It was just over a month ago, on March 13, that Alabama’s governor Kay Ivey got on the TV late in the afternoon to announce that all of our state’s schools would be closed until April 6. For my students and I, it was the Friday that led into spring break, and we had our 14th annual Sketch Show that night. They’d been working on it for a month and had been in dress rehearsals all week. Earlier that day, the scuttle-butt had already begun when our local superintendent sent word that all athletic events were cancelled— our city, Montgomery, had its first confirmed case of coronavirus. My students were quickly pulled into the frenzy: will our show go on? is it safe to be there? Yes, it will go on, I told them throughout the afternoon. But I was wrong. No matter that we had only one confirmed case in a city of a quarter-million, the tension and anxiety quickly increased, then the governor’s announcement was the kicker. A simple truth had emerged: the arrival of deadly virus severely diminishes people’s desire to attend a comedy show.
Since that time, the COVID-19 global pandemic has cancelled or postponed virtually everything I would have been doing this spring. Two weeks after the first announcement of a temporary closure, a second announcement told us that classes would not resume on campus, but would be moved completely online. Alabama’s seniors in “good standing” were told that they would be considered “graduates” as of third nine-weeks. Not long after that, churches and even our adoration chapel were shuttered, and the cultural events fell like dominoes: the High School Literary Arts Awards ceremony, the Alabama Book Festival, the Flimp Festival, and the Durr Lecture . . . In the creative writing program that I teach, spring is when we enjoy the fruits of our fall and winter labors. Our literary magazines had arrived on March 12, the day before the first closure announcement, and today, they’re still sitting in the boxes. Then, of course, there’s the school garden, where those students and I were getting ready to plant for spring, where the blueberry bushes were blooming, and where the muscadine vines were greening back up. The only thing to do there was carry the tools and equipment inside, and cover the beds.
Teaching online is OK, but I don’t love it. Relying heavily on technology can create attitudes about life that are transactional— okay, I pushed the lever, give me the food pellet. To me, education is personal, not transactional. As a teacher, I make it clear to students, to parents, to everyone, that I’m not there to hand over commodified information to stack on their mental shelves; I’m there to help young people grow and evolve, think and critique, find themselves and be better people. While teaching online is fine for commodified information – webinars, etc. – it makes that personal aspect more difficult. However, that’s where we are right now. The school-closure decision was made for the sake of students’ health, not because anyone thought this way of educating students would be better. Alabama is a poor state with underfunded schools and a well-known lack of broadband access, and those problems, which were apparent before, are glaring now.
One month in, I’ll admit: I miss my work, I miss my students, and I miss the energy of a high school in springtime. For eleven years of teaching high-school seniors, I’ve listened to them grumble all during April and May, “Can’t we just be done? Can’t we just go ahead and graduate now?” Well, the Class of 2020 got that— and it stinks. We didn’t get to close out the year and say goodbye properly. There will be no celebrations, formal or informal: no senior teas, no proms, no graduations, not even a little dancing in the hall after that last exam.
I’ll also share this: my heart is with the people who are suffering through this silently. While we all distance ourselves in order to protect the most vulnerable, there are millions of people who were living paycheck-to-paycheck but who’ve lost that paycheck. No amount of social distancing will help them, and it’s not enough for government programs to plead technology failure. A hard-working person with a hungry family can’t go to the grocery store, fill a cart, and tell the cashier, “The unemployment website crashed.” I was also a food-service worker in local restaurants for four years in the 1990s, and I know what those cooks, servers, managers, and owners are going through. No work means no money. I keep hearing on the news that Americans are maintaining a good attitude about this whole thing, but there’s a lot of heartbreak going on privately in people’s homes right now. Small businesses are crashing, bills are stacking up, credit card balances are growing, and those facts will alter the lives of whole families for decades. Those debts and backlogs won’t disappear when the country “opens back up.”
We’re told that we’re saving lives by doing all this, but even in our data-obsessed culture, we’ll never know how well it worked. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry who gets a little TV time makes another prediction or estimation, but nobody knows anything solid. The honest ones admit that. My main concern now is that we don’t whip ourselves up into a long-term frenzy based on a short-term barrage of highly publicized guesses that all seem to include the word “could.” I’ll keep doing what our leaders ask, because plans only work if people cooperate, and because I don’t want anyone to get sick. Yet, I refuse to accept that this is “the new normal”— a society homebound or six feet apart, visiting through live streams, without festivals and ball games, without big family gatherings, without going to dinner or to the theater. Or to school! I’m no anthropologist, but I doubt if such a culture has ever existed. And frankly, I doubt if it could.
Today, my students and I would have been at the Alabama Book Festival, displaying and selling those magazines that sit in boxes in my closed classroom. And tonight would have been our school’s prom. I would have spent the day behind the display table at the festival – a tradition we’ve had since 2006 – then I would have run home, showered, ate a bite, and scurried over to the venue. (I always do my shift at the door from 7:00 ’til 9:00, because I don’t want to be the guy watching the dance floor from 9:00 ’til 11:00!) After a day of seeing my literary pals and sharing my students’ annual offering, I would have gone early to watch the juniors and seniors arrive, boys in their tuxes and girls in their fancy dresses, all proud and smiling. Were it not what it is, today would have been frantic and exhausting, full of nice weather and good friends and new books and loud music and sparkly evening wear. Today . . . would have been a good day.