By Kris Nystrom
I cannot tell if English teachers are more anxious or nervous about going back to school this year. Maybe there just isn’t enough of a difference. Or maybe there are so many unknowns, the feelings amplify one another.
My own anxiety comes from normal pre-school jitters that return the same way my joints ache when it’s about to rain. I set for lofty goals every year, despite a spotty record of success: connect with the kids, enthrall them with relevancy, deploy effective strategies, publish important research, live an antiracist lifestyle. For us school folk who prepare every summer to get it right this year, it is “the charm of the beginning of things” (Lionel Trilling), as Robert Spiegel quotes in his delightful essay. As a perennial recidivist, it makes me anxious.
My nervousness comes from “these unprecedented times” that put us at the mercy, once again, of politicians, school boards, and community loud speakers who know only a little more than Betsy DeVos about public education. We’re taking our chances in America’s second big experiment, opening schools in a pandemic. “Critical infrastructure workers,” without the resources. I am reminded of a parent who said “knock on wood” about how none of our kids participating on a lacrosse team this summer got sick. Going back to school? Knock on wood.
But among the unknowns about the year ahead, much less the week ahead, I do know this: likewise anxious and nervous students will be looking to us for how to act when they return. They will be seeking ways of thinking about themselves and their place in this world, gauging where and how they fit in this institution, in this community, in this class.
They are looking for love. Call it fitting in or blending in; call it feeling valued, accepted, or recognized; call it filling the social and emotional voids they don’t or can’t get outside school—it the end, kids are looking to be seen (or not), to be heard, and for someone to show up for them.
During the shutdown last spring, novelist Okey Ndibe did a videoconference on African literature and Things Fall Apart with one of our classes. A student asked him about an important lesson the book offers, and Mr. Ndibe mentioned ihunanya, or love in Igbo. Ihunanya is one of the universal lessons literature conveys: like Okonkwo, we are all looking for love. That evening I asked my Nigerian friend Cici about the word ihunanya, and she laughed: “We have a hard time being romantic in our expressions for love. It means something more like ‘I see you.’”
Ihunanya is unconditional. It is not the love for what one could be, or the love of a “we [heart] our essential workers” lawn sign that sounds a little like “our thoughts and prayers are with you,” but the love that honors being, presence: a voice, a starting point, a journey ahead.
The CT SDE put out guidelines for reopening schools, which include planning the first unit of instruction ahead “[t]o reduce student anxiety and ease them back into learning” (29). And skipping the test (30). It’s good advice. Even better is to find ways to meet kids with ihunanya when they come through our classroom portals, physical or virtual, this year. If we plan on that, we’ve got nothing to worry about. And neither do they.