Four years ago, after a decades-long career in journalism, I accepted the kind of buyout that can make a man feckless. I spent the better part of a year watching Netflix and inflicting grievous bodily injury to Austin’s Hancock Golf Course. Then, during the summer of 2018, word had gotten around that I was up to nothing, so a nice lady from our church called to ask whether I would drive the youth group down to the coast to work on homes damaged by Hurricane Harvey.
“Let me get back to you,” I told her.
A couple of hours later, my wife got home from work and I told her about this ridiculous scheme involving me and a van full of adolescents. “I’ll wait a couple of days and then tell them I can’t do it,” I said.
Until then, my operating theory on such matters had always been that I’m not very good with other people’s children. They tend to be overly energetic and make weird sounds at random times. They are annoying, lack focus, smell bad, don’t follow instructions, mumble when they should speak up, shout when they should whisper, don’t know how to shake hands, and don’t respect the sanctity of bedtime. I never coached Little League.
“You should absolutely do it,” she scolded me.
So I did it, absolutely out of a sense of guilt and obligation. A few weeks later on a Sunday afternoon, I strapped into the cockpit of a white rental van that resembled a prison transport and lowered my dad sunglasses into the Earnhardt position. As we pulled away from the church parking lot, a kid let one loose in the middle row and I had the first of numerous self-talks.
We stayed on cots in the recreation room of a church in Corpus Christi. The first night, a kid threw up on his bed and mine, and I suspect we both questioned in that moment whether we were truly committed Presbyterians. But in one of the great shocks of my life, the rest of that week was one of the best experiences I’d had in years. We woke early on steamy mornings and ate breakfast. Then the kids made their lunches and gathered their gear and we drove in silence past the USS Lexington and over Corpus Christi Bay and through small inlets and scrubland to Refugio, where we worked on the home of an old woman. They dug ditches for plumbing, sawed boards, painted, built a porch, and carried water to each other and to me, all with the moxie of riveters on the Empire State Building.
They talked about important things—about illness, loss, what they might want to be someday. They were gritty, respectful, solemn, hilarious, energetic, sometimes polished, and occasionally still annoying. They practiced reasonable hygiene and went to bed when I told them. On the whole, they had every bit of the work ethic, sense of humor, and decency that you’d find in any newsroom and the optimism and decorum you might not. I was proud to be associated with them.
So that screwed up my entire opinion of young people. In fact, I enjoyed the experience so much that several weeks later, I began training to become a substitute teacher in the Austin public schools. A year after that, I was teaching English to ninth and eleventh graders at a small charter high school.
You might not know about the school, which is located in an old nightclub near what used to be Highland Mall and is now an Austin Community College campus. We don’t have billboards or big ad buys like some of the charter chains. It was started several years ago by refugees from a dysfunctional public school system on the city’s outskirts and staffed by people I quickly came to recognize are elite teachers and administrators. In any given year, the student population of about 130 kids is about 75 percent Hispanic, 10 percent white, 5 percent Black and 10 percent emo. Quiet kids with streaked hair who don’t thrive in big-box schools feel comfortable at ours. So do LGBTQ kids who know they won’t be picked on; the students enforce a culture of acceptance during periodic “circle time,” where serious code violations are aired and discussed before the entire student body. We don’t have much by way of sports facilities, but students play soccer in the parking lot and we fielded a JV volleyball team. The average class size is about fifteen, so the students get a remarkable amount of one-on-one attention.
My first year was pretty common for rookie teachers: in the early days, my feet hurt, I struggled to control my classroom, and some of the lessons I spent a week preparing were boring even to me. Over time, I found the right pair of shoes and the right balance between talking and listening, between asking questions and answering them. Importantly, I learned how to work the room—lingering briefly over a shoulder to scan a sentence structure, ignoring petty disciplinary lapses. Kids will always work harder when they see you as a human. By the time March 2020 had arrived, I felt like I was there: English teacher, decent guy, mostly human.
That first school year ended, at least in person, when we all went away for spring break. A couple of days before then, we were wrapping up lunchtime in the cafeteria. Several of my colleagues were planning a trip to Australia during the week off. “Sorry, but you’re not going to Australia,” I told them. “Or if you do, you’ll be stuck there.”
They didn’t go. We haven’t been back in the building since, except for the occasional trip to pick up personal items.
The rest of that school year was on Zoom. We got used to teaching over the internet and most of the kids tried hard to create mental separation between home and school. They had school-issued iPads and Wi-Fi hotspots, but all the complimentary technology in the world wasn’t going to make it easy. In the background, you could often hear the sound of a crowded household; a loud television; a family conversation; a baby crying on the lap of her older sister, who happened to be one of my best students. Other kids drifted into isolation and you could sense the light of curiosity fading. Parents lost their jobs and came home. Groceries ran out. Kids retreated into the closeness of their earphones. Many are still there, a year later.
You can reasonably debate whether teachers should risk their lives and their families for the social and physical and educational welfare of other people’s kids. (I know of superintendents who have led bravely from the rear—insisting that schools be open and then retreating to their purified offices, their own little Winterfells of educational bureaucracy.) But there’s no real debate about the fact that young people are losing hope, knowledge, skills, momentum, sleep, discipline, purpose, hot school lunches, friendships, fitness, teen romance, and human touch. In other words, almost everything that matters.
“Oh, mister, I miss that glow-in-the dark nacho cheese we had at lunch,” a bright young man who would make a fine senator told me.
