For the first time in months, I dragged the Extrovert Chair into the front yard today, and in less than a minute, I was in tears. I guess I’m out of shape.
Oscar is a SUPER-friendly man from the Philippines. He gets around on a beat-up bike, and almost always wears flip-flops. He does handy-person work in the neighborhood, and seems to forever be on a job somewhere. During the spring and summer, when I spent so many hours out front, I’d see him pedal past many times a day. Each time, he’d ring his bike-bell and offer a big wave. He constantly buoyed my spirits.
I was giddy at the prospect of sitting outside today, now that I’m on vacation. It was cold, but with the sun shining bright and the patch of yard temporarily not in shade, I headed out. As soon as I plunked myself into the seat, I saw Oscar across the street, waving at a woman walking her dog.
“I can’t ring my bell!” he was calling to her. “My friend borrowed my bike, and it fell over. The bell broke!”
“Wait right there!” I yelled and darted into the house, snatching the two-inch-high hand-bell that an old roommate had given me thirty years ago. I grabbed a mask, and hurried back out.
Oscar attached it to the broken bell-holder, and the crinkles around his eyes indicated a big smile beneath his mask. As he rode away, dinging and dinging, he called out, “I love bells!” My eyes filled.
Then the sweet man next door came out, the Mandarin-speaking man with very limited English. I spied him before he saw me, so I surprised him with the greeting that normally comes from him.
“Good luck for you!”
With shining face, he turned, pronouncing each word so distinctly: “Hello, Miss! Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!” His whole right side seemed to participate in the energetic wave.
I smiled and then sniffled a few times, settling myself into the chair. A moment later, a woman slowly made her way down the sidewalk, leaning heavily on her cane and grasping the leash of a large pit bull whom she called “Old Man.”
“How are you doing today?” she asked me, stopping.
I felt tears welling again. It’s visceral, this hunger for contact. I’ve been so consumed by school over these past four months that I had rarely allowed myself to just feel that hunger.
Like a wounded bird flapping its wings, I fluttered my hands before my face, trying to stave off tears. It didn’t work.
“Actually, I’m a little teary!” I said. “It’s just so nice to be out here, seeing people go by.”
“Those simple things,” she said. “We all need those.”
We spoke companionably for ten minutes, and I’m sure she was smiling, even though her mouth was covered with a mask and sunglasses obscured her eyes. We talked about how, back in March, if we’d really understood how long this would be going on, we would have fallen apart more than we did. We talked about the vaccine and hope, and about how being so constrained has helped us to notice little things much more. We wondered if we would still notice them once the pandemic is behind us.
“I used to sometimes feel annoyed if I had errands to run,” I said, “like if I had to go to the post office, and then go to CVS. Now, if I have something to mail, it feels like a treat. I get to go walk to the mailbox. It’s an outing!”
She nodded. “Yup. And with less to do, we have all slowed down. We see things more, we notice and appreciate more. And that’s not a bad thing.”
Then she continued on her way, and I breathed it in. I stayed outside as long as I could before the low arc of the sun left me shivering in the shade. It’s the start of my vacation. I hope to make it out there a few more times.
Another hunger I’ve had is the longing to see my students from last year. In non-pandemic times, a teacher sees the previous year’s students all the time around school—out at recess, headed to the cafeteria, walking down hallways, etc.
But in distance teaching, it’s as if my students from last year had vaporized into nothingness. Did any of them move away? How have their families fared with illness and/or loss of work? How are their spirits? Are they showing up to (virtual) class? I knew nothing. It ate away at me.
Last spring, everything was harsh and abrupt, like a sharp knife slicing through the cords that connected us to one another. I will never forget the first time contact between me and my students was established. I had sent links to parents’ email addresses, not sure if the addresses were even valid, links to a video platform where the kids would hopefully leave a short check-in.
