We are back in school now. Face to face. Eye to eye. That’s the only part of my students’ faces I see: their eyes. I can’t see them smile or grimace. I remarked to one of them this past week that we need some lessons in smiling with our eyes. Some are better at it than others.
The masks are good. I’m not complaining about them. The masks are good for hiding blemishes. They are also another way to express fashion and creativity. And they are a great shield against the bitter Kentucky winter.
But I don’t know what my students’ smiles look like. How strange—I’ve never seen them smile. But I have made them smile. And maybe that’s enough.
And sometimes they cause my glasses to fog, and I can’t see. And sometimes they cause my voice to be muffled and my students’ voices to be muffled, and I can’t hear them. I have to ask them to repeat again and again. But at least we are talking. Maybe that’s enough.
I decided when the pandemic started that I would merrily go along with leadership on this. I have never lived through a pandemic; I cannot imagine navigating a school district, state, or country through one. When our superintendent says stay home, I cheerfully teach little round dots on my laptop monitor, hoping that my teenagers are there. Some of them actually are there when I call their names. When the superintendent says come back to school, I excitedly show up and wipe down each desk between every class, so happy to have had that desk filled.
But the masks, much like the laptops, are barriers. I talked to a teacher friend last night who had sent over a care package that included throat lozenges and chap stick, among other things, to combat the effects of teaching with a mask on all day. Like all of us, she is overwhelmed with the burdens of the year. It is not the stress of too much work or change in routine that’s got her down. It is the distance she feels between herself and her students. “I just feel like I am not connecting like I usually do,” she said, and I thought I heard her voice waver with the threat of crying. “I don’t feel like I know my kids as much as I usually do. I don’t feel like they know me. There’s a disconnect, and it’s affecting the way I teach.” They are too far away, even when they are in our classrooms. We can’t see them completely. We can’t hear them well. They are hiding behind masks.
Last week, a sleepy teenager nodded off in class and had her head down on her desk. I walked by and, forgetting for just a moment that we are in a pandemic, put my hand on her back. She jerked up and yelled, “Please don’t touch me!” I withdrew quickly, remembering we are in a time when I can’t fully offer all of who I am in the classroom. My students are still children. Sometimes they need a pat on the back or a hug. Now, in a time of real crisis and uncertainty, I can’t offer them that. And I am really good at giving mom-hugs.
This week one of my students returned to school after a two-day absence. Her grandfather had passed away. I could not hug her. And she could not see completely the concern and love on my face. I can only hope she saw enough.
These past several months have been hard on all of us in different ways. My students have watched me struggle physically with neuropathy and fibromyalgia. This past October, my students saw me grieve the loss of both of my grandparents. They did not have to take their masks off for me to know that they loved me and were concerned. I saw it. They were enough.
I joke with my students about how tough of a crowd they are sometimes. All I get are stares—just eyes. I can’t tell sometimes if they are confused, bored, amused, or enthralled. I’m still learning to teach to a room full of masked faces. But I am trying—and they know I am. They are trying, too. That’s what matters, after all. We are together. We are enough.
Welcome to my Blog! I am a wife, mother of three, high school English teacher, and a graduate of the Bluegrass Writers Studio at Eastern Kentucky University. Before anything else, I am a woman of faith.