We are back to school many places in Ohio. I was going ‘to lay low’ for a while, and see how it goes. Being old, and having some lung issues, and being a retired teacher who keeps busy by substitute teaching fairly often, I figured why push it. If the schools have decent plans and the virus is largely kept out, then I would eventually give it a try.
But one of my favorite high schools in the school district I taught for 16 years called me and asked me back for a two week sub job starting the very first day of in-school learning. Our county is Franklin County and it is the most populated county in Ohio. Home of the state capital, The Ohio State University, world headquarters for Nationwide Insurance and the birthplace of Wendy and White Castle hamburgers, we had finally come down off “Red” in our Corona Virus Safety System. “Purple” is the worst, when a county has 6-7 of seven indicators of high spread. Red is next in severity (4-5 of 7) and Franklin had finally dropped back off red to “Orange”, 2-3 indicators of significant spreading; “Yellow” is the next and lowest level. My district planned to go to “a hybrid model”– a mixture of online and limited in-school learning — for orange. I mulled it over, consulted my wife, and then accepted the assignment. A month or two ago, Ohio had 10 to 12 red counties with Franklin on “warning” to go purple. This week we have 6 on red, and they are mostly rural counties. So, there is improvement here in Ohio.
“How long can one just stay at home?” I asked myself. I like teaching, and even subbing which has the interaction with young people but missing much of the work and responsibility (and pay) of a full time position. Our hybrid model brings 40% of students (my estimates) back for in-school instruction on Mondays and Tuesdays and 40% on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesday is to clean the schools. About 20% of students are choosing a totally online instruction program and assignments are given to the in-schoolers to be done and turned in online on their off days. I wanted to see the return for myself — not just read about it — and be a part of it, a helpful part.
So, this week, when the Tuesday after Labor Day appeared, we started back. It went well. Class sizes were small, students were all in masks and pretty cooperative. The biggest issue was masks worn off the nose and only over the mouth. That will be an issue of ongoing concern I fear. When asked to pull it up and keep it there (for a poorer, urban and somewhat more rowdy school populous as this one) all of them did it and kept it up at least for a while.
Friday of this week came around soon. For a first week of school, and one that had two ‘first days’ — one for each group — so far, all seemed well. I sat on my living room couch, drinking my coffee, and then realized it was 9/11. A rush of emotion came over me.
Nineteen years ago this day, I was early in the first year in a new program at a new school. I was teaching a class of “ED Students”, 7th and 8th graders with emotional problems (“alternative mind sets”, should we now call them?). Kids who have attention issues, hyperactivity, anger, trauma, and what we now understand as autism (usually those more high functioning). Just before students were starting to arrive, I was told that something bad had happened in New York and that I should turn on the television. It never occurred to me then, that maybe I should not turn it on considering the emotional states of my group, but they (and I) rose to the occasion and all went as well as it could on such a shocking day.
Soon, we watched as the second plane slammed into the second tower. We listened to the commentators and discussed it ourselves. I took the lead of course, and tried to provide a convincing and firm assurance that all would be well and that a calm and thoughtful response was what was required from us as a class and a nation. The principal spoke several times over the PA system and then after an hour or almost two, we tried to resume our normal class-scheduled day. The television went off, only to come back on during history class and once or twice elsewhere to get an update. We didn’t learn much math or science that day and I talked a lot, but we did make it through and did so with our emotional dispositions reasonable intact. It was one of the longest days of my life.
Several parts of that day are prominent in my memory, other than the horrific destruction we witnessed by television. First was a comment made by a student. In a class for “special needs” like this one, often there is a “Levels System” to monitor and reward a student’s progress and behavior. “The First Level” is for those students who need the most structure , attention, care and constant supervision because they are experiencing the most difficulty, the most social and emotional “unrest”. Early on that day one of our brighter and more ‘explosive’ boys (13 years old) who had been in special needs for years raised his hand and commented that today he felt like he “should be on first level.” I commended him on his self-reflection and said, “Today, I think we all feel that way.” He made it through the day, and did decline to actually receive first level attention but knew it was available.
The second memory was of the eerie quiet in the building, and of being interrupted from our work by the repeated calls over the PA for various small groups of students to gather their belongings and report to the office for dismissal. Their parents were picking them up early; the building was slowly being drained of its students and becoming quieter, more quiet than it already very much was.
So, I sat on my couch Friday morning with coffee in hand and decided I needed to do a variant of my lesson on 9/11. I was in a class where it was appropriate. I reviewed in my mind how the lesson would go. I looked on YouTube for a short video summary of the events in New York of that day nineteen years ago. I found one and was surprised to learn that I had forgotten that a third building in the World Trade Center complex had also collapsed due to falling debris that day, but was evacuated in time due to an order whose source is unknown to this day but was massively life-saving.
I realized I was not happy to be planning or delivering this lesson, but felt obligated to do so. Off I drove to school, anticipating the day and listening to NPR radio, when they aired a report on a survey of the emotional status of Americans and especially teenagers at this point during our current pandemic tragedy. Our emotional health is not good, and especially for young people. Significant rises in reported depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. And the light came on! “One tragedy at a time is enough” I thought! No 9/11 lesson today! I immediately felt relieved.
That is the way the day went. The principal did ask for a moment of silence shortly after 9 am, but in class we focused on getting through the crisis at hand. In my opinion, my student’s lives were enhanced by The Lesson I Never Taught.