Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

“Can we talk to u after school today? The school keeps calling our parents to tell them we’re gonna have to transfer to another school if we don’t get our grades up. Is that legal? Can the school do that?”

It’s the end of first period. Roberto and his friends have stuck around to talk.

“Yep,” I respond to the screen. “I should be able to do that. I’ll call y’all into office hours after 8th period. Sound good?”

“OKAY bet!”

Meeting with these kids will be easy, I think. Today’s lesson is going smoothly and it’s Friday so I don’t have to plan for tomorrow.

And then 8th period happens. The lesson breaks down. The links stop working and I end up spending the majority of the class troubleshooting. It’s tedious work with a real blower of a work/reward ratio. Finally 2:24 arrives and I can release the class. With a dampened smile and a tepid wave I tell everyone to enjoy the weekend. One by one their silent boxes disappear until my own pixelated video feed fills the screen.

I rest my head on my hands and breathe deeply, trying to force my brain and body to unclench from the permanent rictus grip pandemic teaching causes. I’m not acutely upset or anything. Just perpetually hollowed. So I breathe in 1 2 3 hold 1 2 3 breathe out 1 2 3 4 5 6 until I can feel my muscles begin to release.

INCOMING CALL FROM ROBERTO — ACCEPT/REJECT?

Fuck. I forgot. Or maybe I just pretended to forget? Maybe I was secretly hoping that Roberto would forget, too?

INCOMING CALL FROM ROBERTO — ACCEPT/REJECT?

INCOMING CALL FROM ROBERTO — ACCEPT/REJECT?

I grind my palms into my eye sockets, throw on a smile, and accept the call. It’s imperative that I speak first. Otherwise they’ll get going and I’ll be on the call with them for at least twenty minutes.

“Hey! I know I said I would meet with y’all this afternoon. I’m so sorry; I’m just so tired. Can we meet on Monday?” I scrunch my face into a pained expression that hopefully communicates some sort of mea culpa.

“Oh, yea, okay,” Roberto responds. He sounds sorta sad. But then again, that’s how he always sounds. That’s how so many of them always sound now.

I thank them and close the call before anyone else can say something.

30 minutes remain before I need to go pick up my kid from daycare. I usually use this time to respond to any emails that have accumulated throughout the day. I grab a snack, gulp down some caffeinated sludge, and tab over to Microsoft Outlook. First up is an email from an old student. I’ve been sitting on this one for a few days because I had a feeling about what it would be.

Hey! I don’t know if u remember but i was your student back in 2014 (wow sounds old lol) anyway i’ve been wanting to talk to you since the beginning of the year. I’m sorry if this question is probably too personal but I’ve been struggling since the beginning of the school year with these racing thoughts that I can’t seem to make stop. I remember you talking about having ADHD and is this what it feels like? What did you do to make it stop?

Something this serious deserves an intentional and empathic response, but I only have time and energy for the latter. My fingers fly across the keyboard, momentarily boosted by those last few milligrams of caffeine. I give him a condensed history of my life with ADHD and hit send.

The kid must have already been on his phone. He responds immediately in the same clipped stream of consciousness style that I often find myself writing in. Also typical of ADHD is the way our correspondence quickly turns into a conversation about a hundred other things. He is struggling with his gender identity and his parents aren’t supporting him. They send him to conversion therapy and it’s killing him. He wants to focus on his studies but he has to watch his siblings all day because his dad works two jobs.

I offer him anything and everything I can think of. I send him websites. I type out platitudes and strategies that have helped me with my own ADHD. I tell him that he’s not alone and that I, his teachers, and his guidance counselor are there for him. I remind him I’m not a doctor and hit send.

His words crawl into my spirit, find a minor plot of land, and take up residence for the time being. I make a note on a half-crumpled sticky note to message him in a few days to see how he’s doing.

The next email in my inbox comes from a mom asking about her son’s grades. Some of her son’s teachers haven’t updated the gradebook yet, and she needs to know whether or not to ground her son from winter sports. I remember a similar email a few months back before fall sports started. “If any of Mark’s grades drop below a 90,” she types, “then he isn’t allowed to participate in sports or use his phone.”

I want to tell her that Mark is a nervous wreck, and that her parenting was part of the reason. I wanted her to see the connection between her demands and Mark’s tendency to disengage and turn inward anytime he made a mistake. How his relentless demands to know “WILL THIS BE FOR A GRADE?” suggested a dangerous perfectionistic seed that, if left unchecked, would only grow worse as he moved up the academic ladder.

But I didn’t. I forwarded her email to the correct teachers and kept it moving. Mark, his family, and his emotional wellbeing have been living inside of me for a while. They’re in a different chamber than Roberto.

It’s impossible to be emotionally present and invested with every single student’s social, emotional, and academic needs. I’m not saying it’s a teacher’s job to be a child’s everything. But I am sort of saying that’s what often happens. To deal with it all I have to triage. The day’s biggest hurts get the most attention. Many of the smaller emotional cracks go unfilled, at least until I can check in with them tomorrow.

It’s a lot to carry. Students take up space. Their stories graft themselves onto me. The emotional weight is real.

There’s more than struggles, of course. As a teacher my professional life is filled with wonder. I have the privilege of helping children grow into more actualized versions of themselves. One of the drawers in my desk is stuffed to the gills with the little notes and drawings and mementos some children enjoy giving their teachers. These messages add a sort of buoyancy to the spirit. A lifting of the heart that co-exists alongside the accumulated hurts of a broken system.

Unfortunately right now the ratio feels off. For every “Thank u for being such a great teacher” is a “teacher my cousin is dying from a disease and I can’t sleep and everything I eat makes me feel sick, what do I do?” It’s like battling a hydra. Behind every “resolved” issue lies three more wounds that need tending. This is in part because everything is connected. Admin, teachers, grades, families, national ideologies, the economy, everything depends on everything else.

With three minutes left before I leave to pick up my kid, I tab over to Facebook to check out what’s going on. I see a parent advocacy group is suing my school district over virtual learning. Debates over reopening schools and articles about the worrisome state of student mental health wash over me. I carry all of this with me as I race out the front door to my car. Some of the students will dissolve after a while, while the stories and memories of others will remain in my marrow. By the time I get to daycare, I have managed to relax a little bit. I lift up the bundle of cheeks and giggles that is my child and press her to my chest, breathing in her warmth. I see Roberto and Mark and Mark’s mom. I feel the strands connecting me to my students and their families and my colleagues. I exhale.

Disclaimer: This post uses composite storytelling. This is a type of narrative that combines real-life experiences, empirical data, and contextualized social situations. As Dr. April Baker-Bell notes, this method helps the author “represent both the complexity and simplicity in interpreting and presenting the central ideas.” So while some of the characters and messages in this writing are not necessarily real, they are all True.

Closer than you think.

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