We Have Important Things to Teach, and also I Hope We Don’t All Die From This.

This may well be part two of a piece I wrote April 20th, Distance Learning, and also I Hope We Don’t All Die From This.

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I went to the corner of 38th and Chicago the day after George Floyd was murdered there. Many were there, standing as many feet apart as we could manage. Organizers passed through the crowd with masks and water, because of course there was also this pandemic happening, and everyone was worried about how it was really impacting communities like the one we were all meeting at, were marching through. It was my first time back in the neighborhood since moving a little over a year ago. I lived on 40th, and one block over. I drove through that intersection every day, walked to the Cup Foods regularly, was pretty sure I recognized at least two of the cops involved as people I had exchanged waves and nods before.

A lot of us weren’t willing to get close enough to hear the speakers, so formed circles around circles holding signs and standing quietly. When the speeches ended, a group rode to the middle of the crowd on motorcycles, started gunning their engines loudly. The noise scared a few people, and they started to run, and then loud noises and running people made a lot more people run. One whole side of the crowd ran towards me, terrified. I don’t have to explain what I thought was happening, because it’s a thing that happens now. So I ran, down an alley, ducking behind a garage when far enough felt far enough. And standing behind that same garage, having also just ran till it felt ok, was a student of mine from almost ten years ago.

I had her sister too, that former student, had both in 8th grade a few years apart. In all the chaos, in all the fear, and in a day where we were, all of us, swimming in anger and sadness and disgust, it was unreal to see her there. But there she was, and she was ok, and I was ok. I thought about them a lot that day, those two sisters, the whole march down to the precinct, and about how much I missed students, how much teaching and connecting and coaching and mentoring is this one thing I know I am doing right in the world.

So much of our world is so awful right now, is in need of all of us doing the work we do best to make it better. My work is in a classroom with students, and I can’t wait to be back with them, helping them build understanding around what led to Floyd’s murder, why and how everything that came after started on that corner of 38th and Chicago, and also had been happening without pause for years upon years.

I’ve only known this work to succeed after months of relationship and trust building, of practicing open and productive conversations, of coaching individual students with their resistance or discomfort or leadership. I don’t know that I can do that with kids I haven’t really met using video chats and email.

I’ll be headed back to a building in a few weeks, so says my districts plan, unless plans change. But even beyond the smaller groups and staggered schedules and all that, it won’t be the same.

Our return to normal is going to feel very very weird. School is, has been, this place I love, this place of energy and interaction and creativity and disasters and ridiculousness, of gut laughing and interest and anger. It is, it was, a place that hums with human interaction. But we’ll all be in masks now. We’ll be counting each person who comes too close as another chance we’ll get sick, bring sickness back to our homes.

I’m not ready to be back if back means I am scared of my students, that they are scared of me and each other. To be safe, we can’t pretend that anything is normal, even though normal is what so many of us want and need most.

My kid is turning 10 in a couple of weeks. They’ll be back in a building as well, at least a few times a week. We’ll both be in classrooms all day, like hours and hours, sharing space and air and surfaces with 12 or 15 or whatever people. We’ve spent the last few months protecting our bubble of safety. In a few weeks, that bubble pops.

I can’t imagine I’ll be gathering with any friends for awhile. I can’t imagine the kid will see their grandparents in person for awhile, not if we’re back at school.

We’ll be wearing masks, of course. I don’t believe they’ll do enough in a room that small with that many people for that long.

I believe masks are helpful and important, but I don’t believe they’re magic.

I have an underlying heart issue, I guess. When I was in high school, my heart would skip beats. Every fourth, or sometimes every sixth or so. I saw it once on an ultrasound, and it was unsettling. Every so often the wires would get really crossed up and it would beat like, 400 times a minute or more, and then go back to normal. When I started treating my sleep apnea, my heart starting beating mostly normally, just occasional blips on the radar, enough that my wife knows what I mean when I say my heart is “doing a thing.” I don’t think about it more than a few times a year. Or, I didn’t think about it more than a few times a year until the phrase “underlying health issues” kept being used. I’m pretty sure they don’t mean me. Pretty sure.

I’m 39. So, like, young enough that friends would say “he died so young,” but anyone reading an article about it would skim past my age without thinking twice.

I probably won’t die, probably. But when, when, when students get sick and students are back at school, some of them will, and some teachers, and some of their family members. Some will get traumatically sick, will not, might never, fully recover.

Teachers are talking about google extensions and bitmoji classrooms and what kind of eye protection just might make us that much less likely to get sick. Teachers are writing wills. I’ve thought about it.

Teaching last spring was the most I’ve ever not liked teaching. From a certain point of view, as a person with Anxiety issues related to mortality and control, I’m doing pretty ok through all this now, but it was harder then, harder for all of us, I think, then, to focus or engage for any real amount of time. Maybe it will be better now.

When I wrote about distance learning so many months ago, my thoughts were more scattered, my train of thought switching tracks and directions too fast for comfort, too often to arrive anywhere. That train is running straighter now, has settled as it has gotten heavier. I guess maybe that’s progress.

I know it’s my job to make it better now, to squeeze every little bit of good I can from whatever school looks like in a month or three or six.

I know it’s my job to meet and care for and teach these new kids, however that looks, however that needs to happen, to know them and love all the things that make them wonderful and special and odd and frustrating and inspiring. The world, even more than the beginning of last year, needs these kids and their questions, needs these kids and their answers.

However it looks, however it is, however heavy the worry I’m carrying, it’s time to go back. I’m so ready, so incredibly ready, and also not at all.

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