Counting Down the Days

A year of virtual learning
Thomas Park/Unsplash

Our year of pandemic schooling did not begin well. On the first day of school, my wife and I sat at the kitchen table with our three elementary-age children and their district-issued Chromebooks, while our two younger kids ran circles around the room, loudly pretending to be ninjas. I thought I had an easy assignment: helping our (usually) gentle and even-keeled second-grader, who has always loved school. It turns out, of course, that virtual learning is never easy. Within the first few minutes of class, he was already struggling to hold back tears.

His teacher had announced a simple icebreaker: she’d call on them one by one and each student would say his or her favorite color. Hearing these instructions, my son looked over at me and smiled, with an enthusiasm that seems a little heartbreaking in retrospect. He raised his hand right away, virtually and physically. But his name didn’t get called. Ever. A technical snag kept his teacher from seeing several students. “Okay, I think that’s everybody,” she said brightly, moving on to the next activity. I looked at my son, who did that thing where you smile when you actually want to cry. I told him to unmute himself and tell his teacher that she skipped him, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Then he made eye contact with his mom and the first tear fell.

That established the basic routine of our family’s virtual-learning experience: tech issues followed by tears. In nearly every session, at least one child would encounter some obstacle—faulty headphones, faulty links, faulty parents—that prevented them from seeing their teacher or hearing their classmates or, worst of all, from being seen and heard themselves. Our fourth-grader did fine for the most part, but it became harder and harder to get the second-grader and kindergartener to the table each morning. They would sometimes throw themselves to the floor just before we logged on, refusing to get up. My son started yelling, “I hate virtual!” We all became sulky and irritable. I often entertained the idea of throwing myself to the floor and refusing to get up.

I found myself asking an increasing number of Why Questions: Why won’t you get off the floor? Why are you guys so loud? Why can’t y’all be pirates somewhere else? Why are you chewing on your brother’s headphones? Why are you naked? In David Gates’s novel Jernigan, the eponymous narrator asks his teenage son a question, then immediately reprimands himself: “Mistake: asking Why Questions was just a way of giving people shit.” That sentence always stuck with me, although it hasn’t prevented me from making the same mistake. None of my Why Questions improved my children’s behavior or our circumstances, of course. They simply demonstrated my own helplessness.

None of my Why Questions improved my children’s behavior, of course. They simply demonstrated my own helplessness.

My wife and I developed a complicated relationship with the mute button. This feature provided the thin barrier keeping our private chaos—the bawling and shouting, the recriminations and ninja noises—from becoming public. “Is she on mute?” my wife would whisper to me, as we trembled with fear. I sometimes shouted Why Questions at one child without realizing that another child was unmuted in class. Once, when my wife was watching a school-wide parent meeting on her laptop, I looked into the camera as I walked by and shouted “Hey, everybody!”—mistakenly assuming her audio and video were off. “Parents,” the principal said, following my outburst, “I’d like to remind you once again to please mute yourself for this part of the presentation.” 

And yet the accidental unmutes weren’t as trying as the times when one of our kids purposely unmuted. Despite all my kids’ complaints about virtual learning, they still yearned to participate in class. Thus, whenever they would unmute themselves and begin to speak, my wife and I found ourselves making frantic, ridiculous efforts to silence everything and everyone else in the house: the singing preschooler, the scraping furniture, the other virtual learners, the two-year-old crying or making tiger sounds. In our most desperate moments, we physically closed our children’s mouths until their sibling finished talking.

As soon as our kids’ school district offered an in-person option, we took it. We understood why so many parents decided to keep their kids at home—we had family and close friends who’d gotten sick from the virus, sometimes very sick—but the data suggested that young children were less likely to be infected or experience severe cases, and our elementary school seemed to have reasonable safety protocols in place. Really, though, we were just worried about our children’s emotional health. The excitement and enthusiasm they’d kept up throughout our quarantined summer had disappeared during virtual learning. Returning to school, even with masks and socially distant classrooms and recess without playgrounds, they became themselves again. Their joy was palpable and immediate.

