Pity and I were smoking with a pair of sixth graders near the school’s lunch dumpsters when the gulls swooped in. We watched the birds pull at the spaghetti that streamed down the rims, remembering how the lunch ladies would fill up the bins each week with uneaten angel hair or fettuccine, how the flocks would dive in for the fresh stuff not ten minutes after.
“Lookit the seagulls!” one of the kids said. When he clapped, the ash on his Newport fell off in a clump.
“Don’t say ‘seagulls’,” I told him. “We live upstate. You see a sea around here? No? Call them ‘ring-billed gulls,’ then, if you want to get fucking technical. Common as head lice up here.”
“You shouldn’t cuss, Mr. Fitz,” said the kid’s friend, scratching his head. He had orange hair, not red. Orange. Bright as Bozo’s.
“This here is an employee smoke break, kiddo,” I said, laying a hand on Pity’s shoulder. “Mr. Fitz gets fifteen minutes of cancer every three hours, no teaching required. Government mandate.”
Pity piped in: “And fifteen minutes of quiet.”
“But those are seagulls,” Bozo started, and then, “Ow!” Because that’s when Pity zinged his lit joint at the kid’s left cheek. Principal Coach and the school’s steroidal Vice Principals didn’t mind our janitor’s pot stash so long as Pity was the one plunging toilets. Deadly aim, that Pity.
“I said ‘quiet’!” yelled Pity, not quiet at all. So the sixth graders trudged back over to recess in a huff. They’d return with their Newports tomorrow, and everything would be just fine again.
“Now that amateur hour’s over,” Pity said, “we’ve got demands to discuss.”
“Demands?” I said. I thought of my ex-wife, Jan Allen, and her girlfriend, Belinda. I thought of the legal envelope and the unsigned closing contract they’d dropped off with me again on Monday. I’d had enough of demands for the week. “Like what?”
Pity rolled another joint, took a small list out of his shirtsleeve pocket.
“West exit by the band room needs a fire extinguisher,” he started. “I can carve out a chunk in the brickwork there, but it ain’t up to code otherwise.”
“Easy peasy,” I said. I dreamed of calling the fire marshal if Coach didn’t comply. Red lights and helmets and the wrath of the local hook & ladder on him and everything. “What else?”
“Eighth-grade French needs a Blu-ray player,” he continued, “and Seventh-grade Geography needs an atlas of Europe with no East or West Germany on it. Just Germany. A big one.”
With Pity, it was never “Mademoiselle Flaneur” or “Mr. Grigsby.” Just the faculty’s grades and subjects. Pity could turn anything into ceremony.
“It’d be no more than fifty bucks,” Pity explained. He shot out five fingers on his left hand like he was learning to count. “Coach could go for that, no problem.”
“It’ll be eighty minimum,” I told him, our free period almost over. “We’ll have to go through central purchasing for it. Gotta find the lowest bid and all that.”
Pity shook both hands this time, ten fingers flying now. “Hell, boy, you know damn well Wal-Mart’s got the lowest bid. How come we can’t ever just buy from the supercenter?”
“It’s all invoices and budgets,” I said. I left it at that because sometimes I had to. “You done?”
Pity took another puff, and I waved the smoke away. “One more thing,” he said.
“Let’s have it.”
A gull landed on one of the bins next to us. I’d never seen one fish out and eat a meatball before, but here we were.
“You missed it at the meeting last week, but we got to talking,” he started. The meatball the gull had picked up was swallowed and out of sight now. But it bulged in the bird’s throat now and didn’t move.
“Spit it out,” I said.
In front of Pity and me, the gull started to dance and panic. It was choking on its spongy find.
“You talking to me or the bird?” Pity asked.
We watched the gull crank its neck up and down as it tried to dislodge the meat.
“You,” I said, still watching the thing thrash.
“No more Thursday night football,” Pity said. “Please.” He kicked the words out of his mouth like he was confessing to something terrible. “School spirit be damned.”
In front of us, the gull hit its head on the rim of the dumpster. It clanged back and forth on the edge, hard, but the ball in the middle of its neck stayed stuck.
“This something you all want?” I said.
Pity stepped in front of me. Made eye contact and looked all business.
“We took a vote,” he said. Held me by both shoulders like we were slow dancing. A foxtrot or a soft waltz, maybe. Like something Jan Allen and I might have done once.
Behind us, the bird started hitting its head on the plastic lid. In the cafeteria somewhere was a poster showing how to perform the Heimlich maneuver.
“Unanimous decision,” he pleaded.
I couldn’t see the bird as it fell. Pity was blocking my line of sight, and I wondered if he’d leave a burn mark on my shirtsleeve. But I heard the thing hit the pavement. A soft whump, and then we both turned to confirm something horrible or natural had happened.
“Okay, then,” I said. The gull’s one exposed eye stared up at nothing and at everything. Above us, a flock of white birds — his friends, maybe? — circled and made plans for noodles and half-eaten bread rolls. “I’ll let him know.”
On my parade to the Vice Principals’ rumpus rooms and Principle Coach’s leather-lined office, I thought of the frozen faculty bodies on Thursday nights and got angry. I thought of us standing in the cold, soda-streaked bleachers for two hours each week, cheering on every pissant play the JV squad ran. Five-yard interceptions from the QB to the other team. Views of the ball flying backwards behind the kicker. Hugs and tears alike in every huddle.
