Silence at School, March 2020

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Silence at School, March 2020

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This is a true anecdote about my experience as teacher during the pandemic, and the sensory experience by which I recall these events.
I am a teacher at a middle school in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In winter of 2019, I was aware of the coronavirus, which was something my students often joked about. For instance, if a child was out sick one day, the students would say the he or she had coronavirus, and everyone would laugh about it. It was funny to them at this time, because the virus was something that was mostly contained to places outside of the United States, and everyone thought it was preposterous that there was so much speculation about it on the news. My students engaged in speculation as well, and many of them concluded that it was actually a big cover-up for a zombie plague, and they would try to determine if I or their peers were also zombies in disguise. I recall hearing them laugh about it in the class, and I especially recall the return of one of our students to class after she had been out from the flu. I remember them asking her if she was a zombie, or if she had eaten bats before she got sick (remember, these are middle-school kids).
Winter passed pretty much as usual, and cases began to occur in the US early in 2020. It was still seen as no big deal, generally. In March, we started to hear news stories about the virus in Winston-Salem. Some people claimed to know people who knew people who were related to someone with the disease in Greensboro. More and more cases began to appear, but it still seemed like something distant to us. Gradually, the sickness moved from Greensboro to Winston-Salem. I caught a cold in March, and by the end of the day on a Wednesday, I was feeling pretty bad. I told my many bosses that I would be out of work on Thursday, and on Thursday evening, I called out again. The first day that I was out sick, the school district had decided to close down the schools until further notice, starting the next day. I never got the chance to tell my kids goodbye, which was very painful, as we were all close and we had such a good experience in my class. Today, in October of 2020, I still haven’t seen any of them, as my school district is currently closed for in-person school. I wish very badly that I had the opportunity to say goodbye to them.
Those are the events as they occurred chronologically. I will now recall the sounds that constitute my memory of the time. To begin with, my school is loud—our students are beyond unruly. I can recall the sounds of the end of a regular school day: raucous laughter, shouting, cursing, threats, insults, loud rap music, and the sound of me flipping the switch to cut off the overhead lights as we prepared to exit the classroom and make our way to the school buses. Then comes the sound of the announcements overhead, which no one can hear over the students, then the prolonged loud and dull tone of the "bell" which signals the beginning of the stampede to the buses. A chorus of shouts raises immediately—a proclamation of victory and freedom. It is exuberant. What follows is hundreds of footsteps on linoleum tiles, backpacks shuffling as kids adjust them on their backs, more yelling, screaming, and swearing, the sounds of an occasional "runner," who knocks the other students down to get to the buses, a teacher shrilly, piercingly yelling at him to go back and "try again", and reminding him that "you will not go up these stairs unless you can walk up them!," a muttered "f---you, b----," from a male voice that is just about to begin deepening as he turns around to try again, and so on until we get to the buses, load those kids up, and ship them out. Going to my car every day after work is over, my ears ring as I sit in the silence of my car with the doors shut before starting the engine and making my way home. I often sit for just a minute or two and enjoy the silence before departing, but the ringing in my ears gets uncomfortably loud, and I finally turn the car on and leave.
When I go back to school on the Monday following my sick leave, the difference is remarkable. The school district has instructed us to come in safely, get whatever we need from our classroom that we require to work at home, and leave as soon as possible. Teachers are strictly instructed to only walk directly to and from their classrooms to their vehicles, not to visit with their friends, etc. Everyone is in their classroom, working quietly. The only sounds I hear as I walk down the halls to my room are the hum of overhead fluorescent lighting and my heels striking the linoleum tiles, echoing off the walls and rows of lockers. I hear my key turn in the lock of my classroom door, the flick of the switch to on, more humming fluorescent lights. Shuffling papers and sliding metal desk drawers and file cabinets come next. With a handful of papers in my arms (I travel light), I cut off the lights—the humming stops—and my heels strike the linoleum tiles until I open the exit door, walk across the parking lot, and leave. This time, the silence of my car is nothing extraordinary.
Gone are the shouts, the yelled jokes, the subsequent laughter, the retaliatory swearing. Also gone are the kids coming up to me to just say "hey," do one of the complex handshake rituals we have worked out, and to ask me if they can have a dollar for a cookie in the cafeteria, which is a request that I have obliged so often that I will count it as a charitable donation on this year's tax return. On that last day in the school building, there was no sound of a kid coming up to me to tell me how well he did in last night's basketball game, and how poorly his best friend did by comparison, or a girl walking up to tell me that an unpopular teacher has once again worn ugly clothes to work, and that her shoes don't match either—middle school students pay a lot of attention to these things. Put simply, those are all happy sounds. They are the sounds of kids doing what kids do in 2020, saying the things that they say, and teachers managing the best they can. The sound of kids coming up to me to talk are the sounds of acceptance—acceptance of a teacher into their lives, who is usually the categorical enemy of the student. I'm glad to be an exception. These are the pre-Covid sounds. What follows conveys emptiness. The sound of echoing footsteps rebounding from the walls demonstrates how vacant the hallways are. The fact that I can hear the overhead lights hum is amazing in its novelty. The chatter of students is all gone, the desks, empty. For a teacher who loves his students, the sounds that follow the March arrival of the pandemic are the sounds of loneliness.
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This item was submitted on October 16, 2020 by Caleb Hawks using the form “Share Your Story” on the site “A Journal of the Plague Year”:

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