For this blog post, I would like to welcome a friend and colleague, Sara Barber-Just. Since my first interactions with her I could see why her students love her so much. Then, my son and one of my daughters were lucky enough to have her as a teacher, and I really understood. Sara does not only practice what she preaches. Love for teaching and for her students infuse everything she does. In my daughter's words, "she radiates this extremely positive energy to everyone around her." My daughter had her for an A period English class - the time when many high school students are still half asleep. She managed to engage the class, all the while projecting understanding for their sleepiness.
I recently read something Sara wrote about teaching during COVID-19, and it resonated with me more than many posts I have read about this profession right now. I think I liked it so much because I feel the same as her. Love is at the center of what we do, which is why so many teachers are devastated right now. All the teachers I know are doing their best to push through, to contact all of their families, to engage their students. Yet, we end up feeling frustrated because we can't reach our kids in the same way. In her post, Sara describes one way she has been successful with her students during "distance learning." Her bio can be read right after the post. Thank you for your words, Sara!
I breathe books and language, but I became a high school teacher because I wanted to live in a world where relationships were just as important as curriculum or ideas—sometimes more. Validating, loving and listening to my students always seemed to open them to new ideas, sometimes to even set them free.
So Distance Learning has been hard for me. I have tried my best. I started meeting with students online the week we closed, not to jump start “education,” but to throw out a lifeline to those who wanted it, saying “I’m still here!” “I care about you.” I’ve tried to make the course content I’m offering during closure really interesting—from reading books about sexual identity or depression and recovery, to combatting white nationalism/hate with education and love. And also offering up ways to talk and think about life during coronavirus/quarantine—everything from the chaos and grief it causes to the creativity it fosters.
I have sent letters, YouTube videos, and surveys to students, and when that didn’t work, personal emails to ask how they are. When I’m all business, the silence grows. They may comply and turn in some work but it feels forced and sad. They report feeling overwhelmed by schoolwork.
The miracle has been that when I lead with love and kindness rather than with grades or credit, the conversations flow. I sent out 30 personal emails to all my MIA students yesterday. It took time, but not even half the time of a regular work week. And I heard back from so many today. About their work landscaping or working at supermarkets or doing scholarship applications. Their tears about lost graduation and cancelled sports seasons. Their challenging family situations. Their virtual guitar lessons and puppies they’re adopting.
I’ve sat in this uncomfortable chair by my foldout card table in my bedroom trying to replicate school however I can. It’s so imperfect. But it’s what I can do. Virtual school is not like real school. I can’t hand out tissues and snacks and write comments on papers in my hot pink pen. I can’t make eye contact or tell jokes the way I did before. But every chance I get, to “teach” the only way I think matters—with compassion, flexibility, and kindness, I do. It took me a while to realize I can’t do this old thing I used to do one way the same—not at all. But I can remember why I started doing it. And hold on to that with all my might.
Bio: Sara Barber-Just is the English Department Head and school newspaper advisor at Amherst Regional High School, where she has been teaching for 22 years. She created the nation’s first LGBTQ Literature class in a public high school in 2002; she still teaches that course, as well as Journalistic Writing and Tenth Grade Literature, Writing, and Public Speaking. She and her wife live in Leverett, MA with their twin sons, rising ninth graders.
Michelle Gonzalez Torruella's death was the first death from COVID-19 that hit very close to home for me. She passed a few days ago after being in the hospital, sedated and on a respirator for a few weeks, and then finally breathing on her own, until things took a bad turn again. I still can’t even believe this happened, yet I know so many other people are experiencing loss of this magnitude and more all over the world. Today, I can finally stop crying for a bit, breathe, and sit down to write a small tribute to her.
Michelle was the kind of person who, if you hadn’t seen her for years, you would give each other a huge hug and seamlessly pick up where you left off all those years ago. She was my adopted prima; we called each other cousins in the absence of another word that would explain the relationship between her, her sister Lisa, and me. Maybe now, people would call it “sister friends”, but it was deeper even than that.
When we met as 7 or 8 year olds, it was as if we always knew each other, like primas would. We got close during our teenage years. They spent time at my house in the summer and I spent time with them in Queens. I distinctly remember the two of them doing my hair, fascinated by its straightness like I was by the curls on their heads. We became even closer in our twenties as the 3 of us navigated living in or close to the city, new jobs, careers, fiances, weddings, babies, and first houses.
I remember in particular when I got back from living in France and was living with my titi in NY. They came over, so we could joyfully reunite over wine and loaves of bread (we could eat loaves of bread without issues back then). We listened to merengue and danced together, drank, ate and laughed until our bellies hurt. Michelle had a laugh like no one else - huge, belly laugh, loud, and made you want to laugh with her. I remember us swaying to los Hermanos Rosario’s “Morena Ven” - it was a hot and sticky day but we had such a great time together.
Michelle was a teacher - she taught English in an “inner city” school, and I was so proud of her.I never saw her teach but I could imagine her bringing her passion and pride to her students. I could also imagine how they probably related to her, happy to see a brown face in front of them, teaching them and touching their lives.
Michelle was truly special. She was one of those people who so rarely was in a bad mood; she was optimistic, glass half full. I don’t ever remember seeing her angry for a long time - even through tears she would find something to laugh hysterically at. She was confident, generous with her love and with compliments for you. She was quick with a hug or any kind of affection. She always wanted to make herself better by educating herself and reading more.
For years we had been saying, Michelle, Lisa, and I, that we would meet in Connecticut - right between where we each lived - for a girl’s weekend, or even night. Every year, we brought it up again, but one of us was always too busy. Last year I thought we would be able to do it, but Michelle was such a devoted mom that she wanted to be there to get her younger daughter through the last months of high school celebrations. The last time I brought it up, in the fall, I was thinking we could do something for our 50th birthdays (mine in November, hers in December), in the spring. Now spring is here, and we won’t ever be able to do it. Our lives took us away from one another, and now I regret that I never just got in my car and drove to Jersey to go see her.
Lisa - you and I have to make a promise to get together more, laugh, and remember Michelle in her dorkiness, beauty, compassion, and loving soul. If anything happens to either one of us, I won’t forgive myself for it.
Michelle was an amazing mother, friend, sister, wife, daughter, comadre, cousin - all of it. She really was a model to live by. I hope that in the coming months, Jasmine and Taty find solace in their beautiful photos and memories of their mami. I hope the whole family finds peace somehow. Lisa, I know you lost your best friend. You texted me that you were “broken”. I, and all those who love and adore you, will help put you back together, and hold you so you don’t fall apart. Count on us.