Years from now, when I think back on teaching during the pandemic, I believe what I’ll remember most are the silences. In hybrid mode, I encounter quiet where I once found endless waves of unapologetic sound: debates in hallways, laughing fits in the cafeteria, music playing at a volume just loud enough to be distracting — in other words, the carefree cacophony of young adults claiming their space in the world. With the building now only at half capacity, the halls between classes echo with emptiness and fill me with longing for the chaotic bottlenecks of years past. Passing by the classrooms of colleagues, I can barely make out their voices muffled by masks.
Then there’s class itself. On a typical day, I greet the small handful of in-person students and sign into the Google Meet. “Good morning,” I say.
No one responds, and I realize for the fifth time this week that I’ve greeted my class “on mute,” an expression that only entered my vocabulary this year.
“Good morning,” I say again after unmuting myself.
A few students wave or give me a thumbs up by way of a greeting. We begin our discussion of the reading and after posing a question, I wait for a response for longer than is comfortable. In an anonymous survey from the fall semester, one student suggested I leave these silences be. “Sometimes it seems like you are afraid of them,” they wrote, and how right they were, more than they could know! During my commute, I fill the drive with a stream of podcasts and phone calls; when grading or lesson planning, I listen to music in an effort to fill the vast sea of alone time that, under normal circumstances, I would typically balance with social gatherings, parties, dates. All of these now carry so much of a health risk that I mostly just stay home with my two non-conversational, if comforting, cats and settle for the occasional Netflix watch party. It’s about as quiet as life in a city could get.
But as a teacher, I am learning not to fear the quiet in my classroom so much, to trust that when I send my students off to write reflections or into virtual breakout rooms, important learning is still happening, even if I cannot witness it. In and out of school, among the people I know best, I sense an unmeasurable growth taking place, the kind that can only come from weathering a long and difficult experience. For my own part, isolating as this year has been, I have so far been fortunate enough to escape the grief and loss that have touched so many. And through this privileged peace, I have discovered a depth of introspection and self-reliance of which I never thought myself capable. What I dream of telling my students before the year’s end is that there’s no validation for this kind of growth, no course credit, prize, or “likes” that any of us can earn. It is instead a private knowledge that we must grow quiet to hear at all.
On many days, I miss the energy of school the way it used to be: the frenzied rush of students pouring through the foyer at 7:57; the boisterous conversations at overcrowded lunch tables. In class, too, I long for the easy, free-flowing discussions; how my students’ voices reflected the nuances of their points; the natural banter already at play as I entered my classroom and the way I would often be included in it, mostly, I suspected, in an effort to forestall the day’s lesson.
But something in me thinks that the silences swathing us these days could actually be essential to us and that, as life returns to “normal,” we might welcome more of them into our lives. I think of how silence allows space for the most vulnerable among us to express their pain, which would otherwise go ignored by the louder majority. We saw this in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, when thousands of protestors took to the empty, silent streets to give voice to the undue suffering caused by police brutality and the pandemic itself. Even closer to home, at the high school where I teach, our community experienced the power of silence during a Quaker-style meeting where a few students of color bravely shared how isolated they felt on a daily basis. How important it was for the majority of white students and faculty to simply listen and understand these experiences before deciding how to respond and take action.
What I have learned over this past year is that silence, though often anxiety-provoking, can feed our growth in the same way that an especially cold winter can steel the roots of perennials for their brightest spring.
In December, I abruptly stopped a discussion in my poetry elective. A million wisps of snow were cascading at a diagonal outside the window. It was the first snowfall of the year.
“Look!” I exclaimed.
My three in-person students that day turned their masked faces obediently to where I was pointing. Then I remembered the fifteen students at home.
“Is it snowing where you are?” I said to no one in particular.
I wasn’t expecting an answer. The question was more a signal that this unexpected arrival of winter was just as poetic, if not more so, than the poem that we were discussing. For just a moment, the fresh white flakes dusting the schoolyard seemed to wipe away the year’s deep sorrows. Some students nodded, others frowned, at the lack of snow where they were or this unexpected tangent, I wasn’t sure. Turning my laptop’s camera to the window then, I trusted that we could all now see the same storm and that it would mean something both unique and universal to each of us, though no one spoke or moved to fill the quiet.