I Teach High School English and the Only Thing I Can Do Now is Listen

Our last day of school was Friday the 13th. The week began with a full moon on Monday, and if you are a high school teacher or a parent who believes in “moon madness,” you know that the universe was conspiring to make our world difficult. Teens were already out of sync due to Daylight Savings Time and losing an hour of sleep, so it was a perfect trifecta, a perfect storm gathering strength.

Of course, when we left school on Friday the 13th, we had no idea we would not be returning. My students, 9th graders and 11th grade AP students, throughout the day, found text messages from clubs, organizations, and teams that slowly, one by one, dismantled the world as they knew it.

My high school students have lost so much

Many tears were shed, as a special Requiem concert was canceled, a spring lacrosse trip was canceled, spring sports were canceled. My juniors stressed over the unknowns: Would SAT’s be canceled? Would AP exams even take place? What about planned college visits over spring break? My freshmen looked confused, not entirely grasping what was happening.

Suddenly, reviewing AP multiple choice questions or quizzing chapters of To Kill a Mockingbird, seemed unimportant. My students needed to talk; they also needed reassurance from me, their English teacher, that things would be okay.

Of course, I couldn’t tell them that because I didn’t know.

I could only listen to their concerns. I could only tell them it was not the time to worry about grades or points given. I could only try to lighten the darkness. We talked about ways to find quiet within, to distract ourselves with a good book, or to write. My AP classes had just finished writing a memoir, and I encouraged them to write some more. We brainstormed ideas that had nothing specific to do with the AP exam, but that had personal meaning to them. My 9th grade students, halfway through To Kill a Mockingbird, actually wanted to know why Scout and Jem Finch were treated badly in Calpurnia’s church, where white people did not worship. Ironically, they seemed more anxious than ever to discuss the book; it was a distraction from fear about the coronavirus.

In those moments last week, on Friday the 13th, it struck me how being an English teacher is less about grammar and reading comprehension and more about the power of words to offer comfort and sometimes transform lives.

Of course, I knew that already.

Being an English teacher is different from teaching science or math. English teachers get to know their students through their writing. Journal assignments often require personal reflection, a way to make sense of a world in chaos. Certainly that is true now.

Now that online learning has taken place in its very imperfect form, I read messages from students every hour or every half hour, anxious to check my google classroom. They miss my class; they miss interaction with other students; they miss structure. I tell them I miss them too, and to feel free to email me just to stay in touch. Their writing assignments for this time away from the classroom ask them to make connections between a book and their own lives, and in doing so they are taking back a little bit of control. They are reaffirming themselves when the world is upside-down.

Words matter. The power comes in the writing, whatever the task may be.

So parents, please don’t worry about missed school work or missed assignments. Encourage your teens to keep a journal to express their feelings and fears. Encourage them to own their own words. Encourage them to write what matters to them.

Remind them they are not alone, that their teachers care about them, and that we will do everything we can to help brighten their days and address their concerns.

In the words of my grandmother, who was 97 when she passed away, “This too shall pass.”

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Amy Rumizen is a freelance writer and teacher with three adult children (23, 27, 31). I have written for the “Women’s Voices” column in The Buffalo News, Buffalo Magazine, and Motherwell.com. Amy was also the Dance Critic for The Buffalo News. She is currently writing a series of essays about mothers and daughters.

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