What is lost: On (not) teaching during a pandemic

First-person essay by Sarah Boyle

On the sixth day of social distancing, I sat on my couch and finished rereading “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” which my AP literature class is — or was — studying. Even after teaching the novel for years, I still don’t get the title.

Near the end of the book, a hurricane whips and cracks against the cabin where Janie, Tea Cake and their friend Motor Boat are riding out the storm. Along with the people in the other cabins surrounding them, “[t]hey seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”

For a book so invested in exploring the individual and her relationship to the community, this sudden turn to nature, catastrophe and God has always felt random to me. But perhaps that is the point. Because that is just how all life is — struck down by random turns of the divine.

Just over a month ago, my life was dedicated to lesson plans, critical theory and equitable grading practices. I took my students on a field trip to Pittsburgh Public Theater on Wednesday, March 11. On Thursday, my colleagues and I watched in real-time as businesses, schools and states began to close — including the theater we had visited the day before. On Friday, only half of our students showed up at all, and instruction was nearly impossible.

Over those three days, a lump grew in my throat, anxiety choking me as I refreshed news sources and my Twitter feed, trying to see the future. But even then I recognized my anxiety as something deeper, something harder to fix: grief. We were losing all the best parts of the school year. All of our hard work, both student and teacher, had been about to pay off. But the doors were slamming all around us.

Propel Braddock Hills high school teacher Sarah Boyle took selfies with her students graduating last year — a tradition she won’t be able to continue for the Class of 2020. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Boyle)

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What is lost: On (not) teaching during a pandemic

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