Before schools closed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, my students climbed three flights of stairs to get to my classroom. I stood watch at the door before and after school, so I scarcely joined them on their ascent up stairwell D, but evidence of their passing was obvious: in the morning, hushed conversations floated around the corridor–heavy, adult conversations. Sometimes they seemed like a physical weight on the backs of the fifteen year olds as they entered. 

“Good morning,” I greeted them as they arrived.

Maybe that’s what community looks like in trying times: adapting as best as possible and extending grace to cover the multitude of our collective shortcomings.A half smile back. I lightened their load temporally and marginally, but I’d undo it by the end of class. We would have a curriculum to get through, one that is far more advanced than the one I had at fifteen.

Last year, one of my favorite students showed me what she was working on for one of her math classes. The document she pulled up appeared to me like an arbitrary blob of zeroes and ones, with a sprinkling of unrecognizable symbols for good measure. It was like the kind of art a kindergartner brings home to a perplexed parent. “Oh,” I murmured. “That looks…so cool.”

She laughed. “It’s a computer program, Mrs. Dunham. I wrote it last night,” she added nonchalantly.

When I was in ninth grade, I was playing pretend billiards in Geometry. As I remarked on how impressive her program was, the student proceeded to map out her life plan. She is one of my best writers, and I still harbor hope that she’ll pursue that talent in some form, but her heart is set on a very specific career path: not the kind of abstract dream teenagers pull from the personality they’re excavating more and more each day–a concrete path she’d already taken steps down.

This sort of goal building is astounding. But it’s also sad, as it postures teenagers as adults without acknowledging that they are also still children.

As I descended the three flights of stairs to my car each day, empty flaming hot cheetos bags and candy wrappers stood sentinel in the corner or rolled down the empty hallways like tumbleweed. It was not just litter. It was also a relic of the childhood we, as an American society, are urging our adolescents to cast aside.

Since this pandemic began, adults everywhere have been living in strange and uncertain times, which I know because every email I’ve received since March has begun this way. Teenagers, however, inhabit that space inherently. 

My students walk into room 3-405 with the same heavy burdens, but they are carrying said burdens on the slight shoulders of a child. When the bell rings and my students leave their desks, they leave behind assignments I just passed out, expensive iPhone chargers in the wall, and candy wrappers on the ground. These students are not somewhat adult and somewhat children. They are both at once, and often by serving one of their developmental needs, we undermine another. 

What a strange and uncertain time indeed, and the most redemptive, motivating part of my job is easing said strangeness and uncertainty. I do this by drawing them into community, ensuring to the best of my ability that they feel safe and secure. Within the confines of that security, I challenge them to rise to rigor and forgive them when they do not. I let them be children while modeling adult expectations. It’s a balance that hangs by a thread, and it’s one that has been entirely undone by distance learning.

Each morning since mid-March, I’ve woken up, poured my coffee, and logged onto my computer. A smattering of students have emailed me. Many more have not. I do not hear the echoes of heavy conversations as they make their way to my classroom. They’re not coming to my classroom. I do not ease that heaviness by greeting them at the door. They will not walk through my door. I wrestle with Zoom and Dropbox and various other platforms as I attempt to walk with them through the tasks I’ve set before them. Many students across the nation won’t rise to the occasion, not for lack of trying, but because technology cannot imitate the most redemptive part of school: the classroom.

So much of education happens via proximity. Under the model of distance education, I cannot assess student learning as they work. I wait until they turn something in or reach out for help, and then we waste hours backtracking to fix something that could have been easily avoided in the classroom. I can’t tell them to put their phones away and pay attention. I can’t tell if my directions are a jumbled mess in real time. I can’t give them a safe place to land as they enter my classroom door. They are not coming to my classroom door.

Most egregious is the fact that the nature of distance learning demands my students behave like adults more than ever. They have been thrust into an online environment that requires a level of maturity and initiative they are still rightly developing–skills some college students have not yet honed. When they fail to exhibit such traits, we educators must fight the impulse to treat them like adults. They are still children, too. 

I pitched this article before distance learning began in earnest, and I intended to write about the ways that community in schools could win out amidst trying circumstances. But I found that I couldn’t honestly write such an article. That hasn’t been the experience I’ve lived so far. I miss my kiddos, and while technology can offer a better-than-nothing stopgap, it cannot replace the aspects of community that proximity fosters.

And yet, while I cannot honestly opine that community has prevailed against the measures pandemic have imposed on my classroom, I see flashes of hope all around me. Much of my school’s staff rallied together (from a respectable social distance) to create and deliver meals for students. Teachers continue to show up in innovative ways, making phone calls and editing videos that might call their scattered classrooms together. My school’s secretaries have been the very glue of the place, coordinating everyone’s effort to create some semblance of cohesion. School counselors have continued to counsel as best they can from a distance. Special education teachers have carried on with their caseloads.

Across the nation, parents are doing the best they can with varying degrees of academic success. I’m convinced my seven-year-old is probably never going to learn math under my tutelage despite the fact that my husband is a math teacher. Last week my son and I argued for twenty minutes over what a nickel is, and I now no longer know or care. When I emailed his teacher about the idea of just showing them how to use credit cards, I was met with understanding and support (and another method to try before giving up). 

I mostly despise distance learning, but I have faith that if I do my job, my students and their families will feel similarly supported. No, they are not coming to my classroom, but occasionally Zoom conjures their likeness to my screen. They pop into my email’s inbox. They’ve submitted honest journal reflections, and we’ve borne out the weight of newfound expectations together. 

It is not perfect. I lose sleep over the students who have fallen through the gaps. But the thing that colors each interaction I have with students, parents, colleagues, and the staff at my own son’s school is this: grace. Grace for the imperfections and failed efforts. Renewed grace for the teenagers the education system has addressed simply as adults for too long. 

Maybe that’s what community looks like in trying times: adapting as best as possible and extending grace to cover the multitude of our collective shortcomings. And when my students arrive at my door again, I hope we continue in the spirit of that grace.