Twenty-nine years ago, a student teacher was placed with me. She was skilled in working with curriculum, and my fourth-graders liked her. But one day, she confessed that teaching was much more difficult than she’d realized.
“I’m an introvert,” she said. “I’m comfortable engaging with one person at a time, but performing in front of a whole group all day is exhausting. I don’t know if I can do this.”
Some of the greatest teachers I know are introverts (hi, J.V.!); being an introvert or an extrovert has no impact on one’s success as a teacher. But while (in non-pandemic times) introverts tend to recharge by spending time alone, extroverts tend to have their energy depleted when spending too much time alone. Even in non-pandemic times, extroverts recharge by being social.
In mid-July, I realized that I’d need to replenish my energy reserve in order to catapult me into this strange new school year. So I decided to get school supplies to my new students by going to each child’s home and delivering the materials.* Doing what we did last spring with kids we’d known since the previous August was one thing. But it was a very different thing to imagine trying to teach eight-year-olds I’d never met over a computer screen that reduced them to inch-and-a-half, two-dimensional rectangles.
So I made appointments, scribbled down addresses, loaded my car with bagged supplies and the Extrovert Chair, and headed out. There were two bags to give to each child: one, from our music teacher, with a mysterious collection of objects with sound-potential; the other from me, stuffed with a small white board, pencils and crayons, notebooks and glue, bookbags and markers and earbuds.
Those three days of visiting children made me as happy as anything had since March. Wearing a pandemic mask and sitting outdoors on cement during a 100-degree heatwave while inhaling smoke from the hundreds of fires burning up my state—it made me feel normal.
Because kids are always kids. And it felt wonderful to hang out with kids again.
I usually began by asking my small new acquaintances to tell me something that made them laugh. A few of their answers:
“Videos of dancing puppies.”
“When my hands get wet.”
“My dad and mom.”
“When my abuelita makes her bunny do a dance.” (Note to self: Incorporate dancing animals into curriculum.)
“Jokes make me laugh.”
So I said, “Okay, what do clouds wear under their clothes? Thunderpants!” He didn’t even crack a smile.
As I approached each dwelling with my chair slung over my shoulder and the other hand gripping the two bags, I was met by hospitable parents. One parent handed me a water bottle she had frozen for me ahead of time. Another mom presented me with a lovely mask she’d bought for me. Several others had set up a chair for me in the only spot of shade on the bare cement. One family invited me into their garage unit; I hoped it didn’t offend them when I planted my chair in the driveway.
I was visiting with one little boy in the back of a trailer park, sweating in the sun and imagining the heat inside his family’s tiny metal home. Then the mother came out and apologized that her son hadn’t used the District’s Chromebook during our first-day class session.
“We don’t have wifi,” she said. “The school district said they’ll bring a hotspot, but until they do, my kids need to use my phone. I’m so sorry.”
I met grandparents who are raising their grandkids, and parents who work all day and plan to help their kids with schoolwork in the evenings.
“Can you record your lessons and post them?” asked one mother who speaks only Spanish. “I want to understand the lesson so that I can help my daughter learn.”
Some of the parents melted into the background, allowing me to chat privately with their child, while others stayed outdoors while the child and I got to know each other. One mom had a ton of questions, and every time the kid wanted to ask her own question, she would raise her hand as if we were in class. Each time, I HOWLED with laughter and told her she could stop, but she kept doing it. Maybe it helped her feel a little more normal about school.
When another child scampered away for a moment, his mom popped outside. I said that her son had told me he was obsessed with both Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson.
“Yup, and he likes OLD Michael Jackson, too, way back from the Jackson Five. We’ll be driving along in the car sometimes, and I have to beg him to let us change the music. ‘Listen, we ALL love Michael Jackson,’ I tell him. ‘But sometimes a person just needs a break.’”
Another question I asked a lot of my new students was: “What makes you feel proud of yourself?” One little guy lit up at the question, and burst out with, “I’m so good at basketball, and baseball, and football. I’m telling you, I am an ATHLETE!” Another child said, “When my mom is very tired from working and she has to lay on the couch, I clean the whole house.”