In our school, the classroom lessons are built around projects—complete with research, team deliverables, and formal presentations, in the way startup execs might pitch for angel investors. The thinking is that this sort of process and collaboration will prepare the students for the information economy. My final classroom project of 2019–20, crafted with my friend the geography teacher, was about Jack London and The Call of the Wild. We found free digital book downloads to share with the students and I bought an audiobook to play over Zoom. My colleague created a series of challenges that asked students to figure out what it would take to trek from the Bay Area to the Klondike in the 1890s. Some kids followed along and did well. Some kids played Fortnite.
The state canceled the usual end-of-course exams, which allegedly help parents and taxpayers distinguish good schools from bad ones. We had a virtual end-of-year dance-off for the ninth graders. Then we all drifted away for our socially distanced summers.
What has changed in the year since we first headed home is absolutely nothing . . . except more than three million people died of a disease we’d never heard of before last year, sports stopped and restarted, we got COVID hair, millions of people lost their jobs, George Floyd was choked to death by the police, my daughter got COVID, there was an election, people tried to overthrow Congress, the mayor went to Cabo and the senator went to Cancún, my brother got COVID, we had a socially distanced Christmas in Mom’s backyard, Alabama won again, people kept bitching about the bike lanes in my neighborhood, Texas nearly froze to death and blamed it on windmills, a bunch of us got vaccinated, Baylor won the Final Four, the governor said Texas is wide open, and somebody told me a trillion cicadas are emerging from seventeen years of an entomological coma.
We grind on. A few weeks ago, a Carolina wren built a nest under the eaves in the backyard, and I see her bring bugs to her babies and listen to them chirp. We are all better at doing Zoom school but most of us hate it even more. If the weather is nice and the hipster neighbor’s rooster will give it a rest, I teach from the back patio. Recently, I taught the Hemingway story “In Another Country,” which begins with one of the finest paragraphs ever rendered:
“In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.”
I teach Hemingway because, contrary to what one might guess after reading my own writing, I believe in the power of economy—of simple, declarative sentences. So we read the story and talked about what was said and unsaid. We talked about what one can know and what one can surmise from the text. Why, for instance, would a person call them “electric lights”? What other lights are there? What does this say about the setting? What purpose does “the wind came down from the mountains” serve? What does that do for tone? Are there any words here that you could remove and by doing so make the story better?
The overwhelming response, at least right away, was dead silence. Finally—thankfully—a young man broke the stalemate and said, “Well, we know it’s in Italy and that a war is going on and that someone isn’t going to it again, so that tells us something.” In fits and starts, the conversation built from there. Another added: “It all feels a little gloomy, mister.”
It often felt that way. I think many of the students couldn’t believe that they were stuck in Zoom school again, and I didn’t like it either, even if I was grateful to be home until the air was safer. Virtual school often feels a little cold, laggy, clinical. It’s even worse when the cameras are off, and I chose from the beginning to let my students keep them off because I feel that it’s not decent to push myself into their homes. This means I don’t have the intuitive feel for each kid the way I did in my first year of teaching, when I had the advantage of getting to know the kids in person for a few months. It’s coming slowly, one tiny interaction at a time. I think I’m becoming a better listener. Some of the kids open up with the right encouragement. It’s suddenly easier to have a meeting with parents, and there’s nothing like telling a kid, in front of his beaming mother, how proud you are for the shift he’s putting in.
For some, all you have to do is ask, and the words spew forth. At the beginning of this school year, I asked students in both grades to write personal essays so I could get a feel for them. They wrote about the exhilaration and freedom involved in a trip to the supermarket to buy eggs. They wrote about medical emergencies, a death in the family, a mother working hard to keep the family afloat, a divorce that scars them still. Some found silver linings in the circumstances that locked them into crowded homes. “I don’t remember the last time my family all got to be in the same room at once,” one wrote. “It brought back old memories from when we were all little. It’s crazy how a global pandemic is such a horrible thing but it can also bring families closer together.”
A few students—introverts, mostly—actually did better, freed from the anxiety of being around so many people. But so many have suffered. Kids talked openly with me about feeling depressed, about not really caring, about breakups and lost bromances. I was heartbroken and honored that they would talk to me at all. I tried hard to remember that, amid all of this, I was also duty-bound to teach. So, I searched for writing that I hoped might offer meaning, and sometimes maybe it did. We read Cormac McCarthy, Gabriel García Márquez, Rudolfo Anaya, Public Enemy, and the 2020 Texas Poet Laureate, Emmy Pérez. We wrote haiku, analyzed song lyrics, and trudged dutifully through the state’s English standards, never voicing the obvious to each other: This is a horrible way to do school.
In February, the city froze hard, along with the rest of Texas. Our power stayed on for a few days, and one time we hiked through the snow to H-E-B to buy milk. Then the power went off for three days and the neighbors brought food and let us run an extension cord, allowing us to plug in a small space heater and keep the bedroom warm. The teachers tried to call students to check on their welfare, to see whether they had electricity, food, clean water. Late one night, a couple of students called me. They said they were bored and going through their contact list and wanted to know how we were doing. The sincerity brought a tear.
“That was amazing,” my wife said. “You know that, right?”
A few weeks later, we all went on spring break. Shortly after we returned, the dean of students let us all know that the state was bringing back standardized tests, and maybe it’s a good thing that we are grasping for the normality of No. 2 pencils and shaded ovals. You could talk me out of that.
People are getting their shots and COVID cases are dropping. My wife and I have eaten out a few times and Austin traffic is beginning to look more like Austin traffic. The rains came hard in May, and the grass is pushing its way through the layer of dead thatch. The kids in my neighborhood are playing in the sprinklers. Last week, I put on a black graduation robe and watched the class of 2021—the very picture of resilience—walk the stage at an outdoor commencement. If everything falls just right, this awful time might start to recede like an old English teacher’s hairline. The school, I realized, was always there.
Tim Lott teaches English at Cedars International Next Generation High School in Austin.