Confessions of a Teacher

Black Square Boxes: Affirming the Identity of Students During a Pandemic

Michele Lamons-Raiford is a hearing American Sign Language (ASL) teacher at Pinole Valley High School in the West Contra Costa Unified School District. She has been a High School teacher for the past nineteen years, previously teaching all levels of English, as well as an Adjunct English Instructor at Solano Community College for the past fourteen years.  She has a BA and MA in English from Cal State University Sacramento, and teaching credentials in English and ASL from Cal State University East Bay.  

Black. Square. Boxes. Dozens of them. All in perfect little faceless rows. Thin lines define the spaces between them, while simultaneously amplifying the space between us. 
“Nia, can you flash your face so I can verify your identity?” I see a flash of a girl that vaguely resembles the girl I remember from last year. She is holding a crying baby in one hand, and what must be her cell phone in the other. 
“I wish it was mandatory these kids showed their faces,” one teacher said in a staff meeting. This was ironically also half-filled with the same semi-anonymity of those dreaded shapes. 
“If there is an issue and you cannot flash your face, just type it in a private chat.” A world revolving around text and social media has made the chat feature a teacher’s best friend. “Can I talk to you in private after class?” is the most common response. Breakout Rooms and Private 1-1 Zooms have become the new closed-door sessions. Transparently, I have become more in touch with the mental health of some students I have known for years. 
Transparently, I have become more in touch with the mental health of some students I have known for years. Click To Tweet
Black. Square. Boxes. Behind these squares is a face. Behind these boxes is a family. Behind these squares is…life. “How are you really doing John?” A long pause and a gut-wrenching sigh followed. For the first time, he looked right into the camera and said slowly, “It’s really been hard, ya know?” I nod and listen, and listen and nod, as the words, and sometimes tears, flow so freely.  There is joy, there is pain, there is a success, there is defeat, there is life, there is…death. “My grandma died of Covid last week. She was 91…but still…I hadn’t seen her in months…but still…that was my grandma, ya know?” I nod and listen, and listen and nod. 
The stories coming from behind this newfound anonymity hit home on a level I never had in brick and mortar buildings. 
Black. Square. Boxes. I am torn between being angry this pandemic has lasted this long, and angry at myself for it taking something this drastic for me to take a long look at myself…being satisfied with the surface level relationships I developed with my students. 
How is it that I feel closer to some in a world that keeps us so far apart? Our physical connections versus this new virtual realm have evolved from a previously surface relationship to a deeply emotional one. Removing me from their space, but at the same time allowing me in their personal space, has created an intimate look inside their worlds, their very lives.  
As teachers, we often wish students and parents would see us as more than our professions. We are wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, friends…but do we have the same wish to know our students? This pandemic has opened my eyes to the humanity behind the lives of those we so often claim to want to get to know.  
Of course, I look forward to the day I can safely see my students in person again. But for now, I am thankful for the unforeseen opportunity to get to know the actual person behind what so many have come to dread logging in to see day after day: 
To those Black, Square, Boxes, I say thank you. 

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