I wake before the alarm. While I’ve been teaching high school for over 20 years, the anxiety about meeting new students—young people whose education, the single most important facet of the human condition, has been placed in my charge—still keeps me tossing in bed all night.
Then I remember that definition of a “meeting” has seismically shifted in the past six months, since I last saw students in a classroom. I won’t personally greet any of my students today. Instead, I will see them as square-grids on a computer screen, talking with them remotely via a Google Meet.
Before leaving for work, a half an hour drive from my home in Manchester, I make sure my hair is combed and the collar of my shirt ironed. Most teachers will tell you that it’s important to make a professional first impression with your classes, to impart to them the fact that the gravity of what you’re being asked to do is sacred and needs to be treated with reverence.
But the students will only see me from the chest up, so there’s no real need to be fastidious about my pants. In fact, I could probably pull off a pair of running shorts and sandals but decide instead on a comfortable pair of jeans.
Something feels wrong showing up to work dressed for the gym.
My wife Liz, who is also in education, and I jockey for position at the coffee pot to fill our respective mugs. She fills hers first, leaving me with less than half a mug. It looks like I’ll be stopping somewhere for coffee on my way.
“Good luck?” I say to Liz as she’s walking out the door.
“You too?” she says. The truth is that neither of us have any idea what to expect, and both of our teenage children, who attend Manchester Memorial, will be home by themselves all day, left to their own devices.
This detail weighs on me while I’m driving to the school where only the faculty and staff will be in the building for these first two weeks while we begin in a remote learning model.
The requirement that teachers provide instruction from the building is, quite frankly, a baffling decision. In other words, instead of allowing professionals—most of whom possess master’s degrees—to teach from home where the Wifi is faster, where money is saved by cutting the costs of utilities required to open a building, and where the coffee is free and plentiful, the people have demanded that we go into work.
This is mostly due to the sad fact (assiduously noted by many on social media) that some taxpayers believe teachers are lazy and irresponsible while working “part-time” jobs on their dime.
As a red herring, teachers were told that we need to be in the building so we can “collaborate” with our colleagues, something that absolutely, positively, cannot be done through shared Google documents or video conferences.
No way. No how. No chance. Rip off the Band-Aids, buttercups, and get to work, you selfish indolent clods!
I arrive at the building at 7 a.m., put on the mask that continues to fog my glasses and report to my classroom, where there’s no one else there, nor will there be anyone else here today. My classroom, which is at the end of the hallway and has a bit of a prison-cell motif—I’m not a decorator—with its white cinderblock walls and a newfound scent of isolation, feels eerie and unnatural without my students.
The bright lights in the next classroom beam through the cracks of the door that separates the rooms. Lindsay, my work neighbor, arrived early. I open the adjoining door, and Lindsay is sitting at her desk, fidgeting with the video camera that arrived on Friday, trying to figure out how to use the thing.
“Are you ready to collaborate, Lindsay?” I ask, still wearing my mask and from far more than six feet away. “We’re going to collaborate our asses off!” While Lindsay and I don’t teach a single common course, obviously this is why we’re here in the building.
“A day without collaboration is a day that never was, Nate,” she says.
“I feel the exact same way,” I say. “After we finish our remote classes, we’ll collaborate like the world is coming to an end.”
Lindsay flashes an uneasy smile.
“Bad choice of words.”
My first class of the year is my homeroom, a group of seniors that I’ve had as advisees since they were freshmen. I sign on to Google Meet and wait as their faces popped up, one at a time, in the grid on my screen.
Before I could welcome them back to the aberration that’s starting their senior year, Katie, a normally reticent girl, chimes in. “Oh my God, Graziano, are you at school?”
“Yes,” I say and turn and run my fingers over the cinderblock wall. “Yes, I am.”
“Why aren’t you teaching from home?” she asks.
I pause to remember my line. “Collaboration, kids! I’m in this building, every day for the next two weeks to do some serious socially-distanced collaboration with my colleagues. May I remind you that there is no ‘I’ in ‘team.’”
“No, but there’s a ‘me,’” Katie adds.
“I guess you’re right,” I say, defeated.
The rest of the remote learning first day passes without incident, a flurry of Google Meets and grids and boxes—some with live human faces and others, with the video camera turned off, a sundry sequence of avatars.
While spending the morning in an uncomfortable desk chair that has stiffened up my back, a dull knot throbbing at the base of my spine, I know that abundant recompense—to steal a line from Wordsworth—awaits at the end of the day.
Moving like an old man whose cane was thrown into a bonfire, I make my way to the door separating my room from Lindsay’s classroom. Mask on, of course. Lindsay is sitting at her desk, looking like a dog peed on her foot. “I’m beat,” she says. “I could really use a nap.”
“I’m tired, too,” I say. “I think I’m heading home. But tomorrow, we’ll do some serious collaborating!”
“Hell yes! Tomorrow, we collaborate!”
I raise my hand and Lindsay raises hers, and we swat the air in front of us, the perfect socially distanced COVID-high five.