Reaching Through the Distance: Teaching and Writing in 2020: Guest Post by Marcella Pixley

It is 2020. I am writing this blog from the old, wooden desk inside my classroom. I have been teaching in this room for the past sixteen years, but this year it feels unfamiliar. The desk is encased in plastic barriers so that it resembles an aquarium. Like all of the desks in our school right now, the surface is cleared of extraneous objects so that it can be sprayed down with disinfectant at the end of the day. We are lucky. The COVID numbers in our small, New England town are very low. This means that our students have been allowed to return to the building full-time after seven months of distance. The students are happy to be back and we are happy to see them together again, even though what it means to be together feels completely different this year.

I have always taught language arts in a circle so that the students can own the space and call on each other, looking directly at each other’s faces as they speak their truth. But this year, my old wedge tables have been replaced with desks, and these desks have been placed in regulated rows, spaced six feet apart. I teach in a mask now, from a small safe triangle at the front of the room. I try, with every ounce of my being, to connect with my students and to encourage them to connect with each other even though there is always distance between us. I dance in my space. I gesture and project my voice. I contort my face so that they can, just maybe, see the tips of my facial expressions above my mask. “Thank goodness for eyebrows,” I say. They wiggle their eyebrows back at me.

I ask them to lean in when they have something to say so that we can tell where their voices are coming from. Otherwise a class discussion can sometimes feel like a séance or like being in a room filled with ventriloquists. Where are the voices coming from? We don’t always know. We like the word “smize,” a word I first heard coined by supermodel Tyra Banks on an episode of Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! A word meaning “smile with your eyes.”  I draw masked smiley faces on the white board with cheerful question marks surrounding them. It feels like a Zen koan. If a person smiles behind a mask and no one sees it, does it make a difference? We experiment to find the answer. Some people can do it. Others just look like they are in pain.

I am a teacher who has spent her entire career finding ways to help students make meaningful connections with literature and each other, but this year everything is upside down. During the few moments in their day when our eighth graders are not in their seats, they gravitate towards each other. We knew this would happen. During recess and lunch, we remind them to keep their distance from each other, even though we know all they really want to do is move closer and closer together like starving, inevitable magnets.

“Spread apart!” I call, trying to sound cheerful, even as a I shudder inside. I imagine the virus billowing from the edges of their masks. “Step back, all you silly people!” I approach them with my arms spread apart like wings. It has become my signature stance. They groan when they see me coming, mostly with good humor, sometimes with real irritation, and rarely, but more and more frequently as the days drone on, with the first, real licks of fury, because they are eighth graders and everything in their being makes them want to whisper and gossip and wrestle and push, but they care about staying in school. They know how lucky we are to be inside the building when so many schools around us are closing down. Most of the time, when I ask them to keep their distance they take a step back. Sometimes they ignore me completely. I irritate them by walking into their clumps and waving my arms, pretending I am using my psychic, telekinetic, elemental superpowers to force them apart. “Whoosh!” I say, pretending my hands are waves. “Whoosh,” they say, back to me, sadly. It is a strange and hopeless little ritual.

When I wrote Trowbridge Road, I had no idea it would be born into a world where teachers had to wipe down books in their classroom libraries before putting them into students’ hands. I had no idea it would be born into a world where Angela Jordan’s obsessive worries about a virus seeping into her home and infecting the ones she loves would become something that could ever sound sane and familiar. Like June Bug, we have spent too many months inside and alone. We are hungry to be held. We are tired of illness. We yearn to be fed by the people we love and by our community, but like June Bug, we are living in a strange and broken world. We have to find new ways to make the connections we crave so deeply.

As educators and as writers, we have always known that the books we place into the hands of our students are important. But this year, in 2020, those decisions, those simple, loving interactions, seem even more meaningful and more important. When we read, we realize that we are not alone in our hurt or in our hope. When we read, we remember the places in our imaginations that wear no masks. Trowbridge Road is about finding connection, even when you feel invisible, and it is strange, but somehow fitting, that it has been born into a world where we need to be reminded that we must never stop reaching for each other, even when the entire world tells us to be distant.

Varian Johnson