 students how much their English has improved. We didn’t talk about summer plans. I’ve been so focused on getting to the finish line, that I didn’t expect the rush of emotion that came with the slow fade out.

As frustrating as it was to conduct classes with my computer screen, I relished every single contact I had with students. Breaking with my 15-year policy of not sharing my personal cell phone, this spring I routinely gave my number to every student. I cringed in anticipation of abuse, but it never came. Students were super respectful of this new relationship and never contacted me too early or too late. On Sunday I got a message in Spanish from a newcomer: Are we finished with school? I think you said yes. Another student asked for a second supermarket gift card for her family. A third student wanted to confirm his new address so that he could get his diploma mailed there. These are not normally things I would have to address.

Some students fell off a cliff after March 13th and I never really heard from them again. I spent hours trying to reach them, documenting every call, every email, every U.S. Mail letter that I sent. Bilingual counselors got involved. Administrators followed up. Three students moved back to their countries. I logged every contact in the system. I excused missing assignments and graded with compassion, assuming hardship. When students turned in work, I found something positive to say. When students showed up for Zoom, I talked about my cat, my neighbor, my son, or what I was reading before I reviewed the week’s work. I never “wasted time” like that before, and it felt like a much-needed mindshift.

If there’s anything good that came out of this COVID-19 crisis teaching, it’s that I’ve built new relationships with students. I feel much closer to the ones who stayed active. We know each other better in a different way than we would in a classroom. I know who has noisy little siblings and who has tension with her parents. In spite of this, the ESOL students have given thoughtful, mature, philosophical answers to questions that I posed for discussion. In part, it’s because they’re well-rested and there’s little else for them to focus on. Another part is that they actually crave a connection to school and learning.

School’s out for summer, but I’m not naïve enough to think that we won’t be using some form of online instruction in the fall. I know now that I will have to work hard at building real relationships with students from the very beginning – that means learning about their families, their culture, their thoughts and feelings, their music, hobbies, and interests. It means sharing more of myself with them, creating a safe environment where they can open up, and encouraging genuine reflection.

If I could create the ideal classroom, every student would have equal opportunity, free food, and universal health care. There would be no discrimination by race, gender, or other indicator. I’m optimistic that the dystopian nightmare we are living through will one day end, and my students will show up ready and eager to learn. I will have engaging, meaningful lessons matched perfectly to their interests and abilities. In the meantime, I’ll be reading, reflecting, and reaching out to colleagues this summer, hoping to rebuild a routine in the fall. I will have a new haircut and nobody will notice because we’ll all just be so happy to see each other in person.

So long, it’s summer!

Last week I said goodbye to all the students who have hung out with me for 10 months. It’s a bittersweet time of year for teachers because we develop such a strong bond with our students. I’ve graded final exams and I’ll go in this week to clean out my classroom.

But I am still reeling from what some of them wrote in their final essays about a moral or ethical dilemma they faced. After reading their exams I had to get up from my desk and walk around the building. Most high school students are exposed to dystopian plots by reading science fiction stories, but my students have lived through such things.

One essay that particularly stands out was written by an African girl whose best friend disappeared. Nobody knew what happened to her. She knocked on neighbors’ doors and searched the community. She couldn’t believe that her only friend in the world would run away. Three days later the girl was found, barely alive on the edge of town. She was naked and bruised and filthy. My student went with her to a hospital and was there when her friend’s family walked in. Her friend started screaming hysterically and pointing at her own father, saying “get him out of here!” The father was apparently part of a cult that was required to perform savage acts on virgins. He was arrested and thrown in jail, but bribed the prison guards to be released. Shortly after, my student immigrated to the U.S. and her friend moved to another country. Thank god they were able to escape such horrors!

Another boy wrote about a classmate of his, a young woman forced into marriage at age 15. The following year she had a baby but unfortunately her husband died. The village elders accused her of murdering the man, but my student did not believe his classmate was capable of such a thing and stood up for her in front of his grandfather. The elders decided that her punishment would be burying her alive up to her neck then stoning her to death. My student remembered a quote from a movie he’d seen about how all humans have rights, so he went to a priest to speak up for his friend. The priest convinced his grandfather and the elders not to kill her; the girl was exiled to another village with her baby instead. It was his courage to speak up that saved the girl’s life. It’s impossible not to feel the pain of a 15-year-old processing such a real and profound ethical dilemma.

And you thought Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery was fiction?

I’m glad I have the entire summer to recover and plan. What new dilemmas will face these students this summer? I think I will teach differently next year, and I will try to be more sensitive to the quiet students and encourage them to write about their experiences more regularly. I will be thinking about this all summer.