But these sad memories were fuel for me on the walk down. Drums before a skirmish. An application of warpaint. I carried a banner I’d found in front of me: a great triangle of sequined black and gold, our school colors. I was ready.
I could smell the Vice Principals’ jawlines before I could see their office block. Every day a fresh shave, every staff meeting an attack of mid-shelf cologne. Underbites on each of them that had never been fixed. Waxed forearms with popped veins that would’ve made the front office staff gaga if they all hadn’t been terrified of Coach’s personal defense line.
“Help you, Fitz?” one of them asked. ‘Russell’ or something just as baritone. The blondest and newest of the trio, trained to be a junkyard dog like the other two. But we called him ‘Eight’ since he patrolled that grade’s wing.
“Here to see Coach,” I said, unfurling my flag. I presented it to Eight with purpose and meaning and lies in my heart. “It’s important.”
I’d beelined over to the Principals’ office after chancing on a pair of randy high schoolers who’d come down on the bus from the hilltop campus. Before I turned the hose on them, I’d caught them fingering each other in front of Mrs. Trapp’s Art studio, and they’d scared the Color Guard on their way out to practice. One of the girls on the squad had dropped her black and gold banner, and I’d brought it with me now like a winged herald of glad tidings.
Eight latched onto the flag pole like a new toy, and I pivoted around the cloth in an underarm turn and into the first corner of the hallway before he could recover.
It was like dancing with Jan Allen. Made me sad to think of cha chas and rhumbas and box steps we’d never finish. I thought of her girlfriend, Belinda, who would never dip her as well as I might.
Six popped out of his hovel on the left as I entered, barricading the way forward, saying, “Can’t rightly say if Coach is in now, Mr. Fitz.”
“Not looking for him,” I said, pushing ahead. I was mustering up my best crazy eyes, like Jan Allen had made in the days before she got fed up with me and left. “It’s you, Six. Just you.” A feathered wedge of brunet bangs hung down over his brow, and I held him by his bricked shoulders. “You’re wanted out by the bus stop. Those high schoolers are back on their frotteurism again, and I need you to be our man on it. So are you on it?”
The light changed in Six’s eyes as he mumbled out “goddamnitwaithere,” and then sprinted down the hallway with Eight to defend our school against the heaviest of heavy petting.
And there I was: alone now in the paneled hallway of particle-board wood and yellowing class photos, right up until Seven’s door creaked open. I could hear his wood-bead bracelets clacking before he could step into the hall and block my way.
“Whatever you’ve got, Mr. Fitz, it can wait,” Seven said. He’d spread his knotted arms in front of him and above me, a bodybuilder in a bear pose. “Coach is due up in the field house for last period. Laps today. Maybe sprints. Totally important.”
Seven’s hair was black as a goth kid’s diary. It spiked out of the sides of his head in cartoon haystacks of pomade and determination.
“Totally,” I nodded, getting in close. I made like I wanted to lambada with Seven, which gave us both certain kinds of feelings — new, important feelings — but then I rapped my knuckles on Coach’s cheap particle-wood door behind him at the last second.
Seven’s wax-candled face tapered into a snarl the second we both heard Coach bark out, “Door’s open!”
“Don’t mind me,” I said, patting his deltoids. Seven growled, good dog that he was, but I couldn’t stick around to give compliments. I had plans.
Sunlight streamed in through the window that looked out over the west lawn of Klaus W. Tripeltrübel middle school. Dust motes drifted in the air, making the halo effect on the man all the more pronounced.
“Color me impressed, Fitz.”
In his glory, Principal Coach was a protagonist of a man, with a handlebar mustache and a close-cropped mohawk, everything below the neck the build of a ex-college football star, trapped now in fitted khakis and a gingham tie. Wild rumors flitted down from the administration claiming he’d once QB’d for Syracuse, tore through an M.Ed. program after an injury, and then married his cheerleader girlfriend after a pregnancy scare that turned into an actual pregnancy once they put their backs into it. Their American dream was the most American of all the American dreams.
“I thought for certain I was scheduled to cover final period again, but here you are.”
“Here I am,” I said. “Barely. Seven almost stopped me. Good defense on that one.”
Coach looked past me and into the bare hallway, empty now of VPs.
“Not good enough,” he said, touching the college ring on his finger. Like his wedding ring, the jewelry burrowed into his knuckles like it was practicing autoerotic asphyxiation. I daydreamed of something gangrenous happening. “You’ve got three minutes to tell me what you need before I cut for the gym,” he said. “Can’t be late or the kids’ll think they’ve run off another substitute.”
Two weeks ago, Mr. Connolly — who taught the “Career Explorations” class in the mornings, Phys Ed in the afternoons — had been caught high on ketamine he’d scrounged from who knows where. In his best impression of leadership, Principal Coach had driven Connolly to the local rehab and had taken over the last period of the day from the man, forcing the students to run laps since he didn’t know what else to do with them if it didn’t involve line formations and pass plays.
“Heaven forbid,” I said. Coach’s ass cheeks rested on the lip of his desk. I watched him bob up and down as he flexed and relaxed his glutes. “Now I know you’re a busy man, and I won’t julienne words. The union just needs you to sign off on two little things and one big thing.”
