Mazel Tov!

Mazel Tov, according to a quick Google search, is a Jewish phrase expressing congratulations or wishing someone good luck. Mazel Tov is something my father often said to express congratulations or wish somebody good luck. My bubbe too. So you nailed it, Google.

The school year limps to an end. The pandemic continues, but folks in the U.S. are getting vaccinated and maybe, knock on a big ol’ slab of wood, there’s some light at the end of the tunnel. My classes are finished. Summer break is fast approaching.

I’ve written it before. I’ll write it again. And again. And again and again. This year has been a blur. An endless onslaught of Zoom meetings. And I spent the previous summer bracing for these Zoom meetings. Building an online learning experience for future teachers. Mastering Penn State’s virtual platform Canvas. Slogging away. Geographically fixed in my basement bunker. It’s been a long year. I need a vacation.

Here’s something that Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Man Without a Country that sticks with me as the semester ends:

“Electronic communities build nothing. You wind up with nothing. We are dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something. We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.”

-K. Vonnegut

I won’t go so far as to say that my students built nothing this year. Or that my work to facilitate or produce virtual improv was meaningless. But these things were shadows of what they should have been. A dancing animal? I’m stuck at my computer, staring at a screen. My body aches to move. To be with others. Give me people, not faces in boxes.

One of the strangest years of my career as an educator is coming to a merciful end. So Mazel Tov.

***

I shouldn’t complain but, according to my father, complaining is also a Jewish trait. I’m not one to play into ethnic tropes, but oi vey!

In all seriousness, I’m fortunate and I know it. I’ve remained healthy. As an ox. And my family has remained healthy too. As oxes. Or oxen. I’ve been able to do my job virtually. Pay the bills, order Instacart, and survive. My wife Katie and I were able to get our hands on that sweet, sweet vaccine. I should count my blessings, and I do.

And my boys have been able to attend school. Virtually, and then back in-person in February. I hear all this rhetoric about learning loss, as though there is some prescriptive, developmental thing that happens in school and, if it is disrupted, children are ruined. Don’t get me wrong. I think there is great need for people to be in community with each other in schools. But I don’t think that missing out on standardized lessons or units or content does any great harm to people. I’ve been working on a paper with a friend this year about improv and education. We’ve been working slowly, because everything I do is slow this year. Here is a quote that was mostly written by my friend Andrea from the paper we are about to submit that captures some of what I think school should be about:

A radical affirmation of difference that emerges from the unscripted work of a group. A resistance to standardization that does not manifest as “differentiation” and thereby “individualization,” but rather an expectation and acceptance of difference as the natural state of things and thereby calls for collectivity and the common good. A collection of people who let go of preconceptions or judgements to come together with the disciplined intention to build something that has not been built before and in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We see such improvisational activity as a path forward for those of us in education intent on resisting standardization and building more democratic schools. 

-Sam and Andrea, 2021

So yes, I think it is tragic that teachers and students weren’t able to come together to build things that haven’t been built before. Things that serve the common good. I think that’s real, soul-building work. I think democracy depends on people connecting with each other in classrooms. But I also think so much of school isn’t about this improvisational, soul-building activity. It’s about standardization, competition, and a limited view of what counts as knowledge or learning or whatever. So I’m not worried about learning loss. But I’m certainly worried about isolation. And electronic communities that, according to Mr. Vonnegut, build nothing.

Give me bodies in a classroom. People that give up preconceptions or judgements and come together in affirmation of difference to make something new. Man, we need that right now. We’ll need it later, too.

***

So I’m stumbling to the end of another school year. I’ve been in education for nearly 20 years now. That explains the gray in my beard. The emerging bald spot on the back of my head. My poochy stomach and tired eyes. Education takes a toll. I used to look like George Clooney. Those days are long gone.

This has been the strangest year of my career, to be sure. And I’ve had plenty of strange years. Pick up my book Playing with Sharp Objects to read all about one heck of a strange teaching career. I’ve had a doozy of an experience working in service to a collectivity that seeks the common good. Bringing myself to others in the spirit of love.

I’m tired. I need some time away from teaching and learning. Some time to process and grieve a year spent in isolation. Lament. Wrestle with another year as an educator in these United States against the backdrop of plague and pestilence, violence and upheaval, and isolation to beat the band. But I survived. And so did you if you are reading this.

So, Mazel Tov!

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