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Middle School Can’t Be Digitized

Dispatch from the Frontlines of Care

June 25, 2020

We are proud to have a strong analytical focus on social reproduction here heat Spectre. The current pandemic is tragically proving that to which social reproduction theorists have long drawn attention: that work needed to sustain life and life-making, such as nursing, teaching, cleaning – in other words, care work – is essential for any society to function. Indeed, it is care work that makes all other work possible.

A social reproduction focus, however, is not simply a philosophical orientation, but is simultaneously a political project. This is why during this time of crisis, we want our readers to hear the voices of workers fighting on the frontlines of care.

The work of nurses, refuse workers, teachers, and farm workers, among others, is sustaining us through this crisis. Our series, Dispatches from the Frontlines of Care, serves to remind ourselves that it is the stockbroker and the corporate CEO who are disposable, and we want a world where they remain so. If you have a story for us, please write to the series editor Tithi Bhattacharya at tithi@spectrejournal.com.

School is consistently defined by the wrenching tension between internal rhythms of body and mind and the external drummings of the school day, the yearly calendar, and students’ churn of attention from one thing to the next. I often reach for time-related metaphors when attempting to illustrate the feel of working in a middle school building: being in the weeds, like a line cook behind on orders; the school bell as a boxing bell, signaling the start of another round, always coming too fast.

But we are not just passive in time’s motion. We are also agents who are actively changing one another and ourselves. Layered on top of the drum beat of the blocks and bells of the days and weeks is the melody of relationships, ideas, and people evolving and shifting in delicate relation to one another. When COVID pushed all of this — chaotically, nearly overnight — into digital space, the music didn’t stop, but it was muffled and distorted.

Middle school can’t really be captured in the electronic back and forth that marks “distance learning.” Middle school is the hallway at 7:45am, already buzzing with a distinct pulse of energy and mild discomfort. Middle school is the clumsy handsiness of friends in the cafeteria, who have an unstoppable urge to touch but are still working out how, and why. Middle school is the classroom tension, present not only between students but within students, of bursting curiosity and surging distractibility, of deeply felt compassion and furious judgement, of passive compliance and instinctual disobedience.

 

Closing

Shutting down school for COVID felt like a wire conducting electricity was suddenly snipped. On a Saturday, three months ago, I had a conversation with friends about the possibility of shutdowns for the first time with anything approaching a serious tone. We were driving to go cross country skiing, most of us teachers, a spectacular day of early spring sunshine that now, in retrospect, seems otherworldly. On Wednesday, nearby colleges and universities closed. Five days later, we had our last in-person school day of the year. First, schools were ordered closed for two weeks, but we all thought it would be longer. Without the chance to do even a half-hearted attempt at a ritual to mark the closure to one of life’s great events—finishing middle school—our students were gone.

Well, they were and they weren’t—for three months, they remained our students by email, on Zoom, through Google Docs and, as barriers fell, over text and phone. It has been a tortured purgatory to occupy as a teacher, as my brain has tried to figure out how to grieve the loss of my students while simultaneously needing to figure out how not to lose them before the official end of the year.

 

Life in Motion

When explaining capital, Karl Marx described it as value in motion. To understand the ocean of capitalism we swim in, a dynamic and impossibly multidimensional beast, we have to look at the currents and migrations and storms—the relationships between all of its shifting parts. Humanity, what exactly it is to be a person, is only intelligible to me if I think about people, individually and collectively, in a similar way. Being a human, being a person, is life in motion. We are constituted by our activities, relationships, and commitments. Not commitments like a car appointment on Tuesday, but as the philosopher Martin Hägglund argues, the projects, relationships, and passions that bind ourselves to the world outside of our bodies. The thoughts and motions of our bodies and minds simply are us, full stop.

Adolescent students are philosophers of everyday life, wrestling with love and justice, heartbreak and art, identity and ambition — all the great tensions and possibilities that animate our lives.

It’s hard to think of a more energetic snapshot of bodies, minds, and relationships in motion than middle school.  Infancy is the only other time in our lives when we develop more quickly, and unlike infancy, young adolescents are simultaneously learning to wield a completely different caliber of an inner consciousness. They pick up different versions of personhood, size them up, try them on, take pieces, and move on. They are philosophers of everyday life, wrestling with love and justice, heartbreak and art, identity and ambition — all the great tensions and possibilities that animate our lives.