Principal Coach smirked. “Bearer of bad news from the Local #1135, are you?”
“It’s the job,” I said. I was unflappable. “Item number one: we need a fire extinguisher next to the band room’s interior doors. It’s going to require a cut into the stonework if you want it to match the set.” And then I shut the hell up.
First one to talk in a negotiation has lost, I remembered someone once saying. When Jan Allen told me she was leaving, I’d talked first and asked why.
“Since this isn’t a fine china pattern, you go and tell Pity,” Coach began, eyes closed now, “to pony out and grab a metal-and-glass box rig, punch a couple of heavy mollies into the wall, and then hang the new extinguisher up. No need to make anyone suck in aerosolized brick.”
“Done,” I said, surprised. Unlike Jan Allen’s revelation about whom and what she loved, this was going well. “Item number two: we need $100 for the French and Geography classrooms. I could get it out of petty cash right now and have everything set up in an hour.”
“Slow down there, Fitz,” Coach said. “Devil’s in the details. What are we talking about here?”
I puffed out my cheeks. I was ready to hoot, throw feces, make war. “A Blu-ray player for French, a new map for Geography. I could rig it up before they came back in the morning.”
Our Principal took his time on this one. Leaned his head back, gave pause.
“Buy the map for Mr. Grigsby. Get Pity on the installation.”
Dust motes ripped around the room in whorls and waves, dancing and falling.
“And Mademoiselle Flaneur needs?” he continued.
“A Blu-ray player.”
“Take the business card, but make certain the thing can play DVDs, too,” he said. “Bring back the receipt or I’ll turn campus into a smoke-free zone.”
The very idea. I was two for two, though, so my hackles were down.
“That’s fair,” I said. “Ready for the big ask?”
“Shoot,” Coach said, reloading his crossed arms like they were empty.
“Thursday nights,” I said, ready-steady, “are henceforth optional, not mandatory.”
I was expecting thunder and lightning. Something painful and loud.
Coach sniffed, “You go to hell.”
So here was the firmament, the levee unbroken. The cessation of chewed gum and bouncing buttocks.
“I knew you were going to hate it,” I said. “But you’re a reasonable man. You know forcing the teachers and staff to show up to the night games isn’t right. On top of that, it’s unfair.”
Our Principal’s posture stiffened, and I knew right then I’d lost. Our dance was over.
“Unfair?” He said it back to me. “Unfair? Well, that may be true. But what it is is contractually obligated. Page seventeen in your employee handbooks, if memory serves — and it assuredly does serve — and what it is is a show of loyalty to our students. And what it is is a sacrifice. A necessary one at that.”
He paused, lifted one cheek to fart, started chewing his gum again and grunted. Flatulence wafted in the air between us.
“Listen here: if I can sacrifice my afternoons to fill in because Mr. Connolly’s drying out down the road,” Coach continued, “then you all can sure as shit show up for an hour once a week to support the squad. You hear me?”
And then the desk bouncing started again, and so did Coach, and then the scent of the man’s gases was gone. Somewhere in the room, an alarm was vibrating.
“That’s time,” he said, arms uncrossing now. He moved to the door and grabbed a whistle off the coat peg. “See your sweet asses in the bleachers come Thursday night.”
Home was a Cape Cod the color of a fresh bruise in the middle of ivy-choked Tudors. Jan Allen and I had purchased it back in the ’90s, sometime right after grunge and flannel. Our realtor was a spiteful widower, angry and bitter now that flipping property had become a younger person’s game. Told us we should buy the place because it’d be a middle finger to the socialites who lived around us.
“This used to be the community gardener’s home,” he explained, tapping his cigar ash onto the living room carpet. “Back when this hellscape was a damn community.”
Jan Allen and I made an offer on the house that same afternoon. On the day we closed, she pocketed the keys, I shaved in the bathroom sink, and we lindy-hopped until we crashed into the hearth. After an ice pack and some takeout Chinese, we rode each other on the berber carpeting until we were dehydrated. I would’ve thought we were happy back then. Might’ve just been the low interest rates.
After making nice with Coach in his departure from the office and then beelining toward my driveway, Jan Allen was there, crouched on the stoop. Next to her was the girlfriend, Belinda, who held her arm like they were conjoined. The pair of them rose from their squat when I slowed and pulled into the drive, and I saw them as they would be seen: Belinda, short and feral, ropey with muscle from working at the kennels, and Jan Allen, tall as a motherfucker, which she was now. Or she always had been.
“Jan Allen,” I said. “Belinda.” In the old westerns I liked to watch, cowboys greeted each other with names and nods, not pleasantries.
“Good to see you, Fitz,” Jan Allen said. My surname was her pet name for me. Until a year ago, the name had been hers, too, right up until it wasn’t anymore.
“Good to see you, too,” I lied. We both lied. It was the same now as waving ‘hello.’
There was a pause in the air as pregnant as we’d never been. Next to my ex-wife, Belinda stared me down, unblinking, the white of a sharpened canine in her snarl for me to see.
“I know I asked this last week, but is there any chance you’re ready to close?” Jan Allen asked. “We won’t have a buyer much longer if you keep doing this.”