Lying in the dark late at night, I hit “refresh” over and over, hoping and hoping that something would appear. When it finally did, when the video check-ins started trickling in, I cried. It felt as if we’d all been rocketed to the moon, and had found each other wandering around up there.
I did not do a “good” job distance teaching last spring. I did a FABULOUS job of learning on the fly and working hard and figuring out how to do new things every day. I did the absolute best I could. But that is not the same thing as doing a good job. I was flailing and struggling in my efforts to reach my students, just as they were flailing and struggling to learn what “school” meant during a pandemic.
But we all did it together, and to not be able to see their faces at all made me ache inside, more each week, especially over the last month.
Then, late on Thursday afternoon, a colleague offered to show me something I’d been trying to learn, and we connected on Zoom. I suddenly realized that, because she taught the grade above me, I could ask her about popping into her class and visiting. We figured out a time when I would be on a short break while her kids would all be there, and we made plans for me to Zoom into their class meeting the next day.
I sent myself an email reminder, and set two alarms on my phone. None of them was necessary; I could think of little else. At 10:30, I clicked on a link, and suddenly found myself in a class of fourth-graders, busy with a scavenger hunt based on How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Kids get scrambled into different classes each year, so only some of the kids were with me last year. But I recognized nearly everyone from having seen them all at recess. As I looked from one familiar face to the next, my bird-wing hands started flapping in front of my face, and my wobbly voice blamed the young students.
“You’re making me cry! Not fair!” I cried, as they grinned in return.
I called out names as I spotted dear little faces crammed into computerized rectangles. There was the child whose mother sent me a thank-you gift that I still can’t look at without tearing up. There was the child who had struggled mightily with anger before in-person school ended in March. During distance learning, he excelled.
And there was the child who had enjoyed making paper gasmasks when I’d had him in class last year. With paper, staples, tape, and paper cups he’d convinced me to give him, he used to shape intricate and impressive facsimiles of the real thing. I never understood the attraction.
And here we were, pandemically away from our school for nearly ten months, I suddenly entered his class, and he was wearing —- a gasmask. For their scavenger hunt, after every few pages of the book, the teacher had been issuing a challenge that paralleled something in the story. I’d entered just after they’d been challenged to “find something you could use to disguise yourself,” since the Grinch had disguised himself as Santa. It was too perfect.
When my tear-choked babbling trailed off, I said, “So tell me about yourselves! How are you?!”
Gasmask Boy is a serious sort, and he soberly announced, “I’m ten now.”
One by one, the kids known to me called out or typed into the chat, “I’m ten. I’m ten, too. I’m ten.”
Because that’s how kids think. Age is a big deal. When I met them, they were eight and nine. And now they are ten. Nearly a year has passed. A year that we won’t get back.
But even if it feels like a missing year, a lost year, it is one that we have lived. I just finished teaching a short poetry unit to my current third-graders, and when I introduced the idea of poetry, I held out a raisin and a grape, placing my hand under the document camera so they could see what I held.
“A raisin is a grape. They’re both the same fruit. It’s just that the sun shone brightly on the raisin, heating it up until all the extra water was gone, leaving only the sweetness. That’s what a poem is. All the extra words have been taken out, leaving only the sweetness.”
My third-graders understood it. I’m trying to understand it.
So many people are suffering after this awful year. This year hasn’t given us “sweetness,” but it has stripped away and boiled off much of the excess, leaving us with just an essence. And some of that essence is sweet.
The knowledge of how deeply we need each other. The tinkling of a bell as a friendly neighbor passes by on his bike, waving. The message typed into the chat by ten-year-old fingers, saying simply, “I miss you.”
I miss you, too.
Whispers of hope are beginning; a glimpse of hope is nearer than it was last spring. I hope to be back out in the chair tomorrow. It’s the shortest day of the year, but the sun is supposed to shine all day.
I’ll stay out as long as I can. And I’ll probably cry when I hear Oscar’s bell. While I’m snacking on raisins.