Safe and Sorry–faces on the screen

JFK was assassinated on a Friday.  The World Trade Center was destroyed on a Tuesday. 

Coronavirus is every day.

In 1963 I was in the 6th grade. My teacher was Mrs. Kauffman, a sturdy older woman I remember as humorless and purposeful. That fall I had a crush on Mary Pat Frost. On WKNX, the local AM radio station, the Beatles’ “She Loves You” played on 45 minute intervals. The British invasion was well underway. In those days schools were still rehearsing emergency procedures, for tornado and for the A-bomb. I recall taking my place in the hallway, along with every student from every class lined up single file, tight against an inner wall, hands clasped over our heads, our bodies sinking to the floor like so many deflated balls.

Mid-afternoon that day Mrs. Kauffman was called out of the room. When she came back we knew something had happened. Sitting next to me, Forrest Whitman said he saw that Mr. Winchell, another 6th teacher out in the hallway, was crying. A few minutes later Mrs. Thayer, the principal, made an announcement. There was an emergency. Buses were coming early to pick kids up and take them home.  The Saturday night performance of Junior Escapades, the high school talent show that weekend, she said was canceled.

What followed was a long weekend of grief on black and white TV. The Rotunda, the procession with the horse-drawn hearse, endless replays of the motorcade and men in white cowboy hats down in Texas, Jackie in her blood-stained suit, John-John’s salute. LBJ taking the oath of office. Lee Harvey Oswald shot at close range on live national TV. And then, the next Monday we went back to school. I don’t recall Mrs. Kauffman engaging us in any way about what had happened, what it all meant. Perhaps she did, but I think she left comfort to the parents. Grief counseling had not yet been invented. We carried on in school largely as before. 

In 2001, on the morning of the second Tuesday in September, I was driving to campus to teach a class. The day before that, we had buried my mother-in-law, after her second bout of cancer. That morning I had the hollowed out wordless space inside me that loss creates. I was a blank, in no mood to teach. But this was a hybrid class, half face to face, half online, and it was early in the semester. I was teaching freshman writing, but I was also teaching students how to learn online (and learning about it myself as I went along), how to navigate a virtual classroom and engage a virtual curriculum. For their peace of mind, and to help manage the next week of their online work, I needed to see students.  

I heard the news report on the car radio around 9:30. The first tower. By the time I got to the computer lab to meet my students, the second plane had struck. No one knew anything for certain yet, but terror attack seemed like the best explanation. A few minutes after class started, the college administration decided to cancel all classes in session and for the remainder of the day. I was glad for that decision. At the college where I taught, 10 percent of the student population was Arab. For years I’d had 5-7 Arab students in every class I taught. I read their writing. I knew their stories. In the days ahead, if it did indeed turn out to be a terror attack, those students would be in danger. I was afraid for them.

Days of grief and outrage followed, living color replays of the planes, the flumes of liquid fire after impact, the smoke and dust cyclones when the towers came down, their skeletal remains. George W. Bush on site, speaking into a bullhorn. In the days that followed, sitting in my office, I remember looking out the window, up into the sky, at the usual flight path taking planes into Detroit Metro airport. The empty sky was haunting. In the classroom we talked about what happened. The events of 9/11 had changed everything, our collective sense of safety, our sense of who we were, our thinking about and tolerance of “the other.” The classroom was a safe space, a decompression chamber where we said what we thought, listened, provided support, tested solutions to intractable problems that were out of our hands. In time the planes flew again. The term “new normal” came into being. 

Unlike the killing of JFK and the mayhem of 9/11, Coronavirus is happening every day. 

One of my daughter’s pals–like my daughter she is the mother of two small children, pre-school and early elementary age–says she wakes up every morning thinking about coronavirus. That’s me, too. This is our daily dread. We wake up to it, and then all day long, tying on masks, squirting sanitizer in our hands, wiping down milk cartons we bring home from the store–going to the store, even that pedestrian activity is a venture into a possible hot zone–all day long we think about the pandemic. 

Today, urgently, as August comes to an end, we also think about school, about safety.  

On our morning walk today, my wife and I stopped to look at chalk drawings on a neighbor’s asphalt driveway. Rainbows, an exotic bird, a tropical island and tropical fruits, the artists’ names. Beneath it all, written in large script, Safe. 

Children’s fantasy and fear, coming together.

I think about the ongoing school debate, about teachers and their classrooms, about how those rooms, whatever the level, are learning ecosystems, tropical islands and polar zones and, yes, in some cases, parking lots that students inhabit, where stuff is supposed to happen to engage their attention and bring about growth. Those spaces come with an ethos, expressed in teachers’ care for students (Tony, that’s enough glue. Let’s listen to Sandra’s story for a minute. Who knows the square root of 64?), an ethos also established by the stories teachers tell, their learning narratives–why Ms. Kearns loves science, what Mr. Briggs sees that is orderly and beautiful in math, how a story or poem stirs Dr. Nelson’s imagination and desire to understand another person’s life.

This fall, school will not carry on much as before. Around the country we’re making this up as well go along. Better safe than sorry. 

“Well,” a young mother says, “at least we have Zoom.”  An Ames, Iowa, parent, commenting on their governor’s decision to fully open schools, is quoted as saying, “We’re about to see a tragedy occur in the state. And there’s not a lot we can do about it.” Local schools in our area have recently announced full virtual return this fall. This morning I heard on the news that the University of North Carolina, like many colleges and universities, has decided against normal opening. It will pivot to online instruction. Classes start in a week.

I started teaching with computers before Microsoft came out with Windows, way back in the DOS days. That makes me old. Also, I like to think, it makes me wise. In the college division in which I taught, when the technology arrived, the policy for teaching online was hybrid first, then all online. Hybrid for a full fifteen week semester, with a mentor’s oversight, meant you met students half online, half face to face. The instructor built a course not from the ground up–she would already have course content, a syllabus, units of study, readings and activities, an array of graded assignments–she situated it in what seemed like thin air. How do I do it? Where do I keep my materials? How do I meet with students once they get in there? What do they do? Where do they go? How do I monitor their work? What about grading? You had to learn a course management system. There were buttons to push, levers to pull. You had to learn to fly the plane. Only a handful of instructors wanted to teach online.

I don’t know how you teach reading on Zoom, how you pass out worksheets on Zoom, what it feels like to form a learning circle on Zoom. I have to think: it can’t be much of a circle. And the terms “full virtual”’and “pivot” stop me in my tracks. Full virtual is radical. The shift from face-to-face learning is not a pivot.  It is a Copernican shift.

“Well,” a teacher friend on Facebook said a few days ago, “I just spent four hours preparing an online instructional experience that will take students half an hour.” Summing up the monumental content problem with going remote. 

I haven’t seen any data, I don’t know that it exists, but I suspect that most teachers don’t want to go full virtual. They want to be in their rooms, on their islands, with their students.  They don’t want to pivot. 

But that’s what’s happening. This situation is not better safe than sorry. If we do the right thing, we will be safe and sorry. For teachers, kids, parents, for all of us, this is the terrible new normal.


  1. Richard Vogt says:

    Wow. You sure jarred some memories, especially Mrs. Kauffman. Great essay.

  2. Sherrie English says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful and real life story. Be well.

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