Masks #SOL2021

With mouths covered for most of the day, I am learning to read people’s eyes. But, sometimes I need to think of them in the time before.

I recall the time that I met her several years ago noticing the way her eyes squinted with a gentle smile and a glance down of deference which was offered to all. Her mouth, nearly always neutral or upturned, rarely opened to voice opinions without prompting or stories unsolicited and instead she waited patiently observing with grace and kindness. Each word, each phrase, each sentence proposed was and is measured – carefully considered. I remember feeling quite intrigued by this gentle, gracious soul of a teacher and I have studied her movements as if wanting to absorb this way of being with the world. She openly shares her challenging class discussion, the way she feels she has failed and I stand in awe thinking how incredibly fortunate I am learning from her.

I met him nearly a decade ago noticing his wide eyes, searching for safety and sensing his story. I feel a urge to stretch out my arms in a gesture of support and instead did so with nods and agreement where possible learning of his deep commitment to education and his craft. He has invested heavily in his safety in a physical space, but the distance of the pandemic has brought him out and he told me his story realizing the need to trust and be vulnerable – physical and emotional masking and unmasking dancing about the spaces we occupy, each partner moving to give the other the distance needed. He is thoughtful, wise, and I am better for being near him.

Now, in the time of covered faces, we talk on phones or text, and meaning is possibly missed or misunderstood.

I received a text in Google Chat from a student too upset to come to our Google Meet. “I’m too enraged by homophobia masked as religious freedom,” he writes. I tell him not to worry knowing this is our last few days before the end of the quadmester, but now I’m curious so I call his other teacher after class and she comes to my room to talk at a distance. We are in our fourth week of lockdown, but we are coming physically to the school to teach from screens, to live and teach in separate spaces. She breathes life into the unravelling of this difficult online conversation in World Issues. Her neck is red and blotchy while she moves two feet right, then two feet left, shifting position to gain some grounding; the details don’t penetrate because I am focused on her discomfort and defense. I see myself in her response, the arbiter of teen discussions on matters of ethics and morals, and I want to reach across the space with a knowing hug. I want to say, “Do you know how much I admire you?”

I wonder at the strange ways that the world of teaching is changing, bringing forth struggles beneath as we work with masks.

Writing hypothesis #SOL2021

They should have completed the first draft of an analytical essay, with four days of writing and thinking and researching in class, and then a week to revise. But nine days later, nearly a third of them have submitted nothing. No rough notes, no point form notes, no links to research – there is nothing. I reach out by email to ask if they need help and I get only a few responses. I try again and a few more trickle in with explanations of “business projects”, “math is taking up all of my time”, and “I’m so behind in science”. One week of lessons spills into the next and I know that writing takes time which cannot be quantified or diagramed with efficient formulas with hypotheses. I know this intellectually, but I feel the “should” shove me anyway, that inward turned dagger of insufficiency.

And even though I know that I can intellectualize the role of writing in all subjects, English is, much like other physical skills, one which requires practice – regular practice without gaps of time. The practice is the point and research can demonstrate the validity of this. It is a type of personal housework which perpetually waits to be done, which gratifies once completed, but which dismays in its demands to return and repeat these actions again and again and again. Writing is never complete, never finished. I try to make this evident in my instruction, yet, I fear they view the task of writing as quotidian. Get it done and move on. They write an introduction before knowing what they will write about and I am still aghast every time I see this. I should not be. Conceptually, they view writing as a product produced by formula, a task of fill in the blanks, or a linear equation. Inwardly again I recoil knowing this is a lesson that repeats in me. I know that I must change for them to follow so I am moving to teaching the process more than the product – the one place where they need to spend time – I will spend time teaching the doing and in not the completing.

Stuck in these accelerated structures of four-hour-hybrid quadmester conveyor belts, I opt not to force feed lessons and expect them to regurgitate the learning. I decide to formulate a new hypothetical framework; write for joy, for curiosity, for discovery; read for joy, for curiosity, for discovery. Learn about yourself, learn about others, and value writing as the process of embodied empathy.