Let’s be blunt: four weeks into the current school year and no one seems to be operating at full speed. Not the kids. Not the administrators. Not the teachers.
We are sick of enduring a school year perpetually slowed by the paralysis of COVID protocols — the endless masking, the creepy and unnerving disappearance of students for long stretches of time (ten days if they are exposed to a student who has tested positive), and the specter of an unknown future stretching into winter and spring. It is no longer surprising when sports teams take two-week hiatuses. Games, competitions and dances get suddenly canceled and everyone knows why.
In early July everyone thought this school year would represent a “return to normal.” Those of us who love the classroom, who rejoice in the communal joy of a school campus, who find it utterly enthralling and glorious to take part in the process of mentoring and teaching young minds, now face a terrifying prospect lurking beneath the surface of our everyday classes: what if this is the new normal?
Outbreaks without end. Hoarse voices to eternity and back. Rigid seating charts. Campus life perpetually haunted by the crushing anvil of uncertainty. I don’t want to hear another doctor, dentist or nurse tell me how they have endured long hours in masks and that it isn’t so bad. Trust me, if they had to talk through these masks for five or six hours a day to fill a cavity, set a cast or perform an operation they’d be singing a different tune.
This school year feels like an attempt to repair a broken friendship in the wake of a betrayal or watching a professional sports league when the stars are all on strike. We are all happy to be back. It is better than Zoom classes all day. But let’s not pretend we haven’t lost something essential.
In fact, what worries my colleagues and me the most has nothing to do with us. Yes, our jobs are tough at the moment, but so what? We will adjust and do the best we can. But what we are witnessing in our children as they return to school is nothing less than a crisis.
The souls of our students seem to have devolved into the bipolar opposite of Walt Whitman’s famous quip, “I am large. I contain multitudes.” Instead, our students’ lives are small, cloaked in the soulful drapery of habitual isolation as they slowly morph into vessels of eternal digital consumption. Their disposition is one of unvirtuous stoicism — often expressionless (but who really knows with the masks), reluctant to participate, their academic skills atrophying to the point that they gasp out loud at the notion of taking an exam without an open book in front of them. They quickly clutch their devices the moment any free time is given to them, eager to sink into a comfortable and meaningless malaise provided by ubiquitous screens.
I get it.
Their devices ask nothing of them. They don’t insist on difficult conversations. They don’t ask for eye contact. They don’t correct the trappings of youthful immaturity. But now that school is back, many of our children are having a difficult time rising to the challenge of participating in a meaningful education. Teachers used to explain, “there is no shortcut to greatness” as a way of summoning diligence from their students, encouraging a form of noble striving. But what happens when no one is really interested in greatness, happily exchanging the discomfort of striving for a few minutes of scrolling and the endorphins it supplies?
We teachers were encouraged to be endlessly lenient for the past eighteen months. Accept all late work. Don’t ask students to turn on their cameras. Minimize test-taking. Understand the amount of anxiety our young people are experiencing, especially those who don’t have a lot of emotional support at home. This made sense for the past year and a half. But what about now?
A few weeks after the 9/11 attacks, SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels raised the question, “Can we be funny?”
Many of us in the trenches of the American classroom today want to ask a similar question, “Can we have high expectations again?”
At some point, it is important to teach our young people that the role of every adult in their lives is not to make their lives easier. Ease can become immiserating over time. Teachers should be compassionate. They should work tirelessly to engender an open and welcoming atmosphere where every student feels valued. But this should never supplant the need and necessity for insisting young Americans learn what they don’t know. It should never replace the aim of cultivating skills that will empower and impassion young Americans to realize their full potential.
Everyone used to understand this. It didn’t need an explanation. Except, now it does. One of my best friends who teaches English found himself promising a pizza party if the students would just participate a little bit more. No one seemed interested. The band director at my school found himself jumping on chairs à la John Keating simply to get his students to react.
No, things are not going well.
We live in an era where it is fashionable and seductive to equate ease with compassion, to tell young Americans a trophy means you are excellent and a diploma means you are educated. But it’s a lie. The legacy of COVID education will be long and lasting. But it will be especially pernicious if we allow young people to forgot that school is not supposed to be easy and that nothing — nothing! — in this life can be easy and edifying at the same time.