Mid-March – I’m not 100% sure of the date, and I could probably look it up, but these days, exact dates are less and less important. It was time for Spring Break, and while I usually greet breaks of this nature with a similar ebullience as my students, this semester I felt a sinking dread in my stomach. I had been reading about COVID-19, just like everyone else (I’m not trying to imply here that I was far enough ahead of the curve to actually stock up on hand sanitizer, face masks, or God help us and keep us, TOILET PAPER, but you’d have been hard pressed at that point to be unaware of what was taking place even if you didn’t exactly recognize the looming severity).
I watched as my Queens students left for parts unknown: some to places like Washington, D.C., or local towns close by, while some went all the way across the country, home to California, or down to Florida. These kids scattered to the four winds like puffs from a dandelion, and I knew that the breeze carrying them about was full of germs and illness, possibly death. Although at that point, youth were still considered pretty much COVID-proof, a concept we later came to recognize was idiotic in its naiveté and hopefulness. Later, when my CPCC students went off for their break, COVID was already clearly a problem, and the school made it clear that we wouldn’t be returning to life as usual following our break.
I spent the first weeks of the quarantine constantly at my desk, working feverishly to cobble together some sort of completion for each of my classes in an online space. I rapidly exhausted myself, as I was working longer hours now and those hours were harder, being filled with both mentally taxing work as well as emotionally taxing as well. My students struggled to find places to live as the dorms they were in at Queens were rapidly closed down, and work situations quickly became questionable as well. The emotional labor I found myself doing was extensive as a result, and I found myself counseling students in ways I hadn’t previously had to. We were in uncharted territory in more ways than one.
One of my students was struggling with health issues, as she had throughout her time in school. She was one of the first of my students to recognize the dangers facing us, and opted to continue her classwork from home, beginning a self-imposed quarantine in an attempt to remain safe from the illness as she was a part of one of the groups considered to be high risk. She emailed me that she was not returning to campus but would work from home, and I had no problem with that. I was actually happy to hear it, because she was one of the ones I was most concerned about – her health had been a problem for her the semester before, with her spending much of her break time undergoing treatments and surgeries, yet her work never faltered.
I was surprised by how many students managed to continue their work from their far-flung places around the map: Texas, California, Ireland, as much as just down the street. Some of them, of course, fell off the radar, unable to continue their work due to mental health issues, or grueling work schedules, or caretaking responsibilities. I watched with a great deal of pride as the majority of my students worked throughout the remaining weeks to remain on track, and I worried about how the disappeared students were doing. I felt pride for the disappeared students as well, because I knew that they were doing what needed doing, even if that mean a cessation of studies.
We finished the semester with not a bang, but at least not a whimper. I graded much more leniently than I ever have in my life, and one of my classmates from TCU who has now gone on to greatness elsewhere Tweeted “Well that was some easy grade entry this year,” followed by a gif of Oprah with the text below her “You get an A, and you get an A!” I felt similarly, but I felt no guilt about it, nor did I worry that I had awarded students grades they hadn’t earned. I had begun to see how much more important it is to view each other from the standpoint of our humanity than through the lens of a rubric. Those kids had persevered, through some pretty weird and terrible situations, to get to the end of the semester. That alone equated to some leniency in my mind.
Out of the semester had come a great many lessons for me, not the least of which being a revisiting of the experience of learning that we never know where our words and our work are going to have a high impact. Sure, we teach writing and rhetoric and whatever else we might teach (that math stuff, maybe or some science – I don’t know), and some of the students take what we are offering, file it away, and maybe think about it later, maybe not.
But sometimes there’s a student who reminds you of why you are doing this, why you stayed in graduate school even when you were so broke Ramen noodles were a splurge, why you continue to do the work when the pay is bad, the hours are bad, and the work is lonely. Sarah, the student I mentioned above, emailed me towards the end of class saying that she couldn’t do justice to what she needed to say to me in an email. She attached a letter that I let sit for a bit before I read it, mostly because I was in the midst of final grades and didn’t want what she wrote to impact anything I did with grading, even possibly. After I had submitted final grades, I opened her attachment only to find the letter that I think we all want to receive at some point in our professional lives as teachers.
Sarah wrote about her first day in my class (the previous semester) and how that was her first day in school. She wrote of her worries and her fears, and how the time she spent with me in that class helped cement her belief that she was pursuing the right track:
My first professor happened to be the most supportive, understanding and encouraging mentor I could have ever asked for. You changed my life that day, you became my sign. A sign that I was exactly where I was meant to be. You showed me what I am capable of. You helped me see that I can do anything that I set my mind to. I began to find my passions because you inspired me to. I fell in love with new experiences because you taught me to give myself room to fail. You taught me that life is full of shitty first drafts, but those drafts, when you continue to work on them, have the potential to become your greatest works.
Her letter and her lived experience in my class are the things that keep me going when my own work becomes overwhelming and when I begin to wonder if leaving the legal field was the right thing to do (I would be lying if I said I hadn’t looked at the Want Ads for legal secretaries a few times recently). She managed to tell me just exactly what I had dreamed of hearing out of a student those long ago days in Texas as I sat in a classroom, thinking I was in the wrong place for sure, and how could I ever do this sort of work, or hope to inspire anyone?
You taught me to voice my opinions and allowed me to express them freely, this is something I have never experienced before. You taught me to see the validities in everyone’s beliefs, regardless of how different they are from my own. You have helped shape me as a student and as a member of society.
Her letter is posted here in its entirety, because I am so legitimately proud of it, and so incredibly moved by it. I’m embarrassed by it, too, because I’m one of those people who likes to work in anonymity and quiet, and needs very little to be getting on with. Sometimes, though, receiving something like this is just what we need.
I do love my students, all of them: the troubled ones, the difficult ones, the older ones, the younger ones, the scared ones, the smart ones, the perfect ones, the damaged ones. With or without a pandemic, my students make me better.