 

Meanwhile, I continued to teach my own college writing classes virtually from my bedroom. After weeks of overhearing my kids’ teachers as they valiantly tried to manage small children who all wanted to participate at once, I was still dealing with the opposite problem: college kids who would generally prefer not to unmute themselves at all.

In one of my virtual classes, we discussed the scene in Jane Austen’s Emma where (spoiler alert) Mr. Elton proposes to the title character in a carriage. Shocked and disturbed, Emma doesn’t say anything at first, and the young vicar confidently misreads her speechlessness as encouragement. “Allow me to interpret this interesting silence,” he says. My students suggested that Mr. Elton’s words should be my standard response on Zoom when no one responded to a discussion question. I tried it a few times. It got some smiles, but didn’t help the discussion.

Over the past year, though, I’ve made a fragile peace with teaching online. I learned not to be bothered by the utter silence following my jokes. I learned to pose a discussion question and then announce that I’d be muting myself for a set period of time, encouraging my students to take over while I took notes on what they said. I learned that if you speak to your class for more than a minute while you’re accidentally muted, your students may not ever tell you. I learned not to snack during class, even if the students are reading something and your video is off. (“Those chips must be good,” one student commented on the chat that day. “Soooooo good,” someone else added, at which point I muted myself.)

Teaching online is a humbling experience. But it’s also enlivening.

At the beginning of one class, my image froze on my students’ screens as I was speaking. A music major named Orion said, “Prof, you don’t look too good,” which made everyone laugh hysterically. Then they all froze on my screen. Having a bunch of college students frozen in place precisely as they point and laugh at you is not a good feeling. In fact, I’d say it’s the stuff of nightmares. What did they see that made them laugh so hard? I thought of the Simpsons episode where Moe is a substitute teacher and, taking roll, is unaware that the students have made up a roster with fake names to prank him (“Alright, settle down. Anita Bath here…”). He can’t figure out why they’re laughing at him, until he has a realization. “Oh, I get it, I get it,” he says. “It’s my big ears, isn’t it, kids? Isn’t it? Well, children, I can’t help that.” Then he runs out of the classroom. And Moe doesn’t even have big ears.

In other words, I learned that teaching online exacerbates your insecurities. It’s a humbling experience. But it’s also enlivening. Our semester ended a few weeks ago, and I already miss my virtual classes, even after complaining about Zoom for a year. I miss my students’ jokes in the chat. I miss having meaningful, genuine encounters with a group of thoughtful young people even as we’re in different places—some of them seven thousand miles away, taking my class at 3 a.m. their time. I’m very glad that the technology exists to make that happen. What would we have done this year without it? That’s one of the strange things about life during pandemic times (and maybe life in general): sometimes our most constant sources of anxiety and frustration also deserve our deepest gratitude.

School finally ends for my kids this week. We’re literally counting down the days. They’ve returned sporadically to virtual learning throughout the year—when cases rose over the holiday break, when the winter storm that hit Texas damaged schools in our district, when their classmates had Covid symptoms—and each time I’ve somehow been shocked by how much my family struggles with it. When the threat of “I hate virtual!” no longer looms over us, I’ll definitely be relieved. And yet: I know I’ll even miss parts of that experience, too.

I’ll miss eavesdropping on my kids in school, hearing my preschool-age daughter say “I like newborn baby dinosaurs” during virtual circle time, or hearing my kindergartener sing the days of the week in Spanish, or hearing my fourth grader say “The answer is James Baldwin.” I’ll miss being part of their learning in the moment, like when my second-grader gestured at me, speaking too loud with his headphones on, and said, “DADDA, COME HERE AND LOOK AT THESE MONKEYS.”

And I’ll miss getting to hear my kids’ teachers in action. As my family struggled to be patient with each other during our virtual days, my kids’ teachers never seemed to lose patience with the twenty-something disembodied children in their classes. If online learning is frustrating for the parents of small children, it must be infinitely more frustrating for the teachers of small children. And yet every time we heard a teacher’s voice in our house, the tone was gentle and kind. Every time. While we wanted to throw ourselves to the ground, they always somehow rose to the occasion.

Burke Nixon is a lecturer in the Program in Writing and Communication at Rice University, where he teaches a course called Fiction and Empathy.

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