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.