By Kim Redigan
I am a garden-variety high school teacher who has spent the better part of the summer trying to get back on my feet after wading through the weeds of a semester marked by the COVID crisis.
Most teachers would probably agree that stepping over the demarcation line between the classroom and COVID country last March was traumatic for everyone involved. Most of us found a way to do it – and we did it well – but throughout the semester my gut was screaming that this way of doing school was brutal, untenable, unhealthy.
Most teachers work harder than people know. Our classrooms are sacred centers of hospitality. Places of grace and, on most days, gratitude.
And then came COVID and the mandate to close our classroom doors.
We had one frenetic day to vacate the premises after COVID was declared a pandemic. As I stripped the walls of posters, bid farewell to my massive snake plants, and grabbed a stack of essential books, it was suddenly 1962. My inner child was huddled beneath her kindergarten desk witnessing the grim, purposeful duck-and-cover vibe that permeated our building as students and teachers scurried about as if we would never again see the school or one another.
Which was indeed a possibility.
And then we moved into the brave new world of online school.
The work began at 7 AM and never ended much before standard bar closing time since the next day’s assignments needed to be posted at the stroke of midnight, lest an anxious student was waiting online to get a jump on things.
Fearing I would miss the moment when the coach becomes a pumpkin, I fell into a pattern of watching both the calendar and the clock roll over until one month, one week, one day, one hour, one minute melded into the next. Dates, deadlines, demands all seemed to conflate and collapse into an eternal now that lacked a beginning and an end. Kind of like being consigned to a windowless casino . . . forever.
By April, I wanted to throw a glass slipper at the wall in the hope that the shards would cut through this hellish twilight zone of online school. No matter how many intriguing lessons I designed, the collective circadian rhythm of my students was erratic, leaving them exhausted and hollow-eyed, alternately listless and agitated.
Driven by anxiety and fueled by Honey Nut Cheerios, black coffee, caramel sea salt ice cream, and bags – party-sized bags – of potato chips, I acquiesced to the horror of that strange season, embracing self-destruction and dissociation as a way of coping with the stress. Stress compounded by guilt since so many around me were performing frontline work that is far more significant than teaching and handling it with much more equanimity.
Mercifully, the semester finally came to a close, ending with a whimper and a pang. Sciatica, to be exact.
As a result of sitting in a soft recliner with a heavy Lenovo on my lap for fifteen hours a day and ignoring the warnings of my partner who whispered, “ergonomics” each time he passed, I developed an excruciating back-leg-hip pain combo that has affected my ability to move.
Hence, I have spent the summer sprawled out on a mildewed couch watching the tomatoes ripen during this Midwest heat wave (climate change, anyone?) with a bag of frozen edamame under my butt to reduce the inflammation, a jar of melting Tiger Balm at my side.
I am in crash mode to be sure, but there’s something else. It’s not my old pal, depression. It’s more like trauma. An inflamed amygdala denied the benefit of Tiger Balm and frozen edamame. A hypervigilant, screened-out nervous system that goes into high alert at the mention of Zoom, Hangouts, Meet, summer online courses, virtual seminars, ad nauseam. This is not hyperbole. This is real.
When I think of the year ahead, this is too much to ponder.
I have seen the various scenarios rolled out for the new year and none look good: Students in school and students at home. Synchronous. Asynchronous. Polysynchronous. Classes taped. Classes livestreamed. A Seussian dystopia of bad options that will not end well for anyone:
I can teach in a room . . . I can teach on Zoom.
I can teach from the Cloud . . . I can teach in a crowd.
I can teach in a mask . . . I can teach as you ask.
I can teach in front of a classroom cam . . . but I do not want to . . . Kim I am.
Being stuck on the mildewed couch smelling like a locker room has given me time to ruminate on this pitiful palette of choices. But it has also given me the space to envision something different. Something bigger and bolder. It is 2020, after all.
I propose a moratorium on school as we know it until we can safely return to our classrooms. A year of Jubilee – a time of restoration and healing for our students, ourselves, and our planet.
We know the mental health implications, not to mention the physical effects, of dropping students in front of devices for hours and days at a time – the slot machine effect. There are also serious concerns about access, equity, privacy, multiple children in the home needing to share computers, and the very real issue of child care. And what about the estimated 1.5 million students who are unhoused?
We are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole and it simply will not work.
Let’s mobilize our teachers and move to a model of neighborhood-based schooling. Yes, our students need to be connected digitally, but let’s make this a time of experiential, place-based learning. We can do this in a way that is flexible and allows us to practice social distancing. Let’s work outside as much as possible, utilizing school yards, playgrounds, parks, and front porches.
Let’s take a pinch of the dough the Pentagon spends on bombs and buy bikes for all our children. And books and musical instruments and gardening tools.
Let’s meet in public spaces for art builds and poetry slams; let’s have students make music for their neighbors; let’s learn to cook and share stories and get to know our watersheds and the indigenous roots of the land; let’s come together to meditate and march for justice; let’s find ways to grieve the losses that surround us; let’s ask questions about systems and structures and liberation; let’s engage in participatory action research; let’s provide child care for those who need it; let’s learn from neighborhood elders and activists. From farmers and artisans. From storytellers and local historians. From one another. Let’s strategize about new ways of learning and “doing school” in a post-COVID world.
This is not an original idea. Education models, borne of necessity and rooted in resistance, have been around for a long time. Think Freedom Schools in the U.S. and popular education movements around the world.
There are those who will question the cost of this mobilization effort who do not flinch at this nation’s $721 billion military budget. Our children, families, neighborhoods, and schools are casualties of the war economy, collateral damage of an economic system that values stocks over schools and bonds over books. The money spent on weapons that circle the globe only to land in the hands of police departments on the streets of this nation needs to find its way back to our neighborhoods and used for life-giving purposes. It is a matter of priorities and political organizing.
We also need to ensure that our neighborhood public schools are fully supported and that the push for online learning during the COVID crisis not become a Trojan horse for more privatization. I would love to see teachers not only mobilize, but unionize – wherever they teach. We need to build power and push for policies that put our students first.
They are worth fighting for . . . and so are we.
Our children deserve the best our imaginations – and theirs – can muster. Have we asked them what they think?
The soul-numbing over-reliance on technology as a response to COVID has left us glaze-eyed, stuporous survivors of the casino effect.
Yet, to walk back into school is to gamble with the lives of our students, faculty, and staff.
Let’s muster the will to do something beyond what is currently on the table. Let’s drag the table outside, throw a blanket over it, and fill the magical space beneath with pillows and books and bowls of strawberries.
That’s the kind of school I’d like to see during this time of COVID and beyond.