“No?” I said. There would be a cigarette in my hands if I could just make them leave.
“Then like I said last week: go fuck yourself,” she said, gutting past me toward the rig. Belinda loped right in step with her, growling and looking tired and angry and fierce. I’d never smelled venom before, but the stink of hatred on her was something awful. “Let me know if you ever want to stop paying your half of the mortgage, you idiot.”
While I still had the old homestead, Jan Allen still drove our black truck, with the big payload neither of us would ever need. In the moment she and Belinda knifed past me, I watched as the girlfriend sprinted for the passenger seat, leaping up into it so she could keep hold of her hex on me, or whatever she was cooking. But Jan Allen climbed up behind the steering wheel like she was mounting a Clydesdale, and I remembered that we’d once been in love.
“I saw a bird die today,” I yelled to her. It was tough to get her attention over the V12 diesel, but I pressed on. “It was there one minute, funneling pasta, and then it wasn’t.”
“What?” she yelled, her window down.
“And I saw two teenagers with their hands in each other’s pants,” I yelled back.
Jan Allen killed the engine just then, squinting at me from behind her wraparounds. She and gun enthusiasts wore the same eye protection.
“What?” she yelled. “Goddamn it, what are you saying?”
And I missed this house, I wanted to tell her. I missed us.
“It’s been a bit of a day!” I yelled back. “I’ve changed my mind?”
Jan Allen and Belinda murmured under the rip of the engine. I saw teeth and consolations, saw promises being made. But then the driver’s side door opened, and my ex-wife led me into our old home in a perp’s escort. Strong arms, my old flame.
“This better not be a trick,” she said. “We’ve got a pot of fettuccine Alfredo waiting for us back home, goddamn it.”
I thought of Jan Allen and Belinda mixing cream and parmesan cheese in a saucepan until it blended together. Of cracking pepper over hot, flaccid noodles.
“If you’re serious, initial here,” she said inside the door, closing papers appearing from her vest. “And sign here.” Our hands touched at the knuckles. It was the most action I’d had in months. “And here.”
“Are you happy?” I asked, wondering if she smelled old smoke in the house. If she did, we’d have to pay for the cleaning. “With her?”
“I will be,” Jan Allen said, flipping the paper over. Our realtor’s card was at the bottom of the page, his photo embossed above the name. Red polo shirt, forearms big as Belinda’s. “Sign and date here.”
So I did. I watched Jan Allen force all the air out of her lungs. She flipped the water faucet on and off again. Like she was checking on the condition of the place.
“Gotta say, Fitz,” she said, “this feels good. Long time coming, you know?”
“I know,” I said, wondering why I gave up everything I loved without a fight. “I’m sorry.”
And my ex said, “What made you change your mind?”
“If I’m being honest,” I told her — and I wasn’t being honest — “it’s work. It’s Pity and the admins and the other faculty. They look up to me now. Like I’m their defense against Coach and the VPs. It’s a leadership thing, babe.” I watched her flinch at the old pet name. “As above, so below, you know?”
“Not really,” she said, shaking her head. Her mouth hung open, and I loved her for it.
“Do you remember dancing with me?” I asked. “Like we did that first night?”
I watched Jan Allen pick up the contract and shuffle the papers together.
“We had a good thing there for a while,” she told me, smiling. “But you know that’s over now, right? I’m not that person anymore.”
“I know,” I said. Outside, Belinda was honking the horn. One beep, two. Foot revving hard onto the accelerator for effect. A wild scream of “Let’s go!” sent out from the open window and into the neighborhood.
“Well, that’s me,” Jan Allen said, leaning toward the door. She was almost to the foyer, to the front closet that hid nothing but pipes and galoshes now. “Look, Fitz, once we close and you move out, you should start over. Maybe find someone new. Someone who likes dancing, you know?”
I used to dream of Jan Allen and I celebrating our 80th birthdays with cake and passion. We’d travel on cruise ships to Canada because that’s what people our age would do. We’d die within hours of each other — maybe from a gas leak — and our surviving pets would eat our unmoving flesh because they wouldn’t receive nourishment otherwise, maybe starting with our faces because that’s what they loved best. We’d love them back, though, and buy them premium kibble until the end.
“I ought to,” I said. “Sure I will. I’ll do that.”
Then Jan Allen got that look in her eye like maybe she believed me, maybe she didn’t. Like everything else I’d loved in my life, I’d given this away, too. But she nodded just the same, said nothing, then hiked back to the truck. As she revved away, I watched Belinda knife an imaginary line across her neck at me. I read it more as a note of separation from her and her lover, an end to things, less so a threat of death and great pain, and then I called Principal Coach because I knew what Belinda had meant.
The boys’ early practice was just finishing up as I kludged into work the next morning. I watched the football team stream down the hill after their laps, several of them puking into the grass and making yellow puddles of eggs or chewing tobacco, maybe both. Behind them, Six, Seven, and Eight rustled them down through the grass like cattle, and, overhead, I swore I could hear the gulls making hungry sounds and smacking their beaks in anticipation. They had the foul appetites of dogs sometimes, and I worried about the future.
“Glorious thing to see, Fitz,” said Principal Coach. He wore a black and yellow polo with a chaw packet bulge in his gums. Below us, the VPs wore the same dark shirts and bulges as Coach, like myna birds in the mating season.
