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I was once the conductor of an orchestra. The classroom was my concert hall.
Maybe it was the fact I was born to a deaf mother, maybe it was the ADHD. Whatever it was, noise and motion, the twin burdens of my youth, seemed always to be assets to me as an educator.
But then distance learning happened.
I proudly teach at Chollas Mead Elementary School in the heart of southeastern San Diego. At my school we believe in the whole child, and maybe that was why returning to a skill and drill routine hit me hard. I no longer felt like a conductor. The music of my classroom had gone silent.
And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
Along with my colleague, Mr. Dominique, we decided that we could safely venture out into the community to bring some of this music back. And on one particular day, I was reminded of just how special being in the classroom is.
Dominique and I arrive separately at Giselle’s house. She runs outside, and we have to talk her out of a hug. We sit with her apart from one another in the grass of her apartment complex.
Dominique shows Giselle how to access Zoom, and we have a laugh on our computers in a mock trial of a meeting.
I return home quickly to meet with students for our daily opener. Today is Friday, and after introducing writing and math projects, Dominique and I grab our masks and jump in our cars again.
Dominique and I deliver science kits. We get to see a few kids in their doorways. I can’t see through their masks, but I know they’re smiling too.
It isn’t possible to get back in time, so I open my laptop, and begin a math class in the parking lot of CVS. Dominique tells the kids he is at the Starbucks parking lot for its wifi. Mr. D.’s location is cooler, they say.
Dominique and I notice that our student Nico hasn’t attended class today, nor have we seen him since Wednesday. Next stop: Nico’s house.
With blessings from family, Dominique and I are invited in. Masks on, up the stairs we go.
“What the what?” says Nico, standing at his door a few moments later.
“Good morning,” says Mr. D. through his mask.
“Good afternoon,” I say through mine.
“OMG YOU CAME TO MY HOUSE?” says Nico.
“Yeah,” says Mr. D., “We missed you today.”
“I … I missed you guys too?” says Nico, still stunned.
This time, it’s grammar and word study. And this time, Nico is there at his desk next to his bunk bed.
Dominique and I rendezvous at Bowlegged Barbecue. While we eat on the tailgate of my truck, I hold a Zoom meeting with my school newspaper club. They’ve decided to begin a comic called Covidman.
I try to pass a car double-parked, but can’t. I see the owner of the car, a lady in a bumblebee costume and a mask, handing something to a kid on the stoop of a nearby house. She runs back to her car and apologizes, and that’s when I see the sign on the sides of her windows, “Congratulations to Mrs. P’s Kindergarten Graduates.”
At least I’m not in a bumblebee costume, I think.
Time to meet with a few more groups, plan and grade. My daughter needs a quesadilla “bad.”
I eat dinner with my wife and children. My wife, an archaeologist, calls me “nuts but benign.”
I receive a call. It’s from Nico’s mother. I prepare to apologize for stopping by unannounced and instead she stops me. “Mr. C.,” she says, “I want to thank you!”
I say, “For breaking and entering into your home?”
“No,” she says, and we share a laugh. Then suddenly serious, she tells me, “It’s been hard.”
My friend, Brianna Ritchey, who happens to be my daughter’s fourth grade teacher, calls me.
“Hey there, Tom,” she says. “I’m calling about Onora.”
“Nothing much, just there’s a remote dance competition I thought she might like to be a part of, I texted you the link.”
I tuck my daughter into bed a full hour later than normal. She’s been going nonstop about the dance-off. She loves dancing, something my colleague knows well.
She says, “Dad, it’s a good thing Ms. Ritchey sent you that link. Imagine if I never saw it?”
As I turn off her light, I suddenly hear her voice and can’t get it out of my head. Like an orchestral crescendo, it builds and builds.
Imagine if I never saw it.
And that’s when I realize that one day soon, when the music of my classroom begins again, I won’t have to get into my car to drop off science kits, or heaven forbid, dress up like an insect. The students will be right there for me to bring a world of discovery TO them.
I will be a conductor of an orchestra, and the classroom will be my concert hall again.
Thomas Courtney is a 20-year educator at Chollas-Mead Elementary in the heart of San Diego. He advocates for SEL, global education and equity for his students through a variety of programs and volunteer work.