Memoir of a Plague Teacher

It’s the end of August, 2020. I sit in my office (it’s only a classroom if students are in it). The glare of the computer screen casts pale blue. Bleary-eyed from lesson planning, navigating folders, grading too-little and obviously phoned-in or plagiarized work, fielding (to me, at least) needy, easily-solved emails from students and often contradictory emails from administration, I rub at my eyes and lean back in my chair. We both groan.

Why did I get into this business?

I tell myself a mantra, one that I’m sure has been said by many this year: “Keep your head down and grind it out. Everything is bad, but it can’t be forever. This isn’t the job I signed up for, but at least I have a job. At least I have a job. At least I have….”

A new email pops up. It’s from a student: “i cant see”.

Cryptic, ominous. A vague prickling on the back of the neck and around the temples as I struggle to find meaning in senselessness. What can’t they see? Why can’t they see it? How is any of this my problem? I swallow bile and wonder if I should even respond, knowing that if I do, it will almost certainly not be polite.

I stare at the message. “I can’t do this”, I may or may not say out loud. I am alone in a dark room, separated from my labor by a complex aggregate of ones and zeroes. All of the life and heart of teaching traded for sterilized plastic. Ossified, cold. Nothing but 21st Century messages in bottles, and I have no way of knowing if I’m getting through….

Why did I get into this business?

I sigh and type slowly, probably with a sneer, “Your message contains no information. What, exactly, can’t you see?”

An email from administration pops up. It is my ninth email of the day. I don’t know it yet, but there will be another seventeen before the day is over. Teachers, please make sure you have done your attendance for all your classes before you….” I stop reading and write down “Do attendance” on a post-it. I put it next to all the other post-its on my desk. It looks like in those movies where the detective is hot on the trail; all I’m missing is red string and thumbtacks.

The student has responded. It is one word: “login”.

I have a Word document filled with common responses that I can cut and paste. I’ve done this ad nauseum. “You can find directions to log in, as well as contact information for IT, on the KUSD website.” I mark the date, time, and student’s name in a contact log. Technically I have done my job. I derive absolutely no satisfaction from this.

I need to look up a video on YouTube talking about types of irony to help explain concepts in Act III of The Crucible. There’s an informative and reasonably entertaining one from Oregon State University. I copy the link into the correct day’s folder in the correct week’s folder in the online platform, then copy it to all the correct day and week folders in my other class periods. I cross it off my to-do list. Technically I have done my job. I derive absolutely no satisfaction from this.

I need to get out.

Wandering the halls, I pass over the hunched figures of my colleagues silhouetted by computer light. Doors closed, backs turned, they’re nearly indistinguishable. I’d like to talk to one of them, but already know what the conversation would be:

Why did we get into this business?

So I keep walking. I walk outside, and realize it is the first time I have seen natural light in hours. I make sure to look at faraway things to counteract the staring at screens. I get self-conscious about being outside looking at faraway things, that maybe I’ll be seen and it will look like I’m shirking, so I go back into my dark box to hunch over, door closed, back turned, silhouetted by the computer’s blue, indistinguishable.

I now have six new emails.

One from the student: “k”.

One from admin: I don’t read it yet. It will just be one more thing to do in a year of “just one more thing”.

One from a student I had last year. She probably wants me to write a recommendation letter, or help her into university, or vent about her parents, or work, or relationships, or some other thing. Wanting, needing, demanding, requesting, pleading, they’ve all blended this year. It’s all become just one more thing.

I open it:

Dear Mr. Forehand,
Okay, I’ve literally been forgetting to send this email but I have hyped up a lot of your new coming kids for your class, so you better tell them all the stories you told us and teach them the real life things like you did us! Bring all the sarcasm just like you did us! I told a lot of them you are the best english teacher they will ever have!

Have a great school year! Miss your class.”

I read it. I reread it. There’s a lump in my throat. I dig through my emails to find other conversations with students. There are more than I remember. Successes and failures, aspirations and fears, or even just a nice chat. How did I forget? New unreads keep coming in, piling up. I let them. They’ve suddenly lost all meaning and urgency. I keep digging, searching to remember when it wasn’t “just one more thing”, it was what I do and why I do it. When I knew I had done more than my job, and I absolutely derived satisfaction from it.

There’s a folder in my Gmail now, I titled it “Student Correspondence”, but it really should have a happier, kitschier name. I make sure to look at it at least once a day.

It’s why I got into this business.

 

 

Paul Forehand

Paul Forehand currently teaches ELA and Russian Language in the Kingman Unified School District. He earned his undergraduate degree from Oklahoma State University in Russian Language and Literature in 2008 and, after a four-year experiment in making money and being miserable, subsequently fled back to The Ivory Tower.

In 2014, Paul earned his Master’s degree in (deep breath) Russian, East-European, and Eurasian Studies with an emphasis in Literature and Linguistics from the University of Oregon. Funding for his education was tied to teaching within the Humanities and Russian Departments which, to the surprise of most including himself, he had a knack for.

From 2015-2017 Paul taught Russian and English as Foreign Languages in a rural Mongolian town as a representative of the US Peace Corps. The time spent there twisted him into the man he is today, and encouraged him to always pursue ways of applying his skill set – such as it is – where he is most needed.

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