Brooke, 12, jumped up. She had spilled a fine white powder across her seat and along the floor. She approached the classroom teacher to tell her about it in a hushed tone. Emily, 25, consoled her before scooping a handful of the powder.
“These fucking kids,” she whispered at me as she passed. I, 33, shrugged and raised my eyebrows—the only facial gesture I allowed myself during the pandemic and one I hoped would stand in for all the others.
For the first time I was noticing thin creases across my forehead that didn’t go all the way away when I stopped smiling. I didn’t know whether that was because of stress, or age, or the fact that I was increasingly relying on the top half of my face to indicate my whole emotional register. Aside from that, I liked resting my mouth. I never smiled in public anymore if I could help it, and I found myself surprised if something funny—like a student, 11, coming publicly to the realization that his conception might have been accidental—caused me to raise my lips at all. In times like that, it was freeing to laugh openly.
Ordinarily, my job as a paraprofessional would have relied on faking smiles and laughs. I worked one-on-one with students who had IEPs in the standard classroom environment. They struggled with behavioral and learning difficulties and my job was to coach them through their days. It was a role that required a gentility unnatural to me, but the students either couldn’t tell or didn’t care when my eagerness was phony.
Smiling at this job left me tired from the beginning. My first week, when the pandemic was a rumor, I drove home wondering why my face was sore before I realized that I’d been wearing an encouraging smile all day. I’ve always been self-conscious about my smile. The left side of my mouth raises more readily than the right, and the area around my cleft-lip scar broadens too widely, and most angles reveal that my nostrils are asymmetrical. All of which ignores my teeth. It’s an absurd mouth, hard to avoid revealing but at it’s best not worth the exertion of accounting for. Which is why the masks were so liberating. I even shaved my face clean for the first time in my adult life, loping a four-inch goatee that had covered most of my neck and revealing smooth flesh and a childhood scar on my chin. An advisor I’d had in community college, 62, told me once that it was obvious I was hiding something about my internal life behind my goatee. I knew she was correct, with the caveat that none of us is eager to reveal everything, and when I took out the straight razor I did so knowing that a KN-95 mask would serve to mask my general melancholy. I couldn’t stop feeling the smoothness of my face after I shaved, which might have been ironic given the pandemic except that I had never stopped touching my face to begin with. Even back in February, when the teachers talked about how sick they were and they didn’t know why, it didn’t seem urgent to adjust to new habits. The pandemic was a rumor then. As the hair began to grow back, shaving every day went from being a novelty, to a routine, to a chore.
Most of the students hadn’t noticed Brooke’s situation. They were watching Moana. Several of them knew the words to all the songs. I did as well. The story is a hopeful one, and I had been looking for stories that don’t romanticize unhappiness. I had been trying to convince Emily to let the kids watch Coco. With Halloween approaching I thought she would be receptive, but instead the kids watched something called Halloweentown, a cultural phenomenon I missed by a decade or so and the plot of which I was never able to hold onto. They watched movies and spilled their grandfather’s ashes during an hour-long lunch break, half of which I spent in my car so I could keep my face to myself.
A little more than a year before I started this job, I lost my house and moved into my brother’s. But he had a young family and preferred me elsewhere. So a month later, without needing to pack things that had never been unpacked, I moved a thousand miles away with a friend in the middle of the country. I was supposed to work on a novel and pursue a lucrative job opportunity in Central Asia that would allow me time and space to work on my novel and put the year I spent learning Russian to better use than slurring toasts when I had drunk enough to exceed both my English and my Spanish. Then Central Asia shut down, and I was still in the middle of the United States. While I was adjusting between realities, at least I wouldn’t spend more time traveling for a while. Especially because I stopped trusting airports after a friend of mine lost her husband’s ashes in one.
Brooke had shown off the pendant that housed her grandfather before, telling a friend that he had died of COVID in April with authority and in explanation of why she understood the need to wear a mask. I learned this about her before I learned her name. That was fine with me. I’m lousy with names, and since she wasn’t one of my students I never needed to refer to her. Besides, one’s name is one’s own business. It’s very familiar. When we call someone by their name, we engage in the oldest tradition of their life.
When I first met Emily, she described this as her first “big-girl job,” and the acclaimed teaching program from which she’d graduated had neglected to teach her how to clean up ashes, or respond to ashes, or really anything useful about ashes. She would scoop the bits on the chair and someone else would vacuum up the bits that had fallen on the floor; it’s not clear what else we expect when we become ashes. My own mother, 64, who passed away a few months before I moved, wanted to be scattered near her birthplace. Instead, part of her rests in my glove compartment and most of the rest is entombed at my second alma mater as a compromise to a fear of ghosts my sister-in-law discovered after sitting with my mother’s urn for a few days. The two miscarriages buried in her garden raise metaphysical questions it never feels appropriate to ask. The options for our remains, then, include glove compartments, vacuum cleaners, and wherever one ends up when one is stolen from a baggage claim in Barcelona. These are the risks we take when we agree to die.
