I was getting my hair braided when they declared a national emergency. I had spent that Friday morning with my friend in her classroom where nothing seemed out of place, until the teacher remarked on how a few students were absent because their parents were anxious about coronavirus. Days earlier, Stanford had put a pause on all in-person classes, but my graduate school peers and I were still going in to our student teaching placements, washing our hands obsessively and trying to hold on until the upcoming spring break.
The hair salon was in shopping centre in Campbell, thirty minutes south of Palo Alto. I was the only client in the shop and my nine-months-pregnant hair braider and I were glued to our phones, trying to make sense of it all. She finished my last blonde braid and I walked outside to see a wave of people rushing into Whole Foods, some even donning blue surgical masks. A friend in New York called me to tell me that I should stay with her mom in Los Angeles, which I brushed off. I needed to be around for when things all got back to normal, I replied, walking down empty pasta and toilet paper aisles.
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On Monday, the Bay Area issued a stay-at-home order. My school was going to be closed for the next three weeks, with information about distance learning said to be coming soon. Stanford announced that the entire spring quarter would be taught online. Travel bans, travel restrictions, and border closings were being put into place around the world. I don’t remember being scared or anxious or worried. All I remember is truly having no idea what on earth was going on.
Education is filled with moments of crises. For every catastrophic moment in history, there are students, sitting in their seats, watching it play out in real time. For all the catastrophic moments that take place in a life, there are students, sitting in their seats, experiencing it all in real time. That is what an education is — traumas pushing against each other, on the playground, in math class, in P.E. Students processing divorce, grief, civil war, and then continuing on with the lesson of the day.
The start of the COVID-19 pandemic was a culmination of catastrophes. Hospitalisations and deaths, furloughs and layoffs, isolations and quarantines. As a student and as a teacher, I was watching education systems trying to balance the stability of keeping schools open for as long as possible and adapting for the sake of consistency, whilst also wondering when it was time to stop, take stock, and then move forward. And in the immediate following those initial lockdowns, the latter won. Schools stopped.
In the midst of catastrophe, came something else. Not a silver lining, or a lesson learned, as the loss of lives to COVID and the resultant chaos could and should not be balanced with any pros. Rather, in the midst of it all came a moment. When the drudgery of education came to a temporary standstill in ways that hadn’t been seen before and were previously deemed impossible. For the first time, the education system met a crisis that forced its hand just to make it all pause for a second.
For as long as I could remember, my education and all that came with it often brought physical exhaustion. There was school, and homework, and studying, and exams, and projects, and papers. Then there was soccer, and swimming, and field hockey, and piano, and voice, and choir, and dance, and the school musical, and school tours, and tutoring, and the Black student union, and student government, and student teaching, and it never stopped. I loved it all and it never stopped. I would always think, this is what an education is, preparing me for a life filled with demands and obligations and responsibilities and exhaustion, because that’s just how life is. And then COVID stopped everything.
I was miles away from my friends, oceans away from my family, and at the start at least, I felt like I was on my own. But, I also felt like I suddenly had so much time. Time that was exclusively and undeniably my own, and I hadn’t felt like that in a long time. I had a bath every day. I ate tubs of Ben and Jerry’s Tonight Dough. I scrolled though memes until the sun went down. I had long WhatsApp video calls with my family. I went for walks and bike rides with my friends. I listened to Playing Games by Summer Walker on repeat. I made cauliflower adobo, tuna meatballs, and the worst pandemic sourdough loaf. I window shopped on the Urban Outfitters website. I did the bare minimum on my homework. I missed my kids.
When COVID hit, this is what my education became. An exercise in rest. In pause. In solitude. In community. An exercise in sadness. In happiness. In peace.
So much of education feels like a race against the clock. You’re teaching preschool with kindergarten in mind, elementary with middle school on the brain, and high school with college as the goal. You’re doing the thing that’s right in front of you whilst picturing what comes next. And there’s never enough time. Not enough time to teach, or study, or play all the sports, or learn all the instruments. Schools are designed to move you to the next level and that’s what the goal is always shown to be, for kids to move, move, move.
In that way, it makes sense that an education is a means of preparing students for life outside the classroom by indoctrinating them into a life of capitalistic productivity, from which every second of every day must go towards some tangible end. Schools prepare students for a life in which the present is not as important as the aspirational future. An education trains students for a life in which any crisis, on hurt, or pain, or catastrophe needs to be bulldozed through, left unaddressed for the sake of the instructional minutes that need to be fulfilled.
March 13 opened a portal to an alternate reality. It showed us a world in which we had to slow down, we had to stop, and in the middle of that chaos, there was a pause to breathe. To sit in fear and pain and peace and quiet. To make space for catastrophe. But what would it look like for that to be the norm? For schools and for us to slow down and stop for all the traumas big and small experienced by our kids? How might that transform how we all exist in the world, denying ourselves the time we need to pause and feel all that is going on? What if we started that repair work in school to create a society of people less hurt and less numb, constantly forced to just push through our hurts and pains?
A month and a half into the new normal of quarantine, my phone started blowing up with texts from White friends wanting to check on me. A video was beginning to circulate on social media of a Black man being killed on camera for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds, and no one could look away. Within my program, our work ground to yet another stop, with all classes and lectures at least informally suspended to make space for this tragedy.
My response, for better or for worse, was to detach and disconnect. I ignored the scores texts and dodged the phone calls and engaged even less with my education in the final weeks before I was set to graduate from Stanford. Instead of forcing myself to participate in all that was going on as I usually would, I got to continue to flex the muscle that I had been growing since March 13 that told me that it was okay to respond to an action not with a reaction, but with nothing at all. I did not always have to spend my time doing and giving and moving. I could be content with just being.
And that was how I spent the final leg of my own education. After years of Sisyphean grinding in school, the pandemic taught me to leave the boulder alone. In those last days, I spent less time worried about what was coming next and how it was all going to work out, and I instead spent more time outside, lying in the grass, reading a book, listening to a podcast, and figuring out for the first time, that maybe there were new ways for life to be.
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