I am not a person who likes to be in my feelings. Feelings are reserved for adopting a puppy, or maybe weddings or celebrating new babies.
I am a teacher.
This may or may not make sense to you.
I am both the teacher who will tell kids quite firmly, “Butts in seats until the bell rings” but also, “Sweetie, I am worried about you as a person far more than I am worried about the work you are turning in.”
When I began teaching at a 6-8 middle school, suddenly things changed. Let me be clear–I didn’t change! I still liked my tiny one-foot bubble of personal space, and my oh-so-cool middle schoolers sensed and respected that.
Bring on the sixth graders. Suddenly at the end of each trimester I would be mobbed by twenty or thirty Smurfs, all wrapping their arms around my soft middle and wiping their faces on my tee shirt as they gave Oscar-worthy goodbyes as they left my class for their next elective on the wheel.
Suddenly, the bubble was broken. Now seventh and eighth graders, who I have for the entire year, approached me with open arms and big smiles for little things like returning from a holiday or even a weekend.
What could I do?
So I hugged them back, even though I felt awkward. I did not grow up with hugging or really any kind of physical affection. But I love my students, and some of them really seemed to need it.
Enter the Era of Covid-19. First we were all online, and I worked so hard to really see my kids through their little screens, especially the ones that were always turned off. I sent emails and postcards and so many little gifts, trying to keep them connected to our school community.
Then we physically returned to school in November, and this warped sense of reality became even weirder. Students were in rows but less than one foot away from each other. The new routine is that students come in, grab a cleaning wipe from a giant bucket, and sanitize their seat before sitting down. We cannot work in groups or move around the classroom or dance or sing or take learning walks around the campus. We all wear masks, except for a fifteen minute nutritional break where the students sit outside as if the pandemic is not happening right now, eating and laughing and kissing and sharing stories–just like the middle schoolers that they are. A tall plastic barrier sits on the edge of my desk, which is at the back of the classroom. Yes, I teach from behind now.
All of this is as it must be. I get it. Teachers and kids are surviving this moment in history with a resilience that should never have been asked of us. When a student asks for help on an assignment that is now digital, I use my laser pointer to help him or her identify the issue on their Chromebook screen. My heart hurts. I wonder why I ever wanted to be a teacher in the first place. I wonder if I will still be a teacher next year, or whether I will finally move on to something else.
And then, as I said goodbye to my second trimester sixth graders, with the usual well wishes and upbeat optimism that I would always be their teacher, and they could always come by and say hi, something magical happened.
“When everything is OK, you are the first person I am going to hug,” said a sweet little snub-nosed girl.
“Me too!” said another, and then a third, and then suddenly they were all saying it. I smiled behind my mask and told them when that day comes, I would be here and waiting for them. So many feelings, and I was suddenly here for all of it.
I think I will continue teaching, because that is a day worth looking forward to.