What We’ve Lost By Not Being Together

A MiddleWeb Blog

A few weeks ago, I got an email from a former student, Jayna. She was in my class four years ago. I remember a lot about Jayna. I remember that she had Ms. Crawford for advisory because she loved to complain about her.

I remember where she sat in my room, and that she was in my 4th period class along with Carlos, Julia, Max, Toby, Talia, Shantee and Ryan who I sometimes called Declan because he looked a smidge like Declan who sat in the same seat during 3rd period. I remember that was the year when every student seemed to have one of those fancy water bottles made of metal.

And I remember that Jayna accidentally knocked her water bottle off the desk almost EVERY SINGLE DAY and that it was SO loud and became a joke, and I had to make her start keeping it on the floor. I reminded her of that in our email exchange. Not surprising, she remembered too.

None of these things are important. None of them tell you what Jayna is like as a person (funny, sweet, a hard worker, sometimes a step behind the rest of the class, outgoing). But they are all part of what I know and enjoyed about having Jayna in my class. Along with Carlos, Julia, Max, Toby, Talia, Shantee and Ryan, all of whom I remember fondly.

A year of empty virtual boxes

This year, I will not remember who had terrible handwriting or who had a notebook stuffed full of papers. I will not remember the class clown because, well, there aren’t any this year. Just the black boxes, names showing, cameras turned off.

For a time, I might remember the names of the students who “stayed after class” – the ones who were still on Zoom when Zoom class ended because actually, they’d “left” class long before and weren’t really “there” to start with. But unlike problematic students of the past, all I will remember are those names.

Struggling students beyond my reach

My students who are struggling this year are struggling mightily. I send them emails. I send their parents emails. I call their parents. I put comments in the “chat” on Zoom. I do what I can. It doesn’t help. Not much, anyway. I keep trying, but it’s hard to motivate myself to reach out to people I do not know. And so they struggle on, in silence, with their cameras off.

In previous years, the students who were struggling also had personalities. I knew that Andia wouldn’t have a paper to turn in, but I also knew that Andia was in the school choir and had a beautiful singing voice, and that she was best friends with Renee, and that sometimes I could convince Renee and Andia to come to my classroom for lunch and then I could get Andia to start her paper. And when she started it, with my help, I could usually convince her to finish it.

I knew that Sebastian did poorly on tests, but I also knew that he took copious notes during class (because I could see him doing it!) and that once I explained to Sebastian what to do with his notes, he still didn’t do great on tests, but he now could pass them – and a few times with a B!

And I learned, one day when we were talking after class, that he had an older brother who was in the Marines. And that Sebastian, too, hoped to join the Marines and that’s why he spent so much time lifting weights after school.

I knew that Jasmine, who often came across to adults as grumpy and surly, had a spectacular smile. I know because once I “caught” her beaming in the middle of class, which seemed odd. I realized she was smiling at something on her phone, which I asked her to put away. She gave me the surly face. I asked her to stay for a moment after class.

She gave me the evil eye, but stayed, dutifully. “You’re not going to write me up, are you?” she asked. “No,” I told her. “I just wanted to tell you that you have a beautiful smile. I hope someday I will see you smile about something in class and not just something on your phone.” And this changed my relationship with Jasmine, who began turning in work more often and more on time than she had before.

I do not have encounters like that this year.

At least I haven’t yet. But this week, after a strange few weeks of hybrid (some live students, most not), I will be meeting 79 of my eighth graders in person – many for the first time.

A May like no other

It is quite an odd thing to be meeting one’s students for the first time in May. I do not know what it will be like. Will it be how May usually is? Eight graders, eager for summer and graduation, who starting to work less and goof off more? Or will it feel like more September – students and teachers testing each other out, getting to know each other, as we all negotiate the new space (which feels so formal, the desks in rows and socially distant) – and the students being in class with each other instead of at home in their pajamas on the couch or in their bedrooms by themselves. (Well, themselves and their phones.)

Will someone become a class clown? Will my 1st period class be as quiet in person as they are in Zoom? Will they ever “gel” as a class? All those names in black boxes on my Zoom screen – what are they like as people?

I think about what I have lost this year. I love teaching history. But it is not enough to teach history to the void. I miss my students.

A few days ago, I met TJ for the first time. His mother emailed me about something later that day, and in my reply I mentioned what a joy it was to have met her son for the first time. I learned more about TJ in a 2-minute conversation than I have learned about him all year. He was sweet, and it seemed like he might be smiling underneath his mask. His mom replied in the email, “Oh, I forgot that you hadn’t met him!”

Now it’s May. And I’m finally meeting my students.


Lauren changed the names of the students included in this post.

Feature image: The Arbiter, Boise State U.

Lauren S. Brown

Lauren S. Brown (@USHistoryIdeas) has taught U.S. history, sociology and world geography in public middle and high schools in the Midwest. She currently teaches 8th grade U.S. history in suburban Chicago. Lauren has also supervised pre-service social studies teachers and taught social studies methods courses. Her degrees include an M.A. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her blog U.S. History Ideas for Teachers is insightful and packed with resources.

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