As above, so below, I thought.
Coach continued, “To see these young men being whittled into war engines, you know?”
I didn’t. “Got a second?”
“I will,” Coach said. Then to the boys: “Shower up, dress out, and if I hear about your stench from anyone in first period, we’ll do burpees until you deflate. Understood?”
And then the Greek chorus of vomit-fresh voices: “Yes, Coach, sir!” Below me, adolescents rolled down the hill in waves, bile and hope on their lips, and the VPs clapped in time.
“Now what can I do for you, Fitz?” Coach asked.
I paused. Gathered courage from the ether. “I come bearing gifts,” I said.
“You hate teaching general Phys Ed in the afternoons,” I said, “the students hate taking it from you, and you’re pissed you can’t make them run drills like they’re your second string.”
“Watch your tone, Fitz.” Around us, the ground was soaking up the ovals of vomit and chaw.
“But I can do it,” I said. “I can take Connolly’s class off your hands.”
Coach laughed then, but he still rubbed his scalp with both hands as though he were honestly thinking about it.
“What would you teach?” he asked. “Because you didn’t letter in a damn thing in high school.”
“Dance,” I said, unfazed. “Ballroom. Swing. Not so much modern or ballet, but you know I’d get their growing hearts pumping.”
“But — ” Coach started.
“What I don’t know,” I interrupted, “I can learn and then teach the basics. I’ve played some ball, served some volleys. I’ve tagged schoolchildren with dodgeballs, and I’ve drawn blood. But this way, with dance, maybe I’d at least give them something I’m good at.”
Coach’s rubbing intensified. The folds of his neck, the bristles of his mohawk, the stubble below his mustache.
“So what I get is a free period in exchange for the faculty getting out from Thursday night games?” he said. “Is that it?”
“That’s the proposal, I reckon.”
Scalp to earlobes, earlobes back to scalp, scalp down to bridge of his nose in a slide of thick fingers.
“You’ll all be there for Homecoming, though,” he whispered, “and every game during the playoffs, if we ever make them again. Every single one. You hear me?”
“I hear you,” I said. “We hear you.”
Coach looked out over the fields then, and I followed his gaze. Gulls flew overhead and sought out trash. In my future, I saw the shakes of nicotine-free afternoons hereafter, the sweat of young frames on freshly waxed gym floors.
“For you,” Mr. Grigsby said, slipping a blue Swingline into my hands. He touched my shirtsleeve, rubbed it like a St. Christopher’s medal, and I watched him kowtow away.
Around us on the Tripeltrübel gym floor that Thursday, the least athletic of the eighth graders waltzed in uneven boxes. They stumbled over shoelaces that weren’t there, groped asses by mistake or on purpose, blushing either way.
Next came Mademoiselle Flaneur. “For you,” she said, nestling a Toblerone into my briefcase. She bowed as she left, and I nodded my benediction. The chocolate would be gone before final bell.
“Been like this all day, has it?” asked Pity, slipping in silently. “You and the flock?”
In the far corner, a blond waif of a boy slipped and fell while spinning his partner. The girl sighed, kept dancing to the 3/4 time signature I’d piped in overhead. Another girl from the bleachers swept in to take the boy’s place, to lead, but we could all tell who was twirling whom.
I nodded. “Gifts to staunch a wound after falling on a sword, I suppose.”
“What’d you say to Coach?” Pity asked.
“Nothing much,” I said. “Just made a trade, fair and square.”
Last in line was Mrs. Trapp, her fingers smudged with pastels. Today was an advanced session of nude figure drawing, and, judging from her state of undress, she’d served as both their instructor and their model.
“I made you a little something, Fitz,” she murmured, placing something in my hands. I felt the rough fabric of a cross stitch in a hoop, set in a balsam oval. “It’s nothing, really, but thank you.”
We watched Mrs. Trapp straighten and march through the center of the gym, head high between the whirling dervishes of tweens and teens, then out the door toward not a scheduled football game but somewhere else. A home, maybe. Hers.
Pity said quietly, “Lookit,” and I did.
There, in my hands, Mrs. Trapp had laid a pattern sewn to look like our school mascot, the Tripeltrübel Troll, outlined in black and gold, its hands dripping red arterial blood and holding a person’s severed and mustachioed head, possibly Coach’s. I couldn’t tell, really.
“Now that’s damn pretty,” breathed Pity.
“No, sir, it’s ugly as sin,” I told him. “But it’s yours if you want it.”
Featured image: Shutterstock/Ola Koval
Life in America, and around the world, has changed dramatically in the face of COVID-19, and nowhere is that change more stark than in our institutions of learning. As communities entered into lockdowns and quarantines, educators were suddenly thrown into the position of adapting classroom plans (many of which had been written months in advance or were equipment-dependent) for an uncertain transition into e-learning. As the school year rolls to an end around the country, we gathered first-hand accounts from teachers on the frontlines, who shared the positives and negatives they’ve experienced. In short, what we have learned about e-learning?
Editor’s note: Some names have been changed to honor requests for anonymity. Those entries will be noted with an asterisk.
Dawn Jukes, Elementary Teacher, Indianapolis
Jukes has been teaching kindergarten and elementary school students from a wide variety of backgrounds for 23 years. She taught for the Indianapolis Public School system for 20 of those years.
