OPINION: As We Mourn the Loss of “Normal,” the Time has Come to Envision a Bold New Future for Our Schools

by Marcus Harden

(This article first appeared on Rise up For Students and has been reprinted with permission.) 

“As long as there are those that remember what was, there will always be those that are unable to accept what can be. They will resist.”

—Thanos, Avengers Endgame

I hate social distancing. There, I said it.

I believe in the power of language — I rarely use the word hate — and I fully understand why social distancing is necessary. I honor and respect the sacrifices workers are making that allow me to sit on my Ikea couch and write a blog post about hating it and the privilege that comes along with it.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way … every day, my heart and spirit mourns the loss of not only what was, but like so many others around me, I grieve for the lost feeling of certainty of what will be.

In our ACE program that we’ve continued in Seattle through COVID-19, 10–15 young men show up every day, ready for connection, to learn Black history facts, to do some reading and writing and a workout of the day.

When polled, we asked if they liked virtual learning more than the in-person school experience. Ninety percent said in-person was their preference. They want things to get back to normal. And I’m partially with them.

Yet, I’m not sure we ever had a normal, because until COVID-19 came along, we didn’t have much to juxtapose “normal” against. COVID-19 has ravaged every walk of life across the world, and it has ripped, as always, into education.

But maybe more striking has been the way it is ravaging identities and beliefs across the world. Before COVID-19, I would have proudly told anyone who’d listen, “I am an only child — 50% introvert, 50% extrovert — who craves his alone time and draws his energy from the solitude to make his way into the social settings of the world.”

In its best Maury voice, COVID-19 has determined, “THAT’S A LIE!

It’s a lie I’ve told myself,  of course, because in that way adversity has of introducing a person to themselves, the truth of the reality I’m now being forced to live is that I’m probably 70/30 — heck, maybe 80/20 — extrovert to introvert.

The essential hero behind the mask and the glass at the nearest Target, Cynthia, has become my best friend, because she has become the most consistent in-person human contact I have. I also know she’s off Tuesdays and Fridays, and so I try and stagger my Target visits accordingly.

First-world problems aside, I do mourn. I mourn greatly, not just for my identity and not just in grasping after what was, but in grappling with what is to come.

As an educator, the pandemic’s inequitable impact on our students has already been written and spoken about by greater minds than my own.

We know Black and brown kids are suffering disproportionately under this virus and its ripple effects, which we could have predicted, because they were suffering disproportionately under the old system, too. We know schools in low-income neighborhoods weren’t ready for this emergency, although sadly they’ve had shelter-in-place practices for a gunman drilled into their heads. A virtual learning plan, on the other hand, not so much. That’s another blog post for another day.

I mourn for every single person who has lost their life, for all lives that have been affected by COVID-19 — and not just in the Western way of just counting all of the American lives. More than ever, our connections are clear, and my grief has flowed for ALL of the lives, as every single one sends a ripple through time.

I mourn for all the Last Classes around the world — the Last Class that students got to attend before the phrase “social distancing” crept into their psyche.

I mourn for the Last Class that revolutionary educators got to teach before we were forced to ask ourselves if this experience could be transferred to an online module.

I mourn for the Last Class who didn’t get to say goodbye to their favorite teacher who’s retiring.

I mourn for the Class of 2020, because y’all just deserved better. 

Yet as we exit the stages of mourning, knowing that someday soon dawn will break on a new day, I hope we are both able to remember and resist. I hope we remember these feelings as educators, because the old normal for students wasn’t working for most, and arguably never served any of us well, because it has never worked for our Black and brown babies furthest from educational justice.

I hope we remember how deeply the inexplicable, non-tangible importance of the human connection runs, because there’s not an app or a Zoom/Teams/Hangouts feature that can substitute for the energy conjured by a room full of young people.

I hope we resist the urge to return to the unacceptable old normal when we are tempted to take teachers for granted when we know now to think of them as essential.

I hope we resist the urge to return to normal when we think of mental health, when we think of accommodations for others, when we think about the greater good, when we think about the sharing of resources, when we think about our most vulnerable, and when we think of just washing our hands (please keep doing this!).

We may have experienced the Last Class in the world we once knew, but from adversity always comes opportunity. I hope we use this time to create a new world of opportunities and access for students of color and the educators that continue to support them.

The old excuses are dead. Those laptops we weren’t sure we could afford or distribute or “trust them with,” we now know we can not only make it happen, we can push our students’ thinking (true education) from being consumers to creators.

Those state tests and standards didn’t matter as much as we thought. Those parent partnerships we worked so hard to create, however, are now front and center, and we have an incredible opportunity to snap our fingers and redesign what education could and should be for our students and families.

I mourn with a tear in my eye for what was. Yet I smile through the tears as I close the door (with my gloves and mask on, of course) on the Last Class and look forward with a glimmer of hope for what could be.

These are unprecedented times, but we have proven to be an unprecedented people, and no greater collective learning has taken place in recent history than we are experiencing now. More than ever, we know that everything can change overnight. We know that what once seemed unstoppable or impenetrable can be paused at a moment’s notice — or left behind altogether.

What a powerful lesson being shared with us, together, in the universe’s biggest known classroom: Earth.

Maybe now we can finally learn from our best teachers — the students — because unlike many adults and many of their teachers, they never seem to struggle with figuring out a way to be heard, even when their meeting icon is on mute.

Maybe Thanos was right. They will resist, and I’m here for it.

“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Marcus Harden is a former Seattle Public Schools educator. 

Featured image: The Road to the Future by Boris Savluc (Creative Commons derivative license)