Meg Volz is a French teacher at a public school in Chicago. She describes how teaching virtually during the pandemic has given her a glimpse into the home life of many of her students.
What I will remember most from teaching in the pandemic is not how Chicago’s mayor gave conflicting, last-minute-changing directives, but the humanity I see in my students as I teach them online.
In my physical classroom on the South Side of Chicago, my students felt safe in many ways—to misbehave, to participate, or to blend into the mass of adolescent bodies in the desks and in the halls. But online, I had a direct view into their homes, which I’d never seen before. Understandably, many cameras were off.
At first, it scared me. But slowly we warmed up to each other, playing games like, “turn your camera on if …” in French. Turn your camera on if you listen to G Herbo! Turn your camera on if you watch anime! For a second, the kids could connect, in a low-stakes way. And I saw glimpses of their reality: walls painted pink; smoke detectors beeping; five-year-old siblings in front of a laptop, squeezed right next to my students; a baby with a pacifier on a student’s lap—probably a niece, nephew, or little sibling that needed a watchful eye. One of my favorite students smoking something, forgetting I could see him!
Humanity popped up in the Google Meet chat too: “Madame I need to go for a second. I’m so stressed right now! I have to help my brother with school and I can’t figure it out.” There were requests to help grannies bring in groceries. One student asked if he could leave early to cook lunch for his mom on her birthday (I said yes). On a Google Form, I learned the disappointment of one girl who had to quarantine for two weeks because she caught COVID.
During weekly check-ins, I heard about cousins, sibling’s parents, and grandparents who died. I bookmarked a “Sorry for your loss” e-card for these occasions. I also saw how my freshman ached to connect in their first year at school with no physical means to do so. “I’m a really good friend, hint hint!” appeared in the chat, and I smiled at this plea to reach out and connect through a computer.
The honesty and urgency of teenage emotions reach through. Students will write “I’m really not doing well right now.” Students write back, “Are you ok? I’m gonna beat you up if you don’t feel better tomorrow!” and followed up the next day, typing, “How’s it going now? Feeling better?” I typed in the chat, “It makes me so proud and happy to see you looking after each other.”
When I started this profession, teaching confirmed my belief that most humans are inherently good, and I see it more than ever in my Google chat box during this pandemic.
I majored in French and Francophone studies at Vassar, but what most prepared me for teaching in the pandemic was the kindness and human connection that teachers showed. I remember Professor McCarthy telling us in philosophy to check in if we ever had the “mean reds,” as Holly Golightly calls them in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. When I struggled with a French paper on Princesse de Clèves, my advisor, Cynthia Kerr, implored me, “Mégane, think! Haven’t you ever been in love?”
And most of all, I remember how much my classmates and I adored and cared for each other, discovering our common interests and bonding over them—horseback riding, Benny Benassi’s music, reading New York magazine. I’m still connecting with my students and discussing our interests in French, but now, over Google meets, and I’m checking in on them on a human level more than ever.