I taught middle school during COVID . . . sounds scary, I know. Much of the year was online, and the last two months were in person. I can still smell my classroom on those warm April days. The nervous and hopeful energy we all had as we gathered together. The strangeness of seeing real-life faces of students I had viewed daily in little Zoom boxes online. A weird time to be alive.
There is much said about the negative impacts of COVID on students. Two years of unknowns, new things, fear, and displacement. These aspects of life obviously stunted our kids academically and socially. As teachers, we had a front-row seat to it all. Experiencing life during a pandemic, in real-time.
Like many memories that seem to stick, it’s usually a small moment. Something insignificant but so poignant, it lodges itself in your memory. For me, that moment was our last day of school in 2021.
Let’s flashback to the 1990s for a minute. My hair was crunchy. My jeans were rolled. I was in middle school, and I was cool. Something I remember doing was naively laughing at Micheal Jackson. We all thought he was strange. Seeing him on TV or on magazine covers as “Jacko,” we kids would giggle or say “EW!” Clearly we were so wrong to be cruel to a human being who was obviously grappling with many hard things. I feel embarrassed even now admitting I was that mean. Our adolescent reaction to MJ paints a bigger picture of the acceptability of being unkind to someone different. It was pretty normal to have that reaction to those who were not typical back then.
Fast forward to 2020 . . . teaching middle school during the pandemic. Were there challenges? Of course. Were the kids socially and academically behind? Probably. What I remember most, was my desire to give the kids a great last week of school. Something fun and memorable. I loved this group. They were resilient, they were charming, and unlike my middle school self, they were kind.
We decided to make a time capsule during the last week of school. The kids were really excited. As we worked, the students asked if we could watch YouTube videos of old songs I used to like in middle school. “How neat,” I thought. We jammed out to MC Hammer, Roxette, and eventually, Michael Jackson.
I felt myself cringe when he popped up on the large screen. What would the kids say about how he looked? How would I navigate the conversations about his strangeness?
As I mentally prepared to right the wrongs of my middle school cruelty toward the King of Pop, it was quiet all around me. The kids continued work as usual. A hardworking student commented quietly on how the special effects of the video were pretty good for “back then.” A boy with long braids mentioned matter-of-factly he’s sometimes mistaken for a girl. The class clown made a joke totally unrelated to Micheal Jackson. I was stunned. The eccentricities of this performer went completely unnoticed by the entire class.
Are middle school kids sometimes mean? Yes. Is middle school a hard time for many? Of course. But, I left school that day with an overwhelming admiration for my students. They were different than me and my middle school peers. They were better. Kinder. Wiser. I knew it in my bones and felt it in my heart.
My takeaway from teaching during the pandemic . . . the kids are alright. There are hurdles and challenges, yes. But somehow, this next generation has become more accepting, more mature, more tolerant.
This group of kids and a random moment involving Micheal Jackson will live in my mind as my most vivid memory of school during the pandemic. How lucky am I to have this be my most poignant memory of such a tragic time in history? The gratitude I feel toward my former students is something I reflect on often. This moment with them is one I will never forget.
Thank you sixth graders at John Glenn Middle School for being better than I was. Thank you for leaving a lasting impression of goodness on my teacher heart. I am better because I knew you, truly. I am forever thankful to have been your teacher and for you to have been mine.