Jukes: I teach for inner-city Indianapolis and two of my students don’t have WiFi at home, so they haven’t been able to do online e-learning. Out of 23 students, 10 have computers and the ones who don’t, try to do e-learning on phones and tablets. We have made packets twice as a second option. About 80 percent of our students picked up their packets the second time. I do Zoom two to three times a week and I usually have three to six students (out of 23) on it. I even do one evening, because a lot of my parents are still working. I’ve had parents tell me they work till six and have one tablet for three kids to do their e-learning on once she gets home. I send out weekly texts for free food pick-up options. I’ve had a couple parents express to me they’re very thankful. Phalen Leadership Academies (that I’m a part of) even delivers food on Mondays to our families who are in need.
I think my kids who get on my Zoom love seeing each other and having something different to do (I try to find different activities we can do together, or we learn about cities or countries I’ve visited, and talk about what is going on.) PLA also put together an e-learning website for students to use. It has 30 math and 30 ELA lessons per grade. I know some of my students definitely use it. I just wish all of them could.
Mary Ann Abramson, JAG (Jobs for America’s Graduates) Instructor
JAG is a nationwide high school (and in some cases, middle school) program, available in over 30 states. JAG “consists of a comprehensive set of services designed to keep young people in school through graduation and improves their success rates in education and career.” The program emphasizes project-based learning, collaboration, and internships, all of which were dramatically affected by the nationwide pandemic. Mary Ann Abramson is a JAG instructor at the high school level.
Abramson: This has definitely been a learning experience for me. My class model relies heavily on student interaction and input, so not having that at all felt like I was teaching blind. I couldn’t tell how the assignments were going, how much time it was taking students to complete them, or redirect when my instructions may have been misunderstood.
I think the three things that helped me the most through this e-learning pandemic time period are collaboration, self-care, and grace. This experience of trying to conduct school during a pandemic was new for absolutely everyone. Collaborating to share lesson plans, web sites, and stories of what has worked, and not, was helpful. It was truly humbling to see how teachers from across the nation were finding ways to share information and resources. Including students in the process was helpful as well, allowing me to structure assignments that truly met the needs of the students where they were as far as resources and emotional health.
This transitions nicely into my next piece of advice, the importance of self-care. Self-care is such a buzz word, but I found it to be a real lifeline for me and my family. Experiencing this, I made assignments for my students designed around finding a new activity, or revisiting an old one, that they could implement when they were feeling overwhelmed or increasingly upset about the way their school year ended. The feedback from students was very positive, and allowed for a good discussion at our weekly Zoom meeting.
The last one, grace, is something we all need to extend to one another, and ourselves, throughout this whole ordeal. Like I said before, this is new for all of us. Teachers, students, parents, even administrators… we’re all trying to do our best. We’ll come out of this better by working together, taking care of ourselves and granting one another a measure of grace along the way.
Dr. Lori Henson, Instructor, Indiana State University
Dr. Lori Henson is a seasoned journalist and an Instructor of Communication/Journalism. She’s taught in multiple formats, including online instruction, for three colleges over the past 17 years. She’s been with ISU since 2012.
Henson: 1. You can’t prepare for a moment like this.
I teach journalism at Indiana State University. I’m pretty comfortable with online education. My materials are online in a typical semester, and at Indiana State University, we use a course management system that students use to access materials and communicate about course assignments. All this familiarity made me think the transition to online teaching would be relatively seamless, even under the difficult circumstances. What I didn’t expect was how difficult it would be to reimagine how to teach journalism when the central idea of going places and talking to people isn’t possible. I had to work around those limitations by finding online and media content that would be useful and accessible for students and meet the course objectives. All of this done on a tight timeline.
2. Students are not alright.
One of my students is now the primary caregiver for her grandmother who was moved out of her nursing home as a precaution. Another student lost both her grandparents to COVID-19. An untold number of my students are paying their way through college as essential workers at grocery stores, factories, restaurants, warehouses, as delivery drivers, and even healthcare and childcare workers. Many have to fight for time using WiFi at public locations. Adjusting to online course work adds to their stress. When I realized what they would be facing, I determined it was not time to ask them to adapt to new apps, software, or even scheduled streaming meetings. It was not time to add to their workload, or even to their total news consumption about the pandemic. It’s simply not practical or kind.
3. The pandemic is offering an education of its own.
I cannot count the number of heroic acts of kindness, generosity, and public service our students and faculty and staff have initiated in this terrible time. Some of our university’s social work students and faculty are leading a mutual aid group in our community, to get resources to those at risk. Our students and faculty are marshaling their talents and labor toward serving others, researching solutions to all kinds of problems the pandemic presents, and keeping our world moving. Students and educators — in various ways, and with mixed results — are learning to cope, to build community, and to care for their mental and physical health in new ways.
4. We are resilient.
As an academic advisor, I have talked to dozens of students about plans for the months ahead. Almost without exception, students tell me they are bored, getting by, and looking forward to getting back to their classes and social lives. Faculty, thrown by the quick transition to online teaching, are looking forward to time to prepare for fall classes, whatever form they take. We are adapting. We are moving forward. And I believe we all have a new and grateful attitude about how much we mean to each other. We won’t take any of it for granted.
