A Teacher Learns A Lesson

School is Closed

By Tom Deignan


About a month ago, if you’d asked me how things were going, I could only shrug.  Busy, busy, busy.

My day job as an English teacher sends me on an hour and 45 minute trek from New Jersey to Brooklyn  – at a high school Mondays through Fridays, and a college on Saturdays. There’s also an after-school class wedged in there two days a week.

I’ve found a niche, in recent years, working in what are called “transfer schools,” which cater to “over-aged” yet “under-credited” kids.

For a wide and complicated variety of reasons, traditional schools have not worked for these students.  So this is kind of their “last chance high school.”

Every day is energetic and unpredictable, hilarious and heartbreaking.

And challenging. Certainly challenging.

Of course it’s a lot of work.  Six days a week. And that commute on top of it. 

Car ride from Jersey to a train in Staten Island.  Train to 7:15 a.m. ferry boat, to lower Manhattan. Bowling Green 4 train to Court Street.

You can bet on more than one occasion, I sipped from my morning coffee and gazed up from my Richard Russo or Alice McDermott novel. And looked out at the New York Bay – Governor’s Island, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, where my grandfather, Leo, landed as a child in 1907, one of nearly a dozen kids born to Philip and Margaret Deignan, from Boyle, Roscommon, by way of Liverpool.

Is this what your mother and father brought you here for, Grandpa? 

This waking way too early and racing, racing – from one thing to the next, with less a start-and-finish feel, and more a hamster wheel feel.  And not knowing what, if anything, you’ve done for these kids you work with everyday – these funny and charming kids, these desperate and needy kids.

All of which could be said about my own four kids at home.

There’s kind of an It’s a Wonderful Life moment every morning. Staring out at the harbor.

Wouldn’t a pause on all this be amazing? Just a break. A respite. Stop the hamster wheel spinning, just for a spell. A breather.

Well, to quote Clarence the Angel: “You’ve got your wish.”

A month ago, if you’d asked me what Zoom was, I’d have said it was a terrible Sesame Street knock-off from the 1970s. And I’d have told you Anthony Fauci was probably a kid a year behind me at Our Lady Queen of Peace grammar school.

Social distancing? I’d politely correct you. The 1990s rock band behind classics like “Story of my Life” and “Cold Feelings” was actually called Social Distortion.

And yet, here we are – Zooming, social distancing, nouns turned into verbs by a gruesome disease.

This crisis has forced us to confront ugly questions about who and who does not have access to technology – or health care, or daily meals.

And more mundane questions: Are you actually a teacher without students before you? Is it really a “classroom” when it requires a username and password administered by a tech behemoth far more interested in your purchasing patterns than the glorious narratives of Richard Russo or Alice McDermott?

For now, the answer has to be yes, because that is what the moment requires. To gripe beyond that would be gravely disrespectful to those who’ve had to answer far more terrible questions in recent weeks.

So, every morning, there’s no car or train or ferry.  You call your students. You text, you email, you post work, and you call again to remind them that you called, you texted, you posted.

What else can you do?

You can certainly lament the weather, because this quarantine business is far better when the sun is shining. And if getting out for a long walk is against the law then lock me up, because there’s only so many rules you follow to endure all this.

And every couple of days, you have to hop in the mini-van and head to Staten Island to check in – at a safe distance – with your mother and sisters. And maybe take a walk with your kids on the Staten Island boardwalk where you can hear the lap of the New York Bay and, of course, you run into your cousin Tom Murphy – at a safe distance – who had the wisdom way back in mid-March to cancel the family’s annual St. Patrick’s Day party.

To be sure, this quarantine crap is bad. But also: When am I ever going to have all four of my children to talk to like this? Ever again? 

To chat with Maggie, the college freshman, about this painter or that Broadway show?  To talk to T.J., a high school junior, about this indy movie or that Springsteen album – even after all I did to avoid exposing him to the more geriatric regions of my musical tastes.

To talk to 8th-grader Tim about the great Detroit Tiger Al Kaline, who just died at 85, and how to generate more power in his baseball swing? Or to talk to 6th-grader Rose about The Office or Tiger King, or the more comedic aspects of growing up on Staten Island, with my mom and my dad and sisters, and the low-level Mafia guys, not to mention her immigrant great-grandfather.

Nobody wanted any of this. But as teachers, parents, you do what you have to do. It’s what the moment requires. 

Amidst all the anger and boredom and frustration, you should talk to those around you – if you can, if you’re fortunate enough.  You should enjoy whatever sun happens to be shining at any given moment.

What else can you do?

Tom Deignan is an author, teacher, and columnist for the Irish Voice and Irish America (tdeignan.blogspot.com).

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