In my fourth year of teaching, I was feeling that I had hit my stride with my second grade class. I love my co-teacher, our twenty jumper-clad girls, and our sunlit classroom tacked onto the back of our school’s building in Manhattan. I looked forward each morning to seeing our seven- and eight-year-old girls push through our homeroom door at 8:00 a.m. After arriving and sliding their clear communication folders into a designated slot above their art maker space, they would greet us warmly with stories from the night before, when they baked cookies, played with their cats, or lost their math homework. Their energy is always exuberant, high-pitched, their movements quick, and I adore them.
Spring break is usually a time of reprieve, a time to relax and reset. This year, however, I find myself wishing we could go back to February, before COVID-19 took our typical school routines away. I’ve spent this year’s spring break missing the good-morning greetings of the twenty students with whom I spend the majority of my life. I know that as a teacher I am not alone in missing my students.
The day before my school closed because of coronavirus, my students had spent the entire afternoon rehearsing their Class 2 play, “The Storm on the Mountain.” I called it their dress rehearsal; however, they corrected me as they often do — “It can’t be a dress rehearsal, Ms. Orbach, since we aren’t wearing our costumes!” They had written their play with their drama teacher and were so excited to perform it for their families. In the play, the kids are lost on a snowy mountain and are saved by a kind old man. Their parents are worried sick, but kindness prevails and all ends well. At the very end, they join hands for their collective bow.
Just a few days earlier, when the play wasn’t ready and we started to worry that school might close before the production date, I had told them, “We are a unit.” We were racing forward, hoping we could be ready for the show to go on. At the dress rehearsal, lines were dropped and transitions were messy. Several times, students forgot to come on stage or peeked their small faces out through the curtains in the blackbox. I couldn’t help but imagine their faces falling as they learned that their play would not be performed.
A play with no performance and no date in sight for rescheduling — my students’ unperformed play seems an apt metaphor for our world, for how we are all feeling in the face of such uncertainty. We are all in limbo, the interruption to our routines a cause for sorrow and anxiety.
Throughout the day, trapped in my apartment on the other side of the city from my students and my school, my mind wanders to common moments of connection with my students and co-teacher in our classroom. We are sitting on the perimeter of the blue rug, laughing, greeting each other by grasping someone else’s hand. We review what makes a good greeting: a friendly face, a loud and proud voice, eye contact, and a firm handshake.
I miss the days of shaking my students’ hands without worrying about the transfer of some virus. I miss watching my students as they sprawl across the same blue carpet, in rug spots, asking one another math questions when they are unclear. I miss watching as one student leans forward to another to explain the directions of a missed assignment, her wavy ponytail gently falling onto the table as she points with the tip of her pencil to the place on the page where her partner will find what she is looking for.
Whenever I think about them, all twenty of them are there; they are sharing their weekend news as they do every Monday morning. They hug each other. They toss a ball back and forth during recess. There is ice cream because it is Wednesday. I am serving them sun butter at the servery. We are laughing about spilled olive oil. I’m not sure how I will recreate these moments for my students on Zoom.
I think about the now empty classroom. The evening before we closed, I had a sudden urge to tidy up. I hoped for one more day, but looking around I realized that in the midst of preparing distance learning bags, the room had become disheveled. I wanted us to spend our final day together laughing and playing, not immersed in stray papers and materials, so I sorted work into finished and unfinished piles, sharpened pencils, wiped down tables, and even watered my plant. A colleague came in and found me in the dark, straightening things out. She helped as we pushed the chairs in and closed boxes of unifix cubes. My lively classroom was preparing to hibernate. Without my students, it was quiet and still.
No, teaching from home is not the same. Yes, it is still an adventure. I’ve spent time creating my at-home classroom. I’ve plastered a white board onto a blank wall and created a read-aloud corner. In February, we spent some time talking about the word resilience with our students. We asked them what the word meant to them. “To bounce back. To not give up,” they wrote across the whiteboard that displays our morning message each morning. We are returning to our messaging now, focusing on how we move forward, how we bounce back. How we’ll climb back down their snowy mountain. How we’ll cultivate community, albeit virtually, and we will hear each other’s voices once again, even if it is many weeks before we feel one another’s hands in ours.