Who Even Are These People?

Cheney Luttich

Who even are these people? That’s what I think every now and then when walking through the halls of the community college.  Last semester, you would have seen me saying hello to students by name and stopping to engage in conversation.  Those moments made me happy.  But now, I’m walking through the hall of masked faces, and I struggle to identify the students I not only had in the past, but the ones I see every week in my classrooms.  My eyes squint, and my head strains forward like a bird pecking for a bit of something, anything, in an effort to identify.  Who is that person passing by?  I swear I recognize them, but I’m not sure.  By the time my rapid inventory of the person’s eyes and hair draws a name from my mental database of students, they’re long gone down the hall and around the corner. Shoot. I’d really love to know how they’re doing.  I’ll send them a quick message after class.

I walk into my classroom where students who have already sprayed down their work station sit in masked silence six feet apart.  I set up the laptop for my remote learners to Zoom in.  The instructor standing before them is a mix of shadows cast against the white markerboard behind her.  The angle at which they watch her is anything but flattering, but who cares?  That masked woman on the screen isn’t me.  She’s yet another person I struggle to recognize.

I look at my students in the classroom.  My brain is drilling deep in an effort to commit their names to memory, but I struggle even with a seating chart and mnemonic devices—there’s the gal who loves Jane Austen, the red head who works out every day and rocks at time management, the one in the front row who dances for stress relief, the ag major who has excellent textual annotations, the other who wants to be a therapist  (Don’t forget to tell her your therapist friend agreed to meet with her to answer questions about the profession.  I need to set that up.)   I know these students in a way, but six weeks into the semester I only know half of their names—most being those who attend in person.  As for my remote learners sitting behind black screens, I would recognize few if we crossed paths.

Don’t forget to send the student you saw in the hall a quick message.  I wonder how he’s liking Comp 1.  He was so insightful last semester.  I hope the language barrier isn’t bogging him down.

Oh, we’re out of paper towels in the classroom.  Don’t forget to call maintenance.

Many students seem tired.  Their eyes glaze over.  I can’t use my go-to strategies to perk them up.  I can’t move them around the room or assemble small groups or pairs. They can’t approach the whiteboard and write.  We aren’t supposed to move.  We are to stay put, and keep our breath to ourselves.  It seeps into class discussion.  Only some contribute.  Yes, some classes of past semesters struggled to engage in discussion before this masked reality, but it seems to be more common now.  Or am I focusing on it more than before?  Am I distorting the past?  Am I being nostalgic of something that didn’t actually exist?  Our online discussion boards are robust, but I doubt my students know which student in the classroom was the one they engaged with online.

Make those connections for them.  Identify who wrote what and where they sit in the classroom and where they are on Zoom.  Good idea.  Don’t forget to do that next class session.  Let me quick jot it down—oops Zoom didn’t record.  Don’t forget to make a new recording so those who couldn’t join can reference.  I thought I had that setting locked down.  Wait, what was I going to jot down?  Whatever.  I need to move on.

My fatigue comes from too much lecturing and limited physical space.  I can’t move between the desks.  I can’t sit with my students one on one and brainstorm.  I try to force myself to be static in front, staying put so that I’m in view of my remote learners, but my legs won’t let me.  Movement helps me think, and I’m struggling to think.

Oh, there’s the chat alert on Zoom.  Wonder how long that’s been there.  I need the remote learners to just speak up.  “Hey, everyone on Zoom, please speak up with your questions.  They’re great questions.  Feel free to interrupt me.  Your classmates will thank you!  Ha!”

A few students chuckle.  Perhaps more smile, but masks won’t tell me.  I have no idea if the remote learners behind the blank screen think it’s funny.  I don’t even know if they’re there.

I keep on keeping on.  I present information and provide examples while peppering an abnormal amount of humor and personal stories between it all to keep it fresh and fun.  I’m working hard to make connection.  I want students to know me.  I tell them I’m smiling behind my mask.  My crows’ feet delta grows from my extreme smiles.  I love being here.  I love reading your work.  I love hearing your thoughts.  I’m smiling because it makes me happy.  Can you see it?  I want you to see it!

I don’t assume they know any of this much less see it on my face.  With each class session, I verbalize my thoughts more in an effort to encourage them.  I provide more online feedback with more exclamation points than I’ve ever used before.  I look for anything to provide positivity.  I check my tone to ensure my words’ proper translation.

By the end of class, no one on Zoom has interrupted me, much less spoken.  Okay, I’ll try again next class session.  Don’t forget to encourage the Zoom students to speak up.  They have such great insights.  I want them to share.

I’m proud of them for showing up.  I’m proud of myself for remembering to post the Zoom link.  I’m proud when I see a student uploaded an assignment even though it was due weeks ago.  I don’t know his face, but I see his work.  I’ll sprinkle some exclamation marks in my feedback.  In that I’ll find some connection even if he doesn’t know how to access the instructor feedback on Canvas.  Don’t forget to show students how to access instructor feedback in class.

Class ends five minutes early.  The second round of disinfecting begins.  Shoot.  I forgot to call maintenance.  Hopefully this small pack of Lysol wipes will suffice.

I’m exhausted from talking too much.  My fatigue reminds me of what my education professor told me in graduate school—“If you are more tired than your students at the end of a class session, you did it wrong.  They’re supposed to be the ones doing the work.  They should be fatigued, not you.”

I’m a bit defeated when I realize what happened.  I feel like I forgot to teach.

Students scurry to the hallway and make their way outside for a quick breath of fresh air before putting their masks back on and going to the next class.  I, too, scurry for a quick breath in my cubicle down the hall.  I check my phone to see if my daughters’ school called.  The eldest has been depressed and the youngest coughed once at breakfast.  Will I get a call telling me I need to get either of them?  What do my daughters need from me tonight to help them?  I know, spend some time drawing animals with the eldest.  She always feels better after.  And make sure the youngest drinks lots of water and doesn’t eat candy for a day.  That should hush that cough.

I gather my computer and books and head to the next class.  The cycle repeats itself as I walk down the hall.  Who is that student?  Ah, I remember now that they’ve passed by.  I wonder how they’re doing. 

At the end of the day, I’ve forgotten pretty much everything of what I told myself not to forget.

It’s frustrating, and for the first few weeks of the semester, this pattern depressed me.  It still bogs me down, but the good news it doesn’t impact me the way it used to because I decided to give myself permission to forget and allow myself to celebrate all I remember:

  • You remembered to post the Zoom link.
  • Students are turning in work.
  • You remembered to show up to class.
  • You remembered to offer extra credit for tutoring services, and your students are using them. Those tutors’ paychecks thank you.
  • You remembered learning doesn’t happen when people are fatigued.  You gave your students rest by excusing class 20 minutes early where they could stay and do independent work or leave to get relief.   Your students are better for it.
  • You remembered to update the attendance log the school needs to track exposure.
  • You remembered your mask every day.
  • Correction.  You remembered a clean mask every day.
  • You remembered to schedule flu shots.  You, your family, and your students are safer because of that.
  • You remembered to take a break from tumultuous national news for a day to give yourself time to re-charge. 
  • You allowed yourself to cry over your country’s pain. 
  • You remembered to take a break and not check your work email or grade papers over the weekend.   
  • You remembered it would be fun to write a blog post for NDEC, so you did even though the mountain of essays waiting to be graded hasn’t gone anywhere.

The important work of learning is getting done.  Remember to look for it.  It’s there even if you can’t name it at first sight.


Cheney Luttich teaches Developmental English at Southeast Community College.  In her free time, you can find her spending time with her family or studying anything related to nineteenth century clothing.