For me, this dynamism makes teaching middle school an overwhelming experience. By this I don’t mean something like, “The demands of teaching middle school make me feel overwhelmed,” although I do feel that often. What I mean is that it consumes me in every way: emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. The intensity of being in middle school as a student, which I both remember and imagine in my own students, often feels contagious to me as a teacher.  After a poor lesson, day, or week, where my efforts feel useless or amateurish or misguided, I feel thrashed. It leaves me dejected—not generally as a worker, or even specifically as a teacher, but just as a person. Successes leave me with a euphoria that can feel so intense it is destabilizing. I can be moved almost instantly to the point of tears when thinking about students creating brilliant work, expressing their gratitude or enjoyment of my teaching, or laughing and smiling in a way that shows that, at least for a moment, the room forgot that we are here in this public school by law, not by choice, and if a student fails to show up, eventually they will be compelled to attend by the police.

Since school’s closing, I’ve felt most like a teacher when I’m doing something largely extraneous to my official duties, and am instead plugging away at a project for the sole purpose of holding on to connection. I’ve made themed playlists to send to my students: beach vibes, moody indie, workout jams, a tour of Taylor Swift, contemporary country. I’ve sent instant film shots through the mail of scenes from everyday life — my rabbit lounging in the kitchen in a sunbeam, the first trees to blossom in my neighborhood — stuffed in envelopes with handwritten notes that say, “I really miss seeing you in morning meeting every day,” crossing my fingers that they actually read that as the genuine and tender statement that it’s meant to be.

I made a podcast with another teacher, spending hours preparing for each episode. Working with this friend, who used to occupy a classroom two doors away and now works at another school, has been an unanticipated pleasure of the shutdown. The project has been made dramatically better by student contributions: guitar riffs, ukulele strummings, an Under The Sea quarantine parody song, and bits of recorded monologues. For our last episode, we guest-hosted with a student, talking in his grandparents’ yard on our three-way FaceTime call on a warm late-spring evening, the sound of crickets chirping audible in the background. The podcast is one of the only things I’ve produced for work during the shutdown that actually holds a sense of both challenge and completion, with end products that could be successes or failures, rather than just another nondescript ingredient in the digital soup, that glowing swirl that feels like a wellspring of unmoored melancholy.

COVID has underlined what should have been obvious: students don’t just leave marks on my teaching or my memories, but actively build and mold me.

I have kept calling students when they don’t do work, too, a large and growing constituency. After I couldn’t get a hold of one student, I sent her a text telling her to call me, because I wanted to see how she was doing and check in. She had done essentially no school work for my class. I knew she was avoiding work, but I also knew she had been bouncing around without stable housing or internet. She wrote back.

“ok sorry i didn’t answer, i was trying to find my cat, and now i’m going fishing.”

“I hope you caught something.”

“i caught a catfish and just caught 5 perch.”

“Nice!”

“yep i’m on a boat right now.”

I sent her a GIF of Andy Samberg in a tux, on a yacht bow, arms outstretched, from the music video.

 

Spring

I first read Paulo Freire in college, churning through Pedagogy of the Oppressed in a few days. It was the first time I encountered the idea that students have something to offer teachers, that their role in their own education can be constitutive rather than merely responsive. Until recently, this back and forth dialectic was, in my mind, a largely intellectual exchange. Unlike the back and forth exchange of ideas I seek with students to build curriculum, I imagined the rest of the multi-dimensional teacher-student relationship is one directional. But COVID has underlined what should have been obvious: students don’t just leave marks on my teaching or my memories, but actively build and mold me.

On a Saturday afternoon, my phone rang with an unidentified local number. It was a student I had been trying unsuccessfully to reach for weeks. For a split second, fear flashed through my mind that I would feel resentment or frustration, and that I would let that seep into something I would say or intone. But I didn’t feel frustration or resentment — I just felt joy, and relief. “I’m so glad you called. It’s great to hear from you,” I said. I meant it.

The start of the next school year holds promise and peril—a surging pandemic, a youth-led anti-racist rebellion, an unraveling economic catastrophe – a moving web of inspiration and horror that makes the prospect of the fall seem almost unintelligible. All I can be certain of is that the feeling on that phone call on a Saturday afternoon, of unconditional care for students and a fierce commitment to their future, is a feeling that must be both stoked and protected from the elements.

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