I’m so sick of this pandemic. The virus is bad enough. But what it reveals about this country is worse. The vitriol. The disunity. The inequities. The lack of a coherent national response to a global pandemic. I don’t feel anxious about these things. But I do feel sad.
I taught the play The Crucible in 11th grade English for years. John Proctor has this great line at the end of act two. Here’s a plot summary. Or a theme summary. Or the musings of a former English teacher: Proctor’s town of Salem faces a problem. A crucible, as it were. Clever, Arthur Miller. There’s competing ideologies in Salem. And powerful people are trying to profit from this division. The community is caught up in an ugly game of trying to erase rather than embrace each others’ differences.
Historically, this ugly game often results in bad things. It starts with people screaming at people. Then people take power in the name of one idea or the other. This game typically ends with imprisonments, executions, and people killing people they disagree with with the hope of killing off the idea they disagree with. Trying to kill an ideology rarely works. Ideas don’t die so easily. Or ever, really.
Miller was living through the Red Scare when he wrote The Crucible – a play about the Salem Witch Trials. But people screaming at people until they are killing people has been going on for as long as there have been people. At the end of act two in the play, Proctor’s wife has been falsely imprisoned for being in compact with the devil. She may as well have been in compact with communism or Antifa or whatever. Here’s what Proctor says as the curtain falls on act two:
“Now Heaven and Hell grapple on our backs,” Proctor says, “and all our old pretense is ripped away.” He goes on. “We are only what we always were, but naked now. Aye, naked. And the wind, God’s icy wind will blow.”
This line gives me the chills. Always has. Miller’s stage direction is poetry. Of Proctor, he writes that “he walks as though towards a great horror, facing the open sky.”
It is horrifying to face what we are when we are stripped of the stories we tell ourselves about what we are. Love or righteousness or compassion or forgiveness or democracy or tenderness or whatever else we might tell ourselves we possess are stripped away as heaven and hell grapple on our backs. Feels like a crucible right now. A test.
Institutions fail us, a virus rages, a wall goes up around the White House, and people shout at people over Facebook. And the icy wind of death and destruction become more and more justified as we let go of pretense and give in to our impulse to destroy each other.
I thought about Proctor’s line at the end of act two as the school year started. Well, as it was supposed to start.
Our boys will attend school remotely this year. School was supposed to start last week. But the Webcams didn’t arrive in time. And the majority of parents in the district decided to send their students to school in-person. So teachers were given the impossible task of simultaneously teaching remote and in-person learners. Teachers in our school district are preoccupied with how to manage masks, hand sanitizer, and social distancing during the first week of school. So they pushed the start of school back a week for remote learners.
Really, Solomon and Samson starting school a week later isn’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of thing. Consider the health and financial challenges being faced by families around the country. But it also kind of sucked. Shouldn’t the district have been preparing for handling remote learning over the summer? Maybe, but they were also preparing for in-person learning. Some people in this country don’t think the pandemic is a big deal. Others do. There’s little consensus, and our leaders seem more interested in using this debate for personal gain than providing leadership. Fuel the vitriol, win some votes, and acquire more power. Not very democratic. Heaven and hell grapple on our back. God’s icy wind will blow. Something like that.
So school was supposed to start but it didn’t. And our boys will be fine. But they were also sad. The first day of Kindergarten just never really happened for Samson. There’s something really tragic about that to me.
The task that falls to public education is, as always, impossible. Simultaneously teach remote and in-person learners? Please two (or three or four or a million) competing views of what is happening in this country? Of reality? Solve racism, clean a doorknob, schedule a football game, and teach math? And get paid next to nothing to do it? C’mon, man. On top of that, teachers ought to be inviting children into experiences hat helps them grow into adults who can participate in these United States. This democracy. That’s what John Dewey thought schools in a democracy were for. Inviting children into the sharing of power so they might become adults who don’t scream at each other in order to kill each other. This has proved an uphill battle. This lesson certainly didn’t take for our current leaders.
Teachers across the country are retiring or leaving the profession. Charter and private schools are getting an influx of students. I worry about the future of public education right now and, in doing so, worry about the future of democracy in the United States.
I’ll keep on keeping on. Like a bird that flew. Tangled up in Blue. And there, I’ve just quoted Bob Dylan. So you know I’m stressed out. But I’ll keep at it. My life is tangled up in the democratic mission of public schools. As a student. As a teacher. Now as a professor. The future is bleak. But there is work to do. And I’ll keep doing it. That was the thought in my head as my remote sections of literacy methods started last week. As I welcomed future teachers into a Zoom room, with the hope of inspiring them to inspire others to stop screaming at each other, stop killing each other, and start getting on with the work of figuring out how people can build with people to make something better.