#52 – Epilogue: Doorways

As an teacher and a writer, I’ve always been fond of symbolism. So it is fitting that I end this series of blog posts – 53 of them, including the introduction – with a series of doorways.

At right: The door into the building, accessed with a key card – a card that says you belong, that, both literally and figuratively, lets you in. Those of us who have had the key to a school building know things about children and adolescents, and parents and guardians, and our colleagues and administrators, that no one else can even guess at. And that knowledge, both wonderful and terrible, sticks with us when we go about our daily lives outside of the building, when we interact with our own children and parents, when we try to sleep at night. We think about the child struggling to fit in, the child afraid to go to school, the child afraid to go home. We think about how we will support them, and how we sometimes fail them. Having a way into the building is the key to the kingdom. How do we use that power for good? And how much can it be abused?

Bottom left: The door into the classroom, accessed with an ordinary key – a key to a place that becomes home. This may be ownership of the entire room or a desk in the corner or at the back, depending on how overcrowded the school is and how many adults must spend time in that space. It is where the books live, where the curriculum guides are housed, where the snacks are stored, where the bulletin board displays the work of those passing through. It’s where we play around with seating configurations to get the mix just right – and then play around with again a few weeks later: at the start of a new unit, or to change things up, or to fix what didn’t work. It is my safety net.

And the truth is, just like home, no one else really knows what goes on inside those walls. There have been times I’ve thrown away a lesson plan – or an entire unit – because I knew it wasn’t what my students needed right then. We’ve all done it – because if we haven’t, we really aren’t very good at our jobs. And yet, wanting to keep those jobs, generally, we don’t announce what we have to do. This door leads to Las Vegas.

Upper left: The door into the bathroom. It becomes difficult to keep the mind on educating when the bladder is knocking on your pelvic floor. I’ve dealt with this situation in a previous post, so I won’t reiterate the issue here. Suffice it to say that in my building, I spent a lot of time leaning on the wall across from this door, waiting, and waiting. I thought maybe I might fall backwards and inside one day, like Alice into the Looking Glass, but I managed to make it to this very last day, where the idea of being able to go to a bathroom whenever I wanted, as in the summer, filled me with a true sense of glee. The door to the bathroom: a symbol of freedom.

***

Of course, when these photographs were taken on the last day of school in June of 2019, my last day of school forever, I didn’t know what was to come in March of 2020. I didn’t know that educators would need to leave their rooms and their buildings, though at least they would have access to their restrooms from the safety of home.

And I didn’t know – but shouldn’t I have guessed? – that teachers, their virtues extolled in March and April as exhausted parents became temporary teachers, would now be told they were needed back into these buildings and rooms as the babysitters some parents always felt we were.

I’m not blaming everyone. There are many, many wonderful parents and guardians out there who understand that we are all struggling. There are many who know that if they do not want to put their children at risk, they must feel the same way about the educators around them. Certainly, though, there have always been those who are first to complain about the teachers, the last to back them up, and who believe that we’re off at 3 to play.

We all know students learn best in schools. We all know teachers teach best in schools. We all know parents and guardians need to work, and that, in any case, they generally can’t teach their own children, even if they are teachers themselves. But that’s simply not enough of a reason to send everyone back.

***

Which brings me to today: August 1st. For educators, that date has always been a true dividing line between Summer, Capital S – where we could pretend this was our life and enjoy living it – and Labor Day, where Life As We Knew It ended. If we worked during the summer – teaching in the extended school year, or writing curriculum, or working in Barnes and Noble or Starbucks – it wasn’t the same.

August 1st was when the Back to School sales started in earnest . . . even though the very first circular seemed to arrive, with great irony, on the very last day of school.

August 1st was when the Back to School nightmares began to creep in to our sleep. My usual: looking endlessly for my classroom, up in the very top level of a building reminiscent of Lincoln Center, with curved hallways that never came to an end. Searching and searching, and asking for directions, and never, ever getting there. Talk about symbolism.

August 1st was when the Back to School planning began – or, at least, thoughts of planning, even if the doing seemed unbearable still. My team and I would generally come up with a date to get together, usually during the second or third week of August. And there was reading to do – or to feel guilty about not doing. And a classroom to set up; I’d gotten it down to just a few days by the end, but it was exhausting.

***

This year, it’s all very different. From the day school ended in June, or even earlier, all that anyone could talk about is what would happen in September. Could students go back? Should students go back? Would there have to be a combination of virtual and in-class learning? Could parents opt for virtual learning only – and, if so, would they have to pull their children out of school completely and wing it on their own?

Lots and lots of talk. And, eventually, some answers – though these sometimes change hourly. Things are still very much in a state of flux.

But one important piece of the puzzle that seems to have been left out: the adults in the room.

For they will be there, at this point: They’re told they have to be, at least where I am, in New Jersey. Well, maybe just for half a day with the students. Oh, wait – they’ll have to stay longer, after the students go, to do their virtual teaching, to contact students they aren’t seeing, to work with the “A” group after the “B” day, and vice versa.

Why stay in the building that has just held four or five hours of students – and staff – breathing out and in, filling the room with breath? It’s simple: Can we really trust these educators to do what they need to do when they go to their own homes? I mean, just because they did it from March to June doesn’t mean we can continue to allow them to be professionals, even if this would keep them safe.

Though they won’t really be safe, even with less time in schools. They’ll be bringing home the virus from hours spent in close proximity to children and adolescents who, in some school districts, won’t even be required to wear masks “when social distancing” in their new, administrator-configured classrooms.

