One at a Time

All teachers know that an empty classroom is just a drab, silent space with desks.  Unless a crowd of students is present, the space doesn’t seem to hold any magic. 
But here we are seven months into the pandemic and the fall of a new school year.  No teacher in America will tell you that their teaching scenario is unfazed by Covid.  Every teacher is having to do his or her job in a very, very different way.  And in the district where I’m teaching, this looks like a hybrid of in-person and virtual teaching.  Most parents have opted for their children to stay home and do their classes virtually. But some parents need to work, so the district has allowed those students to be on campus, albeit hooked up to computers to do their lessons virtually.
So I have found myself in a very odd role for the past two weeks.  I am a Zoom teacher to the kids who are all home plugged in at home. And I am babysitter to one solitary student in my classroom.
That’s right. I said one solitary student in my classroom. On the first day of in-person school Carmen walked into my room with her backpack and mask on.  In a muffled voice she looked around at all the empty desks and asked, “Am I the only student?” 
“Yes, I m afraid so.”  I hated to have to admit it. Her shoulders fell.  A look came over her that I could read exactly.  It said, Oh, silly me to have thought things were going back to normal.
That was Monday. And Carmen and I quickly both discovered that we had a lot of empty time between Zoom classes.  She and I found a bag of lollipops in my desk, left over from the previous teacher. They were slightly soft but she and I both chomped on about four a-piece. 
I picked goo out of my teeth and asked her about her classes that morning.   “Pretty boring” she muttered, without making eye contact. 
On Tuesday, during our free time she and I took sidewalk chalk out to the track area.  I drew the school mascot.  Carmen drew hearts and wrote her name in a flourishy, flowery style.  It was hot out.  There wasn’t much to talk about.
On Wednesday, we bounced a small rubber ball all over the track. It was 11:30am and already 90 degrees.  “Don’t you want to take your sweatshirt off” I kept asking her because I’m a mom and worry about things like overheating. “Nope” she said even though her face was really red.  We refilled our water bottles inside the building.  “It felt good to exercise.  I actually miss gym class,” she said behind her mask.  We laughed together that Covid has made her miss gym class.
During my planning time on Thursday I left school to get some Starbucks. I decided to get one for Carmen too, but make hers a decaf I told the barista.  When I got back to school and handed the icy, whipped cream topped drink to her, Carmen said, “Wow, thanks, Miss!”  She drank it during her next Zoom class.
On Friday, she and I were both bleary-eyed from so much screen time.  “Let’s walk some laps on the track” I said when she and I had both finished lunch early.  The air was pleasant and the sun was mercifully hidden behind some clouds. We walked casually, almost like to two people who’ve chosen each other’s company. “Tell me about your parents” I said.  “Where were they born?”
And Carmen started talking.  Really talking.  “A little town in Chihuahua Mexico.  And my grandparents all still live there.”
I asked question after question.  Tell me about your Abuela’s cooking. How does she make her tamales?  How spicy is her home-made salsa? Tell me what your Abuelo plans in his fields.  Where does he sell his harvest?  Suddenly I had the clarity and time to really listen.  There were no other distractions. No other students.  “My grandparents’ adobe house stays cool in summer” she said, “and it always smells like carnitas and spices.” 
I looked up at the sky and the passing clouds.  This is just fine, I thought. Just like this.  A little shade, some pleasant conversation and a description of Mexico—a place I’ve never been and one would like to see one day.  It was the first time all week I felt my shoulders relax.  I stopped wishing there were more students in my classroom.  I stopped being discouraged about it for those laps around the track with my one and only student. 
And I remembered again that one matters.  In teaching, the aim has always been that one student at a time lights up with knowledge and understanding.  Had I forgotten that? Had I forgotten that a lesson for thirty students is of equal value to a lesson written and taught for one?   In my spiritual life this is bedrock truth as well.  Or what woman who has ten silver coins and loses one of them does not light a lamp, sweep her house, and search carefully until she finds it?  And when she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors to say, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost coin. Luke 15:8-10
I had forgotten.  The searching for and finding of one is worthy of gratitude. 
“Do not despise the day of small beginnings.  For God rejoices to see the work begin.” Zech 4:10
Tomorrow during our free time, I’m going to introduce Carmen to the game of Scrabble. Who knows what new vocabulary she’ll develop from it.  We’ll take it one word at a time 

Leave a Reply