Op/Ed

Ways of Seeing: COVID, the classroom and me

“So, what is it like for you?” more than one friend has asked. My response depends on the day, sometimes the hour. “Confusing,” seems like a semi-accurate reply, but it scarcely captures the sense of existential vertigo that everyone I know seems to be feeling. Within my own small world, it is safe to say that there has never been anything quite like the Spring Semester of 2020 at Middlebury College. For me, anyway, life feels like an unfathomable interweave of extreme contradictions. 
Consider this moment, the moment I am presently in, which feels basically like bliss. The sun is shining boldly, almost brazenly, and it is finally warm enough to sit outside. I’ve just ingested an unreasonable number of cornmeal-blueberry pancakes and — for the time being anyway — I have both a job and a paycheck to go with it. My 84-year-old mother is healthy and has more energy than I do (this is not uncommon and only slightly unnerving). My doctor spouse remains healthy and is currently re-warming the maple syrup. My flock of cuddly sheep does not require social distancing according to more than one vet. I hug them all (the sheep, that is). A lot. Basically, this afternoon, all is well with the world.
And yet it isn’t. Underneath, I feel vaguely nauseous all of the time and that has nothing to do with my near-perfect cornmeal pancakes. Around me, around us all, the storms continue to rage. Every day, in every country, something new. I am no more immune to bad news than I am to this dreaded virus, except unlike the virus, I can turn off the news and often do. The illusion that what has befallen my neighbors in Brooklyn will not befall me is simply that, an illusion. The spiked fever, the lost paycheck, the dying friend — it could all be just around the corner. One of my students just lost her aunt to COVID-19; one of our healthcare friends has the disease. While the curve is flattening, it oddly feels like the circle is tightening. I’m not sure why.
Meanwhile, out in the public square, more and more people are noticing that the Emperor is prancing around with nary a stich of clothing. Indeed, not even a mask. I find this collective realization to be momentarily heartening, but also deeply disturbing (and not just the imagined nakedness per se). I soothe this disturbance in a Lady Macbeth kind of way, wiping the doorknobs with not-very-ecofriendly paper towels and the rubbing alcohol that I am lucky enough to have on hand. I pause to wonder whether anyone would drink this stuff if it were recommended by presidential decree, then proceed to scrub the light-switches and faucets with redoubled force. 
Against my better judgment, perhaps, I’ve returned to Facebook for the occasional dose of long-distance company and sage advice. Scrolling through posts –— here anguished, there laugh-out-loud witty — from Peter R. (whom I’ve known since third grade) and Abby F. (who befriended me in seventh), I feel the bittersweet effects of having these dear, longstanding friends in both my real and on-line life. Our collective impermanence in nothing new — no more or less solid than it was the year before. But the ties that bind the three of us feel different to me now. I treasure each post from them that I see. I wonder if they feel similarly.
Thanks to these occasional Facebook forays — through which I dispense adorable sheep pictures as if they were medicine — I have been reassured of at least one essential fact. My utter inability to do anything productive after 6 p.m. is not unique to me. That I consider this failing to be not only personal, but also moral, could, in fact, be unique to me, but I suspect not. Either way, I can chalk up my “productivity guilt” to my heritage, the predictable fruit of a family tree that is Protestant, Catholic and Jewish. I can manage to empty the dishwasher after six — perhaps that is enough.
What is enough in this spring of COVID-19 and in this culture of never-enough-ness? And who gets to decide? Right now, I am knocking myself out for my students and I have no idea if it’s too much, not enough or just right. Every little bear — I mean student — is so different. Am I helping enough in the eyes of the young woman from the Bronx who is suddenly taking care of three small cousins and barely has time to think? Am I doing enough for my wealthy student from Long Island who keeps getting told by his peers that he is privileged and “has it easy,” but whose sister died the year before he arrived at the college last month? 
I am reading my students’ eloquent reflections on the various “sit spots” they found on campus in their first five weeks of our environmental humanities class. I’ve read student “Environmental Imagination Projects” for over a decade, but this is the first time I’ve read them as micro-memoirs written in exile. They read like psalms from Babylon. I wipe away tears and scratch comments in the margins. They need these papers back, but the going is slow because I feel every word. They miss the campus. They miss their friends. They miss the young-adult lives they were birthing themselves into before they were sent home. And I miss them. I grieve the spring that we didn’t get to have, then ask myself if such grief is “legitimate” when so many people are dying.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that I won’t leap at the chance to shut down my Zoom room, recover my eyesight and return to the more scholarly and solitary pursuits that always enliven my summers. But right now, for all kinds of reasons, teaching seems to have become a “healing profession,” if not for my students, then at least for me. And it is the only one I remotely know how to do (and now can do remotely). I am not a doctor, or a grocery store clerk or the brave, exhausted UPS driver who is keeping us so well supplied. I am simply hoping to keep my students engaged with what I think are Big and Worthy Questions — and engaged in a way that will get them through this time, however long it is going to be. I’m going to have to trust that this is enough.
That is what it has been like for me. And I hope that my telling of it is in some way helpful for you. 
AUTHOR’S NOTE: While the student stories here are essentially true, many identifying details have been changed to protect their anonymity. Heartfelt thanks to the students, staff, faculty and administrators at Middlebury College who have kept me inspired throughout this semester, with a special bow of gratitude to Bill Koulopoulos who has patiently guided me over every remote teaching hurdle. Finally, our delicious maple syrup comes from Last Resort Farm in Monkton. Please support your local farmers!
Rebecca Kneale Gould is a writer and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, focusing on comparative religion and the environmental humanities. She lives in Monkton where she tends — and is tended by — a small flock of adorable sheep.

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