On a recent Zoom meeting I had with my high school theater arts class we took turns giving “crib tours.”
As I showed off my living room filled with a row of white Ikea bookshelves, a Portuguese flag and a “Game of Thrones” banner, I saw where my students spend pretty much all their time these days. One student shook his head when showing the Tom Brady poster that hung next to his own senior football jersey. Another went through the ins and outs of an intricate gaming system with more monitors than I could count. Many introduced us to their cats.
One student, however, barely said a word. In the background, I could see her unmade bed and blank red walls. I could see the sadness in her eyes.
“Tell me what’s wrong,” I said.
The rest of my students went quiet.
“I just miss you guys,” she said, and then put her hand in front of her camera.
As I so often do, I scrambled for the right words to say. I talked about how hopeful I was that we’d be back in school soon. Soon after that call, however, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker ordered that all schools be closed until at least May 4. I worry about what words of encouragement I’ll offer in this week’s call when students ask me if our class will ever reconvene in person again. I fear we won’t.
As a teacher, I, too, feel stranded and unsure. District leaders have set clear online curriculum expectations while also being very accommodating in allowing teachers to be creative on how to keep students engaged, but what is missing from this conversation is how to engage with students who are grasping for one of the most basic human needs: touch.
I’ve been a teacher for the past seven years and like many teachers, I’ve impressed upon the importance of voice — how words can wield power unlike any weaponry on earth. And yet, as I stand in front of my monitor staring at the faces of my students, it’s their hands I want to hold, not their voices.
We’ve already seen the importance of real-life interaction in education. Look at one of the many teachers who’ve gone viral because of their individualized handshakes with their students, or because of their innovative singalongs. Every Friday, my co-teacher and I used to blast music between periods. Within those four minutes of students walking from one class to the next, he and I would dance in the middle of our hallway to Prince and Beyoncé. The administration thought it such a good idea, the music now plays over the intercom with rotating weekly DJs.
Now, when I take my daily walk around my neighborhood listening to those same beats, I think about how many of my students are doing the same thing — walking around with their hands in their pockets and head down low, afraid to let their bodies loose.
And what of the more personal moments? The moment when a student came to see me after school because she’d just broken up with her verbally abusive boyfriend and I held her hands in mine and assured her she did the right thing. The moment when a student jumped into my arms after being accepted into their No. 1 school and we bounced around and screamed in joy. The moment when a student walked into my room and asked me why white people were so racist; she had finished watching “When They See Us” in another class and as she sobbed through choked words, I held her as tightly as I could.
In these moments, and others, my voice was obsolete but a high-five, a hand or a hug was everything. What happens to these moments now?
In my theater arts course, I teach students how to project their voices, but to also speak with their bodies. What would the bodies of our students say to us now? My own body shows dark circles under my eyes from a lack of sleep, tense leg muscles, half-painted fingernails bitten down to the core. My body would say that I’m tired, but also restless — a need to feel safe within the four walls I call home.
A few years ago, I had a student with autism. He was always on edge, like most of the country is now. There was not much I could say or do to ease his worry. One day, my co-teacher had him stop rushing into the classroom. He was always one of the first students in the room and would have to sit on his hands with shaking legs until the bell rang to signal the start of the period. Instead, my co-teacher asked him to stand outside in the hallway with him. He rested his hands on his shoulders and together they took three big breaths. It was barely anything, but those three breaths and the touch of his shoulders was enough to ground him enough for the entire period.
I’ve come back to this moment a lot in the past few weeks. I think about how many teachers, health-care professionals and grocery store workers could benefit from such deep-breathing. We must do what is essential — ground ourselves in body and mind and remember why we’ve always been “essential” in the first place. We are the people whose smiles, handshakes and hugs have been and will continue to be, the pillars of life moving forward.