Wayne Stantz*, Community College Instructor
Wayne Stantz* and his wife Anne* both teach for a large community college system in the U.S. They have several decades of combined experience teaching both in the classroom and in several distance formats.
Stantz*: Whether it is college or K-12, class time still needs to be class time — plan your time accordingly and stick to it. It’s very common sense to say we need to follow time management, but in practice, we tend to let it go. Students (and people working) need to schedule time for study and keep that schedule. Our classes moved to a “virtual” environment, where we refer to online as the online distance model, and the virtual model is simulated classes taught through Zoom. Class sessions are held at the originally scheduled times, and these sessions simulate interaction for students with their peers and teachers. It’s important for students to keep to the originally scheduled class sessions, as even though they may not have a face-to-face class, they do have a schedule with time set aside for study and interaction with faculty.
This goes along with the idea that if a student is going to maintain that schedule and come to the virtual class, then engagement is also important. It is great to show up and sit in a Zoom meeting and watch, but if the camera and microphone are never turned on, as far as the teacher is concerned, the student might as well not be there. Teachers also need the student response to what they are saying and showing to guide the lesson. We respond to physical and verbal cues from our students to understand areas of inquiry or misinformation- if we don’t get those cues, we will assume everything we are discussing makes sense and move on to the next element. We may miss important learning moments because we don’t “see” the potential need for more clarity.
What I am saying is it is very easy for students to “ghost” — log into a class, keep the mic/video off, and then go do other things. I compare this to the student who comes to class but doesn’t engage, just sits in the room and looks at their phone/computer/sleeps. I laugh to myself when I hear teachers say, “Well, I never have that happen — I engage all my students.” No, you either bully your students to engage, or you don’t look around your room too often. In every room, there is the potential for students to fall through cracks. I’m not saying it always happens, but the potential is always there. Teachers wonder how do we engage all our students all the time, and now that technology makes it easy to “ghost,” that question is doubly hard.
Since the virtual meeting software records sessions, re-watching recordings of missed sessions has been a boon to students, and as a teacher, I look forward to shifts in teaching models when we return to the classroom. I would love for my “normal” classes to be recorded and be available to students who weren’t in class. The potentials for technology usage and different learning environments to co-exist are being proven in real time, instead of being argued about in curriculum and budget meetings, but I fear we will try to return to the old ways without consideration for the methods we are developing.
I’ve learned to be more flexible with deadlines, and that is saying a lot because I was already flexible with deadlines. Already I took the position of “I don’t know the outside life and issues of my students,” so I while holding them to a standard of expectation, I still gave them some ability to work around that. Now, with some of them being in the health or service industry, not only have their schedules gone out the window, when and how they engage with learning has, too. Numbers and attendance follows the online model more than the F2F (face-to-face) idea. Yet, even that has to be flexible — my F2F students weren’t expecting to take an online course — so the blended version of one (part online, part virtual F2F) is attempting to meet them and the situation head on.
In class, I have extroverts and introverts. The extroverts have to learn a bit of control because they can actually overwhelm the technology (the pacing of “phone” conversation is different than F2F). The introverts actually do well in the course — less direct peer intimidation. This doesn’t mean levels of fear of public speaking or engagement are gone, but the structure is different — there is a removal of the physical space and trappings. This allows them to have control of the environment they are in, to have control of their safety zones. And in that they might draw more comfort and not be overwhelmed by some of the environmental issues of a classroom full of people.
Assignments have to be different — online structured instead of classroom structured. I’m not saying that class activities can’t occur, but when half of your class may be unable to attend because of work, of family sickness, of technology issues, then the idea of having a 20-minute class activity that all participate in goes out the window — student led learning is now the model.
Giant packets of copied materials don’t work — they overwhelm and ultimately the teacher has to ask what did the student learn, and on a practical level, how am I going to get all that work back. I feel bad for my child going through this fake level of learning. He isn’t. He is doing his best to finish each generic assignment. The educational year is lost. I feel bad for the lost potential and wasted time. I suppose there were good intentions in the learning packets, but I’m not sure I see them as much as I see a rushed response to meet expectations.
The lesson I think I’ve learned is that we (America) could have done better. We squandered time and resources, hoarded money and floated false notions of liberty and freedom out of fear of change and selfishness. Teachers and students can’t do our best because there is such broad economic disparity between who has access to support and technology. This limits the ability to take advantage of what can be done. There is obviously poor leadership on all levels — not out of good intentions — I would never mind mistakes out of good intentions.
Helpful strategies for students?
Treat class time (virtual or otherwise) as a scheduled event. Time management is important, and so is learning. Be in your “class” when you signed up for it and treat it as if it is still going on.
Your teacher should still be there to lend support and explain the lesson — just because they sent home a packet, doesn’t mean they are off the hook. Send an email, talk online, but let them know that your learning is important to you and you need help
The hardest lesson for me was that not every assignment is worth breaking yourself for. Some things just don’t need that much stress over. Weigh the expectation and the goal — in the face of 40 equally poorly written assignments, letting go of depth isn’t letting go of learning. (That’s aimed at my child’s current school experience.)
Communication is important- outside of class, your teachers want to know what is going on so they can help you. Keep them up to date. Let them know where you have questions. There aren’t dumb questions.
