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Tomgram: Belle Chesler, Teaching Across an Abyss of Silence

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Somehow, it seemed apt to do a different kind of introduction today to TomDispatchregular Belle Chesler's piece. After all, she's the daughter of my first childhood friend from the building in New York City where I grew up in another century. She's also a teacher who, in this Covid-19 moment from hell, has had no choice but to become both a homeschooler for her public school students and just another parent homeschooling her own child.

In this same period, I've left New York City, my birthplace and home for much of my life, and am now a high-end refugee in Connecticut, helping, among other things, to homeschool my seven-year-old grandson. I'm officially his daily writing teacher and the deal we made was: when he does his writing, I would do the same to accompany him. One afternoon, we agreed to spend our half-hour scribbling on what we missed about New York. Below is my contribution, which perhaps catches the mood of the moment, at least for this old man:

"Here's what I'm missing while being in Connecticut:

"I'm missing my photos. The old ones, the ancient ones, the ones in my mother's album that have lost their glue and come off the pages, the ones that sit in the bottom of the drawer under our bed that I would normally never look at but now wish I were near, those old photos of me as a boy atop that station wagon under the tripod of a camera in the Macy's Day Parade (when, as I still remember, Hopalong Cassidy came riding by on a horse and shook my hand) or the one of my cousin Lorie and me in front of St. Patrick's church when she was a girl and I was so very young. Now, I wish I had brought them with me because there's something sad, at my age, about leaving all the traces, all the evidence of a lived life in your apartment in the midst of a pandemic.

"I'm missing the little magazines in that bag at the bottom of my closet that my mother made for my father -- filled with photos of movie stars cut from newspapers and the drawings she herself did for him -- while he was off at war thousands of miles away. I'm missing the attache' case way up in the top of that same closet with my father's World War II memorabilia, including those two-sided colored silk maps of Burma that could be wadded up and put in a pocket. I'm missing all the letters in those plastic bags in the top of that very same closet that I wrote once upon a time and that so many people wrote me -- who even knows who they all were -- and that I haven't looked at for years and years and years. I'm missing them, not because (if I were home) I'd be looking at them now, but because it feels like I've left behind the raw material for the very history of my life, everything that adds up to me and that's now not just a two-hour car ride away but, or so it seems -- until, of course, I do return -- a lifetime away in some other land on some other planet in some other history entirely.

"I'm missing my friends, some of whom are stuck alone in their apartments in New York. I'm missing being able to go to my local Chinese restaurant (now closed) to get an order of tangerine chicken to take on the subway to a friend stranded and alone without the ability to walk very well. I'm missing inviting over for dinner on Sunday nights another friend who has, in a sense, long been a self-isolator, since I know he's stir-crazy in his apartment right now. Both they and I could use company (even though, if I were actually in New York, I wouldn't be able to see them at the moment).

"And perhaps above all I'm missing bird-watching in Central Park during the spring migration with Jim and my grandson. Of course, I speak to Jim almost every day up here and, most of the time, I don't see him in New York anymore anyway (since he lives in Washington). Still, we've been spending a spring weekend birding in Central Park for so many years that it feels like a real break for the migration season to begin without him migrating to New York to be with me. And that, since again it comes out of the deepest part of my personal history, out of a relationship of 65 years, out of a love of bird-watching that began in our teens, represents a deep missingness."

Now, consider the far deeper missingness that teacher Belle Chesler has found in a public-school world that has collapsed into a Zoom heap amid the deep inequality and unfairness of a system that was already a mess before the coronavirus even arrived. Tom

The Empire Has No Clothes
In the Classroom that Zoom Built
By Belle Chesler

Do you hear that silence?

That's the absence of footsteps echoing through our nation's public school hallways. It's the silence of teaching in a virtual space populated with students on mute who lack a physical presence. It's the crushing silence of those who are now missing, who can't attend the classroom that Zoom and Google built.

Maybe you heard the shouted pleas of teachers across the country last year as we walked out of our classrooms and into the streets, begging for affordable housing, health care, and access to equitable funding and resources for our students? Or maybe you heard the impassioned screams of frightened kids as they stormed into the streets and onto the news, demanding safety and an end to the threat of gun violence in our nation's school buildings? Now, there's nothing left to hear.

Today, all we're left with is a deafening silence that muffles the sound of so much suffering. The unfolding public health, mental health, and economic crisis of Covid-19 has laid bare the fragility of what was. The institutions charged with caring for and guiding our most valuable assets -- our children -- were already gutted by half a century of chronic underfunding, misguided curricular policies that prioritized testing over real learning, and social policies that favored austerity over taking care of the most vulnerable members of our society. Now that so many teachers are sequestered and alone or locked away with family, our bonds of proximity broken, we're forced to stare into that void, scrambling to find and care for our students across an abyss of silence. The system is broken. The empire has no clothes.

Not so many weeks ago, I used to be a teacher in a sprawling public high school outside Portland, Oregon. Before the virus arrived, I taught painting, drawing, ceramics, and filmmaking in three different studio classrooms. There, groups of students ranging across the economic, ethnic, religious, racial, and linguistic spectrum sat shoulder to shoulder, chatting and creating, day after day, year after year. Music played and we talked.

On some days, the classes were cacophonous and chaotic; on others, calm and productive. In those spaces, we did our best to connect, to forge thriving communities. What I now realize, though, is that the physical space we shared was the only thing truly tying us all together. Those classrooms were the duct tape securing the smashed bumper on the wreck of a car that was our public education system.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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