I opened the Zoom meeting on March 9, and as my students’ faces appeared before bedroom walls, living room windows, and closets, one blurted, “How sad that we aren’t together!” Sorrow washed over me. It was the last Monday of the last week of the quarter of English 101 Plus, a ten-credit option for students who want extra support. It draws recent immigrants, international students, returning students who have earned their GEDs, and teenagers swapping high school for college. We had spent ten hours a week together for nine weeks, and we had forged a community.
During the quarter, M had passed her citizenship test, and we celebrated with cake and soda at 8 in the morning. D’s wife had an aneurysm, and he moved into a hotel room near her hospital; we checked in with him every day he was able to attend. L told us about the kidney transplant she was waiting for. P let me practice Spanish with him for a few minutes in the computer lab each week.
Now there would be no end-of-quarter party, no hugs and photos, no celebratory gallery walk, where students post their last essays on the walls and we write compliments on blue and green sticky notes. My last communication with them would be over email.
I felt less emotional about my students in the advanced writing class that had been online all quarter — until I read their end-of-quarter posts about next steps. Some students plan to transfer soon to four-year schools. A pre-nursing student will volunteer in a hospital. Another wants to take her younger siblings to Disneyland.
My heart hurt as I wondered whether these dreams would be realized. Only one student, older than most of the others, commented directly on current events. He noted that we have no idea how the pandemic will affect our work and careers, whether the government will handle it well, and if our lives will be irrevocably changed. He said, “We have to hope for the best while preparing for the worst.”
And I realized then that I’ve been grieving a lost future. Whatever certainty I had about how I would spend the last decade of my career; how I would soon celebrate birthdays with grandchildren and drink wine with my parents on their patio; travel, go to music festivals, write another novel – the certainty is gone.
Certainty was always an illusion; I know that. But at least the future I imagined was within the range of the possible. Now it’s hard to know what that range even encompasses.
At the end of the quarter, I often tell my English 101 students that they will likely forget everything they wrote in this class. They won’t remember what their response paper responded to or what their rhetorical analysis analyzed. I certainly have forgotten most of my college assignments. But hopefully they will remember that they have learned how to learn, how to figure out a new genre, draft and revise and edit, ask for feedback, tap resources, revise again.
Someday those of us who survive will look back on this time, and we will have forgotten many things. We will forget the news report that kept us awake one night, the anxiety-ridden decision about whether to eat at a restaurant, the days counted after a possible exposure to the virus.
Maybe we will even forget the dreams we once had, the ones that never came true. But we will still have dreams. That’s what I keep telling myself.