READ EVERYTHING. Explore the world. Read the news (not just your favorite sources). Know what is going on and why. Ask questions.
Matt Brady, High School Science Teacher and founder of TheScienceOf.org, North Carolina
Matt Brady is a high school science teacher in North Carolina. He’s also the founder of the popular website www.thescienceof.org, which uses pop culture to teach larger scientific principles, and a co-founder of pop culture news site www.newsarama.com. Brady wrote The Science of Rick and Morty: The Unofficial Guide to Earth’s Stupidest Show in 2019.
Brady: I’ve learned again how deep inequality runs. I’ve “lost” students to work as their only, or both parents, have been laid off or live in fear of being laid off, and press their teenager to get a job because “we just don’t know.” And when in the days before we stopped physical school, asking students to participate in a survey about who had a device and WiFi at home wasn’t as thorough as it could have been, and students didn’t understand what it meant. A phone is not a device on which you can do schoolwork. A laptop is. But kids don’t want other kids necessarily to know that they don’t have one. Same with WiFi. You can’t watch hour-long videos for each of your classes on Cricket minutes, or pay-as-you-go plans. And that’s just technology and doesn’t touch food. Or shelter, or a place to go where you won’t get hit whenever someone drinks. As far as inequality goes, we’ve been yelling this for years and years, and this shined a white-hot light on it. Whether we do anything about it is always the question, but having worked in public education for a decade-plus, I fear I already know the answer. Probably just lots of words that make the people saying them feel better about themselves, but very little or no action.
There were, at least for my district, no plans ready for this, and I figure that was the same for many others. That’s…understandable given the tightness of budgets and how “war-rooming” would be a luxury, spending money to talk to consultants and pay staff to speculate about scenarios and how to respond. But if we can level this criticism at the administration, we can level it at every smaller organization that is an essential need: we knew this was coming. There was no plan. There was deferring to authorities, either local or state, who also had no plan. We were all Indiana Jones going after that truck in Raiders of the Lost Ark — we were all just making it up as we went along, and like Indy, we did okay. But…this is going to happen again. We’ll be remembered by history for how we made do on this one. We’ll be judged by history on how well we’ve prepared for the next wave of COVID, the next pandemic, or whatever emergency situation arises that requires long-term off-site learning.
This has reaffirmed that a lot of kids — despite the manic-ness of teenagers on TikTok and others — are not okay with this. Those of us who’ve chosen to stay in daily contact with our students are putting our training in “cries for help” to use and have quickly become experts at the “language” someone uses when they’re in trouble. The words not being said as well as the words being said. The order of the words. A shy student who’s desperately chatty. An e-mail from a student saying, “I quit.” Schools have amazing supports built-in for students, and it guts me that we’ve had to use them pretty much non-stop through all of this.
Related to this, I do have a lot of kids who are putting in the work who will probably admit that the work — the regular expectations of my class, of their math class, and others — have been their lifeline, their crutch to keeping something of a “normal” feel to their days and weeks. Some had issues, some had to bow out to work, and yes, some did ghost us, but overall, they kept at it. They kept learning. The future will be okay, ultimately.
Some kids like this, and respond better to online, at-home learning than in-room, in-school learning. I’ve seen some of my quieter kids, and some with challenging situations, utterly blossom and do some of the best work of their time in my class. For some, the distractions and social pressures of being in school were the issues. I’ve been humbled by how well some of my kids are doing.
Kids need to see that their teachers are vulnerable and that we’re in this together. This was not the time for teachers who get off on being dicks to their students to continue that, just online. I made a point to pull my class together as a community. I wrote a Corona Diary entry every day which was half stuff they needed to do, and have me journaling about the time, how I’m doing, and how I hoped they were doing. We had a class playlist so we can remember this time. I told them about how much Mother’s Day sucked for me since my Mom had passed away in December. I told them that I had up days and down days, and sometimes, all I wanted to do was just lie on my couch with the TV on, not paying attention to it. I held my due dates as flexible and offered them do-overs if their heads weren’t in the game when they had to do the assignment. I told them we’d all see each other again someday soon and laugh and remember this, and tell our stories to each other. And I was looking forward to it.
I learned that the public needed stability in all of this, and early on, some of that stability was provided by stories of “hero teachers” going above and beyond…the three percent or so of teachers who’d been pushed online. Those made people feel good for a while and we all laughed and smiled at teachers visiting students and writing on storm doors, and making cute videos and puppet shows, but then the public got tired of those stories and moved on, which was fine, because more and more of us were seeing those stories and feeling like we sucked if we weren’t doing those things if we didn’t have Pinterest-ready backdrops, lessons, and boards good to go. If our whole class wasn’t on Zoom at the same time or however the super-teachers were being shown to be super-teachers. A lot of us were doing the best we could, and it was nowhere near the story we were being told about “all the teachers.” As teachers, often portrayed as the bad guys and the problem, unless we’re taking a bullet for a student, this moment in the sun was…discomforting. And by the way, there have been some “struggling teacher” stories, but those aren’t as feel-good and don’t make people happy, so they’re kind of buried.
A lot of my kids thanked me for that. For being human with them and to them.
I learned that this was not online teaching. These were not online courses. This was disaster response.
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