“How are you doing?” I ask Lorece, who teaches eighth-grade English.
We are on break, standing outside. We are in the eye of multiple storms. There is the pandemic, with Cuyahoga County rates of infection dropping each week, and Whole Foods ripping up tape and bunching people up around the fresh fruits and vegetables as if there were hardly anything to worry about. The second storm is the running of students. It’s their break. Lorece and I have paused for a moment to chat before resuming the task of chaperone and lookout. We have to be hyper alert and remind kids, who are tossing balls and throwing frisbees and tackling the football dummy, to keep their distance.
And rather than reply, Fine, tired, Lorece says, “I’m overwhelmed.”
It’s hard to read people above a mask, but the look in her eyes and the crease of her brow make it clear that at 9:40 am, after just homeroom and a one hour-class, the burden has become too much.
We move on to manage our separate groups of children.
After break, we head in, eighth grade going in first, seventh grade filing in two minutes later, sixth grade two minutes after that.
Students are filing into my classroom. It had been two rooms for the past thirty-five years, but this summer they tore down the wall between them so that the expanded room could contain eighteen desks, the students' chairs six apart from each other. The math teacher is heading in, pushing a cart with his laptop and document reader. My room is no longer my room. I have a camp chair, and I will sit out front, take a mask break, and work on school stuff. When it becomes too wet or cold, there’s a small classroom which is no longer used for teaching where I can go and hang out with whatever local germs aren’t wiped clean by the electronic breathing of HEPA filters placed in each of the many classrooms that don’t have central air and heat.
Since I don’t teach period four, I cross the hall to Lorece’s room. She is hooking up her laptop to the smartboard while students file in. This is my lightest day. I won’t teach period six, which today will start at 2:00, our last period, so I can go home early. For the past few years, when Lorece taught a section of seventh-grade English, she had that period free.
“Which blocks do you have free?”
“Three and five,” she says.
The pandemic has made many of us selfish. Part of me is relieved that I can still leave the building at 2:00 pm.
I’m about to say something else when she says, “I can’t. I’ve got to teach.” I see it clearly. She’s about to cry.
I’ve worked with Lorece for over ten years. In the past, when she’s frustrated, she’s ended such conversations with a joke and a laugh.
I head down the hall to find Kelly, who’s our middle school English chair. She’s teaching, too.
I open the door and look in on the class. Several students call to me by name.
“What’s up?” Kelly asks.
“Do you have fifth period free?”
“Can I send you an e-mail?”
It’s fifth period. Students file into my classroom. There are two doors. As they come in, they press the heel of their palms against a dispenser, and sanitizer glops into their hands. They pull a sheet of paper towel from another dispenser. There’s a bleach-based solution that has been sprayed on their desks, and they have to wait a few minutes before they can wipe their desks and chairs and sit down.
“Stand to the right of your desks,” I say, as I keep saying at the beginning of each class.
One boy starts to head over to another boy to say something.
I call him by name. Ask him to remain by his desk.
Seventh-grade boys are meant to be like pinballs, moving up and down hallways and into classrooms, bouncing off walls, off each other. Everything is about being close, wrestling or putting arms around each other’s shoulders. Asking them to demagnetize this impulse is a strain. We nag against what’s natural. But we have no choice. We want them to be healthy. Staying in the building for the year depends on these reminders and their willingness to go along.
Before the pandemic, I could step out of the class and take ten steps down the hall to the faculty workroom to grab something from the photocopier. During the five minutes when kids changed classes, I could chat with one or two colleagues. If the class was reliable, I could walk farther down the hall to the faculty lounge to get a cup of coffee.
Now I’m confined to the room, to watching the boys. During the first week, I slipped out to get a photocopy I’d forgotten, and when I returned, six boys had surrounded another to look at what he was showing them on his calculator. If I need to leave, for a photocopy or a pee, I have to wave down a colleague, call someone in administration, to make sure there’s an adult presence when I slip out.
