For everyone Postcard from San Francisco

Marshall's Beach with Golden Gate Bridge in the background in San Francisco at sunset, California. Photo: iStock/Eloi_Omella

In San Francisco, Australian teacher and writer KIRSTEN TRANTER is navigating the intensity of ‘post-COVID’ school life, revelling in the small sublime moments and finding a path back to ‘normal’.

I  had arrived early to the classroom, a functional space with low ceilings in the basement of the French American International High School, just before 8am. We were near the start of the Fall semester, the beginning of the school year in the US. Two Grade 11 students entered the room with me. They noticed a scruffy upright piano in the corner. One sat and without fanfare began playing Claire de Lune by Claude Debussy. It is the composer’s most famous piece, filled with arpeggiated chords that ripple across the keyboard in a melodic cascade. The other student and I listened. I found the voice memo on my phone and pressed record. For three minutes, the unbeautiful space was enchanted.

The piece ended. Others arrived. They opened their computers and listened to their teacher join them via Zoom from India. She can’t be there yet in person because of complicated issues with her visa. I checked the roster and filled my role as a supervising adult before going to teach my own students ‘face-to-face’ through a mask.

Students at the French American International High School in San Francisco. Photo: Supplied

I felt sad that the teacher hadn’t heard the impromptu recital. I sent her the recording over email, wanting some way for her to feel a part of it. Even now, our lives are dominated by the master trope of connection and disconnection that has shaped the past two years. Every time the screen stutters in my Zoom meetings, I wait for the inevitable observation: “There’s a problem with the connection.” And every time, I think of E.M. Forster’s exhortation – “Only connect!” – my deepest touchstone for thinking about writing, reading and teaching – with a stubborn mix of hope and frustration.

We have learned to adjust to masks the same way we adjusted to screens. I have not seen many of my students for more than a second without their faces covered. At the high school dance a couple of weeks ago, the strangest thing was not seeing these children actually dancing together – some of them for the first time in their lives (although this was indeed strange and wonderful). The weirdest thing was seeing them unmasked. They wandered out of the loud hall into the outdoor yard, breathless and dizzy, and took off their masks to guzzle soft drinks and ice cream. There is just so much ‘face’, I kept thinking.

There are moments when the crowded hallways and busy stairwells between classes prompt a kind of post-traumatic stress response, the kind that comes from living through more than four hundred consecutive days of lockdown. So much presence can be overwhelming.

“For many of my students, this is the first time they have been in a classroom for 18 months.”

More often, there is a sense of joy in the jostle of life. The clunk of a can in the vending machine and the whack of a swinging backpack, the creak of a locker door, booming teenage voices exclaiming over something happening on a phone screen that half a dozen students are angling to see: these things have their own magic, a quotidian sublime.

For many of my students, this is the first time they have been in a classroom for 18 months and it feels both wonderful and complicated. I teach students how to read and write, how to name things truthfully; I want to teach them why this matters.

Getting into the creative zone during art class. Photo: Supplied

But what does it mean in the face of this collective trauma? Do I ask them to write a personal essay about how they survived the pandemic? Or do I let them dive into the work, which they seem keen to do? How do I acknowledge the reality of the past year and also create a space of relative safety and refuge? 

Next week we will begin reading Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro’s strange, heart-wrenching novel about what it means to live a life fatally constrained by one’s social position. I had been wondering how to find a way into the story, and then it occurred to me that these students will relate perfectly to Ishiguro’s young characters, compelled to accept devastating personal sacrifice for the good of others.

Students at the French American International High School in San Francisco. Photo: Supplied

The marvellous wave of protection that came with the vaccine is ebbing. And yet there is a feeling of tentative progress. I don’t know yet whether what we see is daylight at the end of the tunnel or a trompe l’oeil effect – just excellent lighting in a new section of the tunnel still under construction. We are working it out as we go.

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