by Nancy Strout Porter
“Hey, let’s chat on Zoom on Tuesday night!” my friend Kate said. “I really miss you.”
A flashback exploded. Images of back-to-back virtual reading lessons shot at me like mortar fire. Me, in camo, belly-crawling amidst enemy technology advancing from all sides. These abrupt triggers assault me regularly now that school is out for the summer, reactivating the hellish 12 weeks of remote teaching that drafted me onto the front lines of a war I would have preferred watch from the sidelines.
“Can’t we just do a regular phone call?” I asked.
“Oh, but I miss your face!”
I didn’t miss her face—just her.
My thoughts threw me back to that first day of remote teaching this past spring, the worst of all, seconded only by the final weeks, when students were done but teachers were forced to soldier-on through more technology trainings as though our brains were anything but shell-shocked. Early on my school had front-loaded some basic information to us about how to teach remotely using Google Meet. At that time school had been predicted to be closed for only two weeks. I hadn’t seen the urgency for all of this. It was practically the same length as Christmas break for Heaven’s sake. Calm down, I wanted to shout at my colleagues.
Who knew it would go on for twelve weeks, and possibly into next fall?
I probably should have taken notes.
Within three days I was sitting at home on the edge of my desk chair, fingers hovering tentatively over the computer keys, panicked I might somehow activate Armageddon with one wrong strike. Oops! I was just trying to teach a phonics lesson. Sorry about the nuclear explosion. My computer cursor mocked me, egging me into a game of cyber chicken. As a Baby Boomer with factory installed analog settings, I had been horrified at the thought of providing live virtual reading lessons to my six and seven year-old students. My head throbbed from repeated brain searches trying to string together files of information from the whirl-wind trainings at school.
Terms like screencastify, meeting code and present mode felt vaguely familiar in the same vanishing way a dream becomes hard to grasp by breakfast time. My heart raced as I searched for a way out of this. I wondered if contracting the virus might actually be a feasible alternative. Then I spied my inhaler sitting on the table, reminding me that Covid-19 and asthma are arch enemies, quickly retracted the thought, waved a burning sage bundle throughout the room, and chanted a few affirmations until I was convinced any Law of Attraction manifestations I may have inadvertently activated had been cleared. In the end I deemed online teaching at least better than death.
But only slightly.
On Facebook that morning, as my educator friends lamented over their absence from school, posting pictures of empty hallways and lonely desks, I fantasized about sitting on the couch with my hand in a box of Cheez-its binge watching Game of Thrones in my pajamas. (Something I had been meaning to get around to for ages.) While my colleagues fretted over not seeing their students’ adorable little faces, I thought, Wow, I’m going to save a lot of gas money not having to drive to school every day!
I thought it might be best to resign.
Since it was day one, and I had already confirmed a schedule with parents, I figured I better show up. Many of them had expressed gratitude for my time and service. Although, I later wondered about their motives. Once things got rolling, many of them mysteriously disappeared into another room while I kept their kid occupied. I envisioned them downing margaritas while salsa dancing, as their child and I practiced vowel teams and digraphs. I searched to see if Google had a breathalyzer app to prove my point, but no luck.
As start time clicked closer, I rushed to polish off the remainder of the boxed raspberry Danish on the kitchen counter, then, recognizing my tendency to stress eat, refilled my coffee mug instead. As time went on, I was not always able to exercise such restraint. First up was Sam, a first grade student who, even on a good day, needs constant redirection to stay focused on anything other than Spiderman. He’s hilarious. I get such a kick out of this little guy. I wondered how he would behave in his natural environment.
I tapped a key and stared at my face projected on the screen. Is that a double chin? Suddenly, Sam’s mom appeared holding her phone in one hand and a toddler on her hip. No sign of Sam. As she approached his bedroom calling his name I got an inadvertent tour of her house, and one glimpse into his room had me suspecting something very Lord of the Flies-ish happening in there. I expected him to emerge with a boar’s head on a stick. He tumbled out, hair tousled, holding a video game controller, wearing only Spiderman underpants. Sam looked confused to see his teacher’s face on his mom’s phone and seemed insulted to have had his video game interrupted.
“Hey, Buddy,” I tried for cheerful and matter-of-fact, like I show up virtually in his house every day.
He pulled his head back, gaping at me with WTF eyebrows.
I asked him to find a clear work space so we could do our lesson. I watched Mom’s eyes widen and dart about as she scurried, swiping at clutter to carve a spot on the table. Sam sat down, declaring again that I had interrupted his video game, just in case I didn’t get it the first time. I ignored the challenge and told him that we were going to do a bit of reading work, just like we do at school.
Eventually, we clicked into gear, like some kind of muscle memory. I held up the familiar phonics cards and we chanted them in unison. In the end, we laughed together at the escapes of a naughty dog in a book called, No Bo! Everything had turned out fine, despite him periodically planting his eyeballs so close to the camera lens I could have performed an optical exam. When I told him I’d see him on Wednesday, he was already asking Mom if he could resume his precious video game.
The rest of the day proved mostly successful with all other students showing up fully dressed and at least expecting my visit. I muddled through, holding my breath each time I struck a key, exhaling when nothing blew up. The parents needed a few lessons, too. I had figured they’d be scrutinizing me, sharp pencil and notepad in hand, documenting my remote incompetence. But instead, many tried to slyly feed answers to their child and then later slunk off to the margarita room.
And of course, throughout all of this, the silent threat of the Covid-19 infiltrated, pressing its ugly face against my window as I taught, flipping me off as it slithered around threatening contamination. Each day when my husband returned from work I’d consider purchasing his and hers hazmat suits. It didn’t matter that I didn’t travel outside of my neighborhood during that time; I figured I’d order the casual style, just for wearing around the house, and possibly to bed.
Though I became better at navigating technology, picked up some tricks along the way, and actually saw kids make progress, I never really trusted the screen share feature, always paranoid I may have accidentally shared that “before” picture I took of myself wearing a sports bra when I started my diet last year, which was intended for viewing only next to a fifty-pound-lighter-more-toned “after” picture. (The later picture does not exist—yet.) That same lingering voice in my head has convinced me that I have indeed hit some control button that allows the folks in computer land to see and hear what’s going on in my home, like a kind of Bizarro Alexa.
So when Kate asked about the Zoom call I replied, “Actually, I just remembered I’m meeting up virtually with some other folks on Tuesday night.”
I’m on season four of Games of Thrones.