Help Me Let Them Go

Photo by Bruno Figueiredo on Unsplash

Stars kaleidoscope in front of my eyes as I grind the heels of my palms into my orbital sockets. It’s early and there’s work to do. I cue up first period’s online journals on my browser. Each kid gets a workbook and I have to respond to them all. By the time I’ve loaded up twenty Google Slides workbook tabs, the caffeine and Ritalin have done a decent job propelling my brain into work mode.

Every tab represents more than just a single slide of writing for me to respond to. Behind every screen is a child with a story. Every child’s story is rhizomatic, branching off into personal histories major and minor. Throughout the first few formative months of the school year, I earn my access to these personal histories through relationship building. By midyear, I know some kids better than their parents do, while others remain elusive.

I carry these lives with me to every online notebook I respond to. How I respond to each student, what I say or omit, where I decide to push or hold back, is all dictated in part by what I know about each student. This is the job. Infuse everyone’s stories into the curriculum in a way that honors, validates, and strengthens.

This requires a staggering amount of work. Luckily, school helps. School is nothing if not a giant feedback machine, and a teacher has multiple ways to hold space and honor and activate the stories their students bring. The lessons I plan, the conversations I have, the individualized ways I greet each student, they all rely on, draw from, and add to this knowledge.

Luckily, like most teachers, I’m a collector. I pick up every shard of every tiny little thing that might somehow help me teach English Language Arts to children. Student histories, current events, random ideas from social media, a five second flash of a news story on NPR, I cram it all into my capacious brain for later use. This means at any given time I’m carting around a massive storehouse of random, barely catalogued ideas and inchoate lesson plans.

This is not easy.

Like many teachers, I show up early to take advantage of the quiet and use the copiers before they break for the day. I work through every free period and every lunch break. I work on weekends (a requirement if your ADHD is as rapacious as mine). This is how I’ve always been able to approach my job.

The Coronavirus has shifted everything. Anxiety, the health and safety of family, childcare, and the stifling effects of quarantine threaten to pull me under on a daily basis. On top of that, I’m supposed to be contacting families, figuring out pass/fail numbers for summer school “remediation,” and attending bewilderingly inane virtual meetings. Expectations about what I’m supposed to be doing seem to change on a weekly basis. It’s like a cruel jigsaw activity where no one knows how their piece of the puzzle fits into everyone else's because the final picture isn’t clear.

I feel like I’m playing high-speed Tetris while blindfolded. Pieces of unknown size and shape keep raining down upon me, and I keep trying to find a way to make it all fit. This is an impossible task. We’re all trying to navigate a fractured world, a disjointed mixture where the old, the new, and the unknown jostle for dominance.

As a result of all of this, I’m left with very little bandwidth to devote to my “normal” teacher duties, including responding to every single student’s notebook, coming up with daily assignments, and tracking who is doing what on various spreadsheets. The students feel it, too. Their written responses to my daily journal prompts are replete with anxious commentary about loved ones, the future of school, parental unemployment, and more.

This is untenable. End the “academic” component of schooling. Shut it down.

They will always be my students, and I will always be their teacher. For now, however, help me let them go. Help me put down this bag I’ve been carrying. Grant all of us this clean break. A time to lick our wounds, check in with our communities, strategize, and re-engage ready for whatever fall will bring.

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Closer than you think.

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