  • After all, we can certainly trust children to keep their backsides solidly on their chairs, which will be configured into all sorts of spaces that won’t allow them to see each other or their teachers clearly.
  • After all, teachers will easily be able to educate from some point six feet or more from the students, unable to lean over, or pull small groups who need help in a particular area. How, in fact, will they even be able to figure out who needs this help, with struggling learners far away from them?
  • After all, kids have always respected their teachers and other adults in schools, doing exactly what they’re told – so why should this change? We know that they will put their masks right on when getting up to go to the bathroom or across the room for a tissue or a pencil, which they may forget to bring with them from home from time to time. And we know they’ll put their masks on correctly and take them off correctly, as well.
  • After all, we know kids would never think of flinging them into the air to hit the ceiling or another student, turning them into projectiles by the addition of something – an eraser or a ball or maybe just a small rock – to make them go further. Never! These are children, after all.

Let’s not forget the hallways, where students, of course, will be walking in single file, in one direction, with space in front and behind them. No lockers, I presume? Because students have so much space at their lockers, even with fewer numbers, that they of course won’t be breathing over each other’s shoulders and pushing each other for space.

And oh, yes, let’s not forget those adults, standing on hall duty. If you’ve never been in a school since you were a student except during Back to School Night or parent/teacher conferences, let me paint this picture for you: Adults standing in the hallway to supervise while student after student passes in front of you and to your sides. Wait, that student has taken off her mask? That one too? All of them? Sure, let’s stop everything for yet another warning. And a write-up. And now the parent calls come in: My kid needs a break. It’s not fair. Everyone else was doing it.

And of course there has to be supervision in the halls, or chaos will reign supreme.

Not to mention the lack of ventilation in the classrooms when the a/c is just not running – or, on occasion, the push of air as it circulates around and around, moving the breaths of its inhabitants around with it. Or the lack of ventilation in the hallways at any time.

And the fire drills, with kids pushing each other out the door. And the lock-down drills, with students squeezing together in the corner of the room. Because fires can still happen, and school shootings can still happen. Oh, yes – grab your masks, kids.

Let’s not forget the bathrooms. Children will be sharing those spaces, going back and forth (with passes? or must those be abandoned now?), while they spend as much time there as they can get away with outside of the classroom. Or the times the bathrooms need to be closed because students have been flooding the bathrooms, or worse. Which will necessitate a longer walk down those hallways, passing their friends along the way and maybe high-fiving, if no one’s looking.

Or the adult bathrooms, small and windowless spaces shared with the 20 or 30 or 40 others who use them on a given day. There is no ventilation there, folks. The toilets are open and – let’s face it – spray out. And there’s been more than one occasion in the past where there’s been no soap.

So sure, let’s bring everyone back. And then, in a week, or two, shut it all down again. Or shut down just that classroom the student or adult was in. Oh, this is middle school or high school, and that student is in multiple classes a day? Shut them all down for 14 days. Immediately switch to remote learning – because that should be easy. And what about the classes that adult can no longer teach but that have not been exposed. Who will be the substitutes in the room – when substitutes have been nearly impossible to find before all of this started?

Nope – it’s not tenable. In a week or two, or maybe three, it won’t be just a few classes that will need to be shut down, but entire schools. So they’ll be shut down, and 100 percent virtual learning will be back.

But meanwhile, not only will children get sick, but some adults will get sick. Some will get very sick. And some will die. And these may be those staff members who came back because they were forced to, or it may be their own family members, to whom they brought this insidious virus that has destroyed our lives as we know it.

Of course, the virus may originate with family members who themselves are forced to be out in the world, or who choose to be out in the world, and bring it back to the students and educators who then bring it into their classrooms or hallways or bathrooms.

Is it worth it? Not if it’s my family member. Or my friend. Or my colleague. Or that teacher who gave her sweat and tears for 20 years and was just a few years away from retiring, and has changed so many children’s lives. Or the teacher who’s just started in this profession and has love and joy to give, and has already made a true difference for one child or a dozen.

***

I loved a lot about being a teacher. And I loved the kids, almost every one (I mean, I’m human), even in – and, probably, because of – their kidness. Their messiness. The difficulty they have in listening. The way they try to stop you from teaching to tell a personal story – anything to stop you from teaching. The way they could surprise you by confessing to doing something you couldn’t quite pin on them. The way those few in every class gazed raptly at you, following everything you said, so you knew that at least someone got it.

But because I spent more than 20 years teaching children, I know what they are capable of, and how schools work, and I know it is not possible for schools to reopen now except for virtually.

***

I always knew it was August when the crickets came out and began their mournful song. There were always one or two in my classroom when I would finally get in to set up, during those few days near the end of the month, taunting me.

This year, there will once again be crickets, and they will be back next year. Though not all of us will be around to hear them.

I decided to write a blog to share my observations on life in the classroom over two decades. The blog didn’t get very popular, or widely shared. I get it: I write too much. I’m too serious. My friends and colleagues – even my family members – are busy. And again: There are too many words here.

So let me close with just this: If you liked any of these posts, please find one you would like to share, out in the world. If not, that’s okay too.

But more than anything else, please share everything you find – this post, or the many, many others circulating right now – that can perhaps help to convince those people in charge, those who are really faced with terrible and impossible choices, to end up with the only possible one.

The only safe doorways right now, after all, are the ones that open into our own homes.

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