For me, the cruelest part of the COVID-19 pandemic has been its stultifying and probably irremediable effects on education at all levels. Exactly at the middle of the spring 2020 semester, all our classes were switched to online-only instruction. I had a small but vibrant American literature class whose nine members provided me–for eight weeks–with the most delightful, stimulating, and challenging experience I have ever had from behind the lectern. Actually , there was no lectern because I pulled together two tables in the back of the classroom, and we sat around them together, seminar-style, all equals, as we discussed such topics as proto-existentiaism in”The Open Boat,” religious imagery in “The Hollow Men,” and blame and forgiveness in Long Day’s Journey into Night. Suddenly in mid-March, that time of wonder was over. Yes, they continued to be just as curious and creative and insightful, but even when we had a few virtual discussions, we never again achieved that chemical reaction that occurs a few few inches above the heads of engaged scholars sharing their ideas around a table and momentarily illuminates the entire space.
That class was only the most significant loss of the spring semester. No more could I prance around the classroom weaving stories about Kepler and the harmony of the spheres, explaining Thomas Kuhn on scientific revolutions, or reading aloud Wilfred Owen’s “Parable of the Old Man and the Young.” Nor could I sit with my composition students individually in my office, going painstakingly over the final research paper and usually enabling them to leave with the sense that they were somehow on target.
Summer and fall have enabled experiences somewhat closer to what I consider real education. We have some virtual classes that “meet” via a Zoom-like interface called Blackboard Collaborate, and we even have some hybrid classes that actually meet once a week (some, sadly, for only 20 minutes), everyone masked and six feet apart, but still able to interact on some level. However, most instruction is still online–a method of instruction that in my mind will never resemble what happens in the classroom, no matter how proficient we as instructors become as “facilitators.”
Yesterday morning, as I parked my car at school and began to walk across the parking lot, I felt a rush of melancholy that what may my last year of teaching has become this sterile and often meaningless grind. The image in my head was all those masked students whose names I will never know. In the summer, I made placards for students to place on their desks so I could at least call them by name, but most didn’t bring them back after the first day, and I realized that I would never really know them anyway because I could see only masked faces in the distance. I have always taken pride in learning my students’ names quickly and calling them, in the outdated fashion of my university mentor, by their last names. And I experience a frisson of delight when the students refer to each other in the same way, as they did in that memorable literature class: “I agree with what Mr. Wilder said about Editha’s language, but we have to consider also . . . ” It was the loss of that intimacy that pervaded my thoughts as I slouched towards my office, fully masked and ready but not eager to start the day.
At 10:15, I had an appointment with a student to review the rough draft of her rhetorical analysis. Of course, she had to sit at a chair right next to the door so I would be properly distanced from her at my desk, but it’s encouraging that students will take advantage of even that opportunity. I began reading her essay, and on the seventh line, I found, marked, and corrected a comma splice. And a little bell of clear and momentary awareness jingled in my head. “I think I remember,” I told her, “that you had problems with comma splices the last time you were here.” Slightly embarrassed, she smiled (I could tell from her eyes) and said she had been trying to work on that.
I put down my red pen, smiled back, and said, “Ms. Estrada, I’m actually glad you made that error.” I told her about the sadness I had felt just an hour before when I realized that I will never really know my current students as I have known the former ones, will be unable to visualize their faces when they write to me asking for a letter of recommendation for their university applications. And then I told her about that brief revelation when I corrected the comma splice. “I feel encouraged,” I said, “because even though I may never recognize you by your face, I can recognize you by your punctuation.”
She understood, and in that moment we were teacher and student in exactly the way that has in rare but necessary moments fulfilled me to the depths of my soul.