Teaching and writing in a time of bad connections

“This is weird.”

Those were the first three words I said to my new students when I first met them on Zoom last week.

I also said it again to parents on my prerecorded Back-to-School Night video yesterday.

And if those three words had physical hands, they would wring my heart and stomach and brain every time I put on my mask before I walk through Target’s sliding doors or every morning I see my kids slip hand-sanitizer in their school bag or every time I turn on a baseball game and I’m greeting by 50,000 smiling cardboard cutouts of real faces who are not actually there.

Unnerved. That’s the best word I can fish out of tackle-box between my shoulders to describe how I feel tonight.

I just spent the day teaching poetry and creative writing in a sterile, emotionless pixelated classroom of awkward silences and bad connections.

I taught one of my go-to poems, “An Old Story” by Tracy K. Smith. A poem that usually generates healthy discussions, compelling questions, and imaginary light bulbs that shine and hover over heads, and a poem, on its own merit, that often spreads poetic fever across the classroom. But none of that happens. We’re all in different rooms. In different houses. Miles away from each other. Safe and sound. Untouched by germs and poetry.

For me, teaching has always been a full sensory experience. The thin book pages pinched between your fingers. The pencil balancing on the soft ledge where your ear and skull meet. The smell of mugged-morning coffee. The chatter and footsteps of students filing into class. Books dropping on desktops. The grainy morning announcements we ignore. The mumbled Pledge of Allegiance. A healthy throat clear, a “Good morning”, and we’re off into colorful land of verbs and nouns and participles that dangle from limbs of direct objects.

But here I am, in a makeshift classroom in my living room, where I eat cereal and watch baseball and fall asleep on the couch, trying my hardest to teach poetry to a screen full of heads. It’s tiring and unfulfilling and if you could see it, you might fish the word “sad” out of your tackle-box.

My voice strains to prop their eyes open. 18 years later, I flounder like a first year teacher. I talk and talk and talk because I’m terrified of the loud silence. A silence I’ve grown familiar with and even comfortable with in a normal year. But this year is not normal. This is weird.

Writing for me, like a drunken dentist, has hit a nerve. I guess that’s why I get up early or spend my Saturday nights writing. Because I have human experiences I want to articulate before it’s too late. Human experiences, I believe, are worth telling. And the truth is– I often don’t know what I’m doing. I come to the page unsure and insecure yet excited. I’m excited to meet someone, both near and far, living and unborn, who may be feeling the same unnerved feeling I’m feeling tonight.

“Poetry is about being alive. It’s about human connection. And it’s not something you can just observe from a distance.” The pale eyes on the other side of the screen stare through me. These students–they ain’t biting. This Zoom, unfaithful to its namesake, is slow and slinking. This is painful. For all of us.

But I’ve been conditioned to clear my throat and press on, teach bell-to-bell, no matter what. This academic show must go on.

“Poetry requires you to disregard CDC warnings and get close.” A good line that would have probed some laughter, or at least some smiles, if we were in the classroom. But we’re not in the classroom and no one laughs. Maybe they couldn’t hear me. Maybe there’s a bad connection. Maybe we’re not supposed to laugh. Maybe we’re to keep things quiet and sterile– for the good of humanity. At the expense of teaching and writing.

But if I ever learned anything– good teaching, like good writing, requires you to surrender your guard, get close, and feel.

So does living.

Be well


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Jay Armstrong is a writer, blogger, speaker, and an award-winning high school English teacherDiagnosed with a rare neurological disease that resulted in a hole in his brain– Jay presses on. He hopes to help you find joy, peace, and meaning in life. For Jay, a good day consists of 5 things:

1. Reading
2. Writing 
3. Exercising
4. Hearing his children laugh
5. Hugging his wife
(Bonus points for a dinner with his parents and a beer with his friends)

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