The students don’t fight the reminders. They go back to their places. They understand the arrangement. They accept the terms of engagement.
I start talking. There’s a line of blue painter’s tape on the floor that marks off my boundary. When I step beyond that line, I stand less than six feet from my students. I start to feel the rhythm as I talk with them. I walk back and forth in my metaphorical cage. But then I remember: there’s a student sitting on the laptop screen on my desk. “Did you hear me, Fred?” I call out.
A tiny, tinny voice from my laptop: “Yes, Mr. O.”
I return to the space behind my desk. I guess I won’t be moving with my energy.
“Sorry about that,” I say to my student, who has opted to study from home through our first trimester. The Zoom window is open. I see myself and above my image is a smaller square containing my student, the open window of his bedroom behind him.
Later in class, I assign them to small groups. All of them but Fred are in the classroom, but all those things that make contemporary education work--group work, peer conferencing, sitting together on the floor for a mini-lesson--can’t take place during the pandemic. So they sit six feet apart, wear headphones, and talk to other boys on their screens, occasionally looking across the room to one of their partners.
They’re so eager to talk with each other, that this part actually goes better than when, in previous years, desks of four made for islands and they could face each other as they spoke. The masks cover up the interchange of smiles and sarcastic glances. Accompanied by the distance, this makes for the longest honeymoon period I’ve experienced with seventh grade in my thirty-seven years of teaching.
Class finally ends.
Boys pack up everything in their book bags. They don’t go to their lockers during the day. Class ends at 12:15, but that’s when eighth grade heads to their homeroom to get lunch. We wait another five minutes. I’ve started to let class run over rather than have boys sit around.
Now another student and I split the room, each of us sanitizing our hands, grabbing a spray bottle, spraying the bleach-based solution on empty desks and chairs, but often waiting for a boy to get up, pack his bag, and stand up so a breeze through the always-open windows doesn’t carry the spray into his eyes.
Then I let them out, person by person, trying to space them out as they leave. They sanitize their hands at the door.
During that same fifth period, Kelly and Lorece take the chairs they’d ordered online. They sit outside. They are six feet apart. Alone outside, we can take off our masks; together, we’re not supposed to. They chat. The burdens seem to lift for now.
Later, Lorece tells me about the curriculum discussion the day before, the one that caused her that night to sink to the floor in tears. “I didn’t cry that much when my parents died,” she says. “Not really. But it felt that way.” The next day, the day I walked into her room and she sent me away is the day she cried at least five times, each time because someone was kind to her.
Everyone seems to have a moment. It might not be tears. It may be anger with each new tweak to the schedule. It may be sitting the entire day in a room and not talking to the colleagues you used to always speak with. It may be the simple reply to “How are you?” I can’t take this anymore. And then carrying on with the day’s business.
Education is built on intimacy and trust.
But there aren’t five of us gathered in the faculty lounge or the hallway telling jokes or chatting about a problem.
We have to keep an eye on the boys to keep them safe.
I go home each day exhausted.
The twenty-five-minute cat nap no longer works.
I just want to sleep longer.
Today, I check Facebook on my cell. A video of John Cleese in an old skit called “The Bookstore” comes on. Then a video of a song I like. Then a stand-up comedian.
I get up, thinking I’ll feel refreshed, but my body catches up with me by the time I reach the kitchen and see the dishes left to be done.
I hate underlining mistakes on papers--each error marks a way I may have failed my students--but my students hear me energetically talking about how standardized spelling and mechanics make reading easier, more fluid. I know how to take what I don’t like and offer it enthusiastically to those who might lean into that particular passion. I can insist that we spread apart so we can share the same rooms with each rather than sit distanced in our homes, longing for all those things that can be brought about only when we are in the presence of others.
I don’t have moments of crises in the building.
At home, tonight, however, I keep revising this essay because I’m too exhausted to do anything that has to do with school.
Charles Oberndorf teaches seventh-grade English at University School, an independent boys’ school in Shaker Heights, Ohio. He is the author of three books and five stories.