A Different Journey

Aside from our flawless taste in beauty products, and our affinity for yellow diamonds, famed lyricist Rihanna and I have one more thing in common: “We found love in a hopeless place.”

Anyone reading this blog needs no exposition nor evidence that this school year is among the most challenging, frustrating, and likely depressing times in a teacher’s career. Knowing the tsunami of confusion, anxiety, and work that was heading our way did not really alleviate the pain of the first weeks of class. We worked tirelessly and tediously. In the midst of the new year, we did everything we could to hold our rafts together and ride out the crashing waves.

Last spring, a colleague and I chose a new summer reading book for our incoming students. Given the uncertainty and dangers of our community, we knew we had to procure a choice that we could legally distribute free digital copies to our students. Of course, this is possible if you pick old enough novels — they aren’t protected by the same copyright laws as more modern works.

I took the opportunity to advocate for one of my personal literary heroes: Jules Verne. Verne created worlds that only exist in an imagination.

In college, I became enamored with his fantastical imagery. The unforgettable adventures include elephant racing, underwater picnics, forests of mushrooms taller than redwoods, and the uncanny 1840s prediction that the rocket landing on the moon would leave Earth from Florida.

He evokes the power of literature: he can make readers see and experience things that actually do not (yet?) exist.

When selecting the novel, I tried to check my personal bias and also suggest Lewis Caroll’s Through the Looking Glass. My colleague helped decide and she actually made the stronger case for Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. It was a bit ironic that she ended up persuading me because one time I flew to France for my birthday so that I could ride a hot-air balloon, tour a submarine, and beg a Frenchman to let me ride the elephant merry-go-round clearly made for children in Paris. I did this all in homage to one of my favorite writers.

Given my history with the novelist, it should come as no surprise that I was very much looking forward to one of my already favorite components of the assignment: artwork based on imagery inside the novel.

As the summer crawled along, it became increasingly obvious that the time-honored tradition of rousing the students to the front of the room holding their art up and sheepishly explaining their projects was in jeopardy. It had always been fun because the freshmen are equal parts enthusiastic and timid. Making the students blush while I shower accolades and inquire deeply was probably an inadvertent bonding technique uniting the kids against their over-zealous nerdy teacher.

Now, settling into remote learning, I was simply operating logistically: my first challenge was to teach 14-year-olds to scan artwork with a smartphone. Next, I had to teach them how to upload said scan over unfamiliar software systems.

It wasn’t for several days into the new year that I even realized these adolescents would miss out on the tortured right of passage. In the tsunami preparations, this reality hadn’t truly hit.

But when I opened the submissions, and started to inspect them, a wave of conflicting emotions began to pour over me. For one, I was sad. Sad I wasn’t going to make a kid blush in front of the room with my earnest praise and inquisition — sad I wasn’t going to decorate my room with this work just in time for the parents to visit on the second Thursday of the school year. But next, I was inspired and elated. These students brought the imagination of one of my literary heroes to life. These students worked tirelessly to impress me – not knowing if we’d even come to school this year. Submission after submission, I was stopping, zooming in, gasping, and taking pictures to share with other teachers.

The morning I opened these submissions, I couldn’t wait to share them over my virtual classroom. I scrapped part of my lesson for the day, and launched into a slide show of sea monsters, lava, and eccentric travelers. Starting with these gorgeous submissions from Aspyn, Colin and Ty:

Aspyn          Colin           Ty


As my peer, Rihanna, sang “Shine a light through an open door… It’s the way I’m feeling; I just can’t deny.”

One by one, I called on the students to chat with me about their art. I paid compliments where they were due, and wondered about inspiration. I gushed over more art, and felt an excitement for these new students in a way I had thought we lost back last March.

Ava, Elijah, and Skye provided my next stunning examples:


Ava          Elijah          Skye


It is easy to miss the moments. It is easy to beat ourselves up and work too hard. But all is not lost. As overly sentimental as it sounds, our human spirit is alive and well. We can have joy, growth and inspiration… even in a hopeless place.


What sparkling moments have brought you joy in these first weeks of remote learning?

Leave a comment below!


James King

My favorite words are “dapper” and “adventure.” With an unkempt proclivity, I manage to exemplify only one of these words into my classroom every day. The reason I chose English is simple: adventure lives in books. I get to take students wading into the Mediterranean, strolling along the Mississippi, or hiking the Himalayas without leaving their desks.

I teach at my alma mater, after using 12 years to explore the world – beyond the verse, poetry, and prose I adore. I spent time traveling Central, and North America, The Caribbean, and Europe. I worked at Walt Disney World for many years, ultimately overseeing training for 50,000 employees. Entertaining and serving guests from all around the world, I also trained and managed international employees.

I was a substitute teacher in the nation’s third-largest school district for 4 years and graduated from the University of Central Florida. My education degree emphasized English, Communication, and Commerce; this assisted me in obtaining English Language Arts and Career and Technical teaching certifications here in Arizona.

Aside from grading, reading, tweeting (@PhxJayKing), and blogging, I also sponsor a surprising popular Book Club on campus, and you might find me playing sand volleyball any given night of the week.

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