One student describes himself as a YouTuber. “I have almost a hundred followers!” he gushed.
“Wow! What do you make videos of?”
“Me catching wasps.”
I learned which children love art, which ones love Legos, and which ones enjoy math. Now I know which kids are bilingual (one child is tri-lingual), and who loves to read fairy tales. I learned which students are so shy that they only whisper, which ones stutter, and which are so talkative that if I ever get to experience them in an actual classroom, I’ll probably spend much of the day trying to quiet them down. I hope I get that chance.
There was even a little physical activity. When speaking with a shy child who looked stricken at the thought of making conversation, I began mocking myself in hopes of making her laugh.
“I’m a terrible dancer,” I said. “But I love dancing in the classroom. Third-graders are the only ones who get to see my moves.” I launched into a jerky chair-dancing routine, and I saw her eyes crinkle above her mask.
The M.J./M.J.-obsessed kid leapt out of his chair to demonstrate his moonwalking expertise. I found another child sitting in the middle of several apartment units, on a large shared expanse of cement and bare, hard-pack dirt. It was startlingly barren, except for a portable basketball hoop, and a smattering of balls scattered across the desert-like area. My efforts at drawing him out hadn’t yielded much, but he’d already told me that he loves basketball, and is a Steph Curry fan.
“Hey, want to shoot some hoops?” I said, and he trotted off to get one of the stray balls. He put it up—no good. I gestured for the ball. Note: I am sixty-one, and my mom made me take a movement class when I was a kid—long before there were myriad classes and teams for kids like there are now—because, in her words, I was “uncoordinated.” (I had to ask what the word meant.) As recently as one year ago, I broke both of my feet in a four-day span.
I popped a shot. Swish!
He eyed me, and snagged the ball. He obviously had skills; his dribbling was effortless, he did layups from either side, and he moved with an ease that is foreign to me.
He shot, and it bounced off the rim.
I shot it again. Bank shot dropped in.
His brow furrowed, and he put it up. It bounced off the edge of the backboard and into the lone bush alongside the dirt.
“AAAAHHHH!” he yelled.
“You really know what you’re doing!” I called encouragingly. “I can tell by how you move! I can’t dribble and run, but you make it look easy!”
He tossed me the ball, and I flung the ball up. Nothing but net. This had never happened in my life.
He bellowed a few more times as his shots careened off the rim, until finally, with his mom and me cheering him on, he started sinking some shots. I figure that now, I’ll have to dig myself out of a hole to win him over. From his perspective, I must have looked like a ringer whose intention was to dominate an eight-year-old child with my athletic prowess. If only he knew.
Most moving to me were the frank admissions of vulnerability. One child volunteered that he is scared of the virus. Several students declared that reading and writing are hard for them, and as I assured them that I would do my best to help make reading and writing feel easier, I wondered if that’s even possible to do from miles away in my home. Another student launched into an explanation of all the things he’s feeling nervous about. Each time, I was startled that they shared their fragile truths with me, a stranger.
During much of the visiting time, I was thinking about trust. Trust is built in a classroom over time and in proximity, but in 2020, we have neither. We’re all just grabbing each other’s hands and jumping into a pool together whether we know how to swim or not. It’s the only option we have.
I can’t hug them, or pat their shoulders, or hover close enough to hear their whispered words as they read. They can’t play together at recess, or feel the sweetness of a friend taking their hand when they’re feeling lonely. Each of us is alone, but we’re alone together. I’m trying to trust that community can grow despite distance and separation. It’s hard to imagine.
There’s so much that we can’t do right now, but I’m very grateful that we were able to simply sit across from each other and have a little chat. It’s been the sweetest gift of these hard months.
(*NOTE: Lest you think that a teacher visiting all students at home should be the norm, I’m here to say that this should never be an expectation placed on us. It is a luxury that I was able to do it; under most circumstances, it’s impossible. I don’t have children of my own to care for, I have very few students on my class list this year , and I had the time. That’s the only reason why it was doable for me.)