I’m eying the last stack of exams awaiting grading and have dialed expectations low. Many students appear to have checked-out mentally some time ago. When I finish, I’ll enter the scores in my laptop, hit “send,” and put a period on the toughest school year of my life. It ends, as T.S. Eliot put it, not with a bang but a whimper.
Last September, I had contemplated the road ahead as a test of my mettle. Everyone knew COVID would make things tough, yet, I actually looked forward to it. Circumstances, I imagined, might push me to new levels of teacherly excellence. I was living a crisis moment in time like the historical ones I’d found captivating since childhood. I’d been given a chance to see if I could live up to the resilience and wit of people I admired from the past. I embraced it.
Part of my enthusiasm derived from professional curiosity. My subject matter — U.S. government, global studies, contemporary problems, “power and inequality” — aspires to prepare young people to understand complex problems. I designed several of these courses myself, and here came a perfect storm for testing their methodology.
COVID, racial injustice, popular misinformation to rival Orwell’s dystopia, a zany election, deadly violence in the U.S. capitol, the President’s second impeachment — complexity abounded. I aimed to guide students through it while arming them with skills to uncover truth and define meaning.
Some of my motivation, though, was hardly academic. At 60 years old, I clung to the hope that I was still on my game. Decades of classroom experience, doctorate in history, publications, awards for teaching – they led me to project a confidence that masked sexagenarian doubt. Teachers get older. Our students don’t. I wanted affirmation that I remained as clever and tough as I imagined I had been in my prime.
Teaching also implied a sense of control missing from other parts of my life. Like almost every household, mine has seen more than its usual disarray since COVID hit. By contrast, syllabi, lesson plans and well-worn patterns of teacher-student interaction promised clarity.
Except there wasn’t clarity. I was teaching two groups of students, in-person and online. Each presented novel challenges. On day one, I could hardly hear the in-person kids. We were masked, and facilities had installed an air-circulation contraption in my room which roared like a jet engine. I took the group outside and then got to work reconfiguring desks, within socially-distanced bounds, away from the blower. The new classroom norms made it harder to get to know kids and compromised the conversational style I prefer.
Online students eluded me, too. Some were halfway around the world. Finding times to “meet” proved difficult. Teachers made video tutorials, posted and collected assignments virtually, and fielded office hours by Zoom. My technical savvy was challenged, my film-making creativity practically nil. Tech and distance filtered the spontaneity, humor and energy of live classes.
I coached three seasons, including non-contact wrestling (like riding a bike with no bike), and my athletes had exactly one competitive event all year. Motivating them required effusive displays of enthusiasm which I tried to project by gutting out track workouts with cross-country runners and joking through conditioning drills with wrestlers. Ice, ibuprofen and caffeine got me through, more or less. Looking for any edge, I kicked my nightly beer or two habit and experimented with plant-based diets. Sports culminated with an overnight trip to prep wrestling nationals in Pennsylvania. The Wilkes-Barre Holiday Inn Express post-lockdown felt nearly as exciting as a Parisian vacation.
Almost nothing went as planned, except the thing I wish I’d gotten wrong. I had a foreboding that the election would involve violence. In September, I assigned articles on rightwing groups such as the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys. I implemented units on the history of American political violence and “democracy in crisis.”
Prescience didn’t diminish my shock on January 6, though, and, the next day, a friend reminded me that “you didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that something like this would happen.” Teaching about violence, then seeing it unfold, felt like watching a train speeding toward an abyss with no means of stopping it.
The election, COVID, my school year: they formed intersections between Big Event History and personal experience. Such intersectionality has held me in thrall through a lifetime of studying the past. Seeing myself as a historical actor in my own life, as I opted to do last fall, I anticipated small-scale heroism, or at least validation.
Instead, I rediscovered a lesson I sometimes teach: retrospectively, events can seem neat, sequenced, even preordained, in ways they never do at the time. It’s the job of historians to articulate larger trends and meanings in past events. To those living through them, meaning is usually elusive.
Last September, I was naïve or vain enough to think I could impose meaning onto my day-to-day experience. I couldn’t. I’m not like my historical heroes. Or, maybe those heroes only assume that aura in the pages of history books.
In the darkest days of the Civil War, no less a great man than Abraham Lincoln acknowledged, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”
Perhaps, in moments of crisis, almost everyone feels like us ordinary people, past and present, who try, fail, and try again. Maybe the lesson of this school year wasn’t heroism, but human fallibility and blind persistence.
Chris Doyle teaches history at Avon Old Farms School in Avon.