The pandemic offered much in the way of change. The mask mandate was new, and students relying on a substitute or twenty days a month because of repeated exposure was new. Taking lunch in the classroom and not being allowed outside were new. Many of the expectations were new, but the fact of rules dictated by a vague and formless bureaucracy which simultaneously holds some students back and pushes others forward beyond their capability was as old as Kindergarten. The students were still learning to use Chromebooks, but they were navigating a new set of social mores while developing their reading skills to the point of social, rather than merely academic, competency.
Amidst all of this, the kids struggled to focus. The mechanisms that couldn’t place all of these students in the developmentally appropriate classes wasn’t borne out of malice or ignorance, at least not at the school level. The district bears some responsibility: my boss insisted that special education was over-funded and that teachers should stop filling out paperwork if they want more free time. For the teachers themselves, though, the problem was that there were more files and students than hours. But the students didn’t know any of this when their attention waned. Even when they were in developmentally appropriate classes they preferred Tik-Tok and Among Us and searching the Internet for recently-deceased rappers to learning almost anything at all.
Maybe some blame belongs to the teachers. They had a technology teacher, 61, who was proud of not knowing how to work his DVR and of not upgrading his iPhone since most of his students were born. Their social studies teacher, 35, boasted that he’d never left the state and referred to the Uyghur massacre in China as a cultural disagreement. Their math teacher, 57, accused a student of not knowing who Bill Clinton was. And, of course, I was there.
The demographics of the student population, if not the staff, allowed the school to pride itself on its diversity. There were students from a dozen countries. In the halls, I recognized French, Swahili, and Spanish, plus a language I couldn’t identify. The students didn’t hear these languages because they weren’t allowed in the halls together. The adults could wander, but I only went to two classrooms, and in both the students were native English speakers. In the first, the students were mostly calm; in the second, they were rarely still. After turning on their Chromebooks, they wandered the room, touching and chasing each other, shouting and cursing about who had done or smoked what with whom at the skate park, chasing each other around the chairs until they fell. When they hurt themselves, I asked what they learned. They said they already knew the way to the nurse’s office.
This second room is where I lost the already modest passion I had not just for the job but the pandemic. Both presented challenges without solutions. These students weren’t just loud and energetic, but abrasive. They bristled at the very idea of authority and pounced on the fact of it—worse for me, because I had the veneer of authority with none of the fact. The substitute I worked with in that room, 24, reminded me to pick my battles, so I gave up on trying to get them to wear their masks in favor of trying to get them to stop fighting, threatening adults with guns, and exchanging drug dealer contact information. On a good day, they stared at me dismissively before they ignored me; on a normal day, they gave me insolent baloney first. The problem was partially me, because I didn’t have the time, structure, or training to bond with them the way some instructors did: my training consisted of my district supervisor, 51, playing an old commercial of dancing babies, trying to load a Google Slide, and explaining that she got her job because she went to high school with the superintendent. The problem also wasn’t with the students themselves, though it would be simpler if it were. The problem I couldn't solve was one of youth itself, of the mind and frustration and novelty of it all being bigger than the world itself yet contained within an undeveloped body in a cinder block room with harsh lighting surrounded by the same dozen people.
The students who preferred to practice jerky and unsure Tik-Tok dances rather than long division would have done the same regardless of the pandemic. The pandemic didn’t stop any of the late-night trysts at the skate park. Even Brooke would have likely spilled her grandfather’s ashes if he’d died of bone cancer, and if not her then a different 12-year-old with a bone-cancerous grandfather would have spilled his ashes from a locket around their neck. Even the students who reacted to the mask mandate with outrage would have found a different rule to delight in reacting, not because of the unfairness of the rule but the injustice of rules themselves, which necessitate some punishment or consequence for doing what feels natural. The 11-year-old is an anarchist by nature.
Even Emily would have been overwhelmed on her first day of class, intimidated by the prospect of playing anything but Disney songs during quiet moments throughout the day. Even the most basic part of the morning, walking up four flights of decrepit stairs which retain the cold Fall air, would have left us out of breath.
The personal brand I was cultivating at the middle school was to always wear a mask and sneer behind it whenever a student asked to see my face—the asking felt far too vulnerable, because I suddenly had a choice. My own insecurities aside, I wondered what fascination any face held for the children. I assumed it was a passing curiosity, a boredom. They might have wanted to see whether I was on the level; admittedly, the KN-95 mask is especially concealing because it protrudes inorganically from the nose, suggesting an impossible, even birdlike, silhouette. Others, meanwhile, branded themselves by their frustrations with the mask and their eagerness to take it off as soon as the first bell rang or they sat down in the teacher’s lounge. They discussed each other’s faces. They noted things about each other they hadn’t expected, liberated not just from the new normal but the social mores that had held together a pluralistic society more or less for generations. If the environment weren’t so sterile, it would have felt intimate.
In addition to the job at the school, I was writing articles for tech companies, teaching them about things like Mr. Roger’s theory of empathy, cognitive flexibility, and how to not ask their Indian co-workers about sensitive border conflicts. In my spare time, I gigged. I tend to think the reason I worked so much was so I couldn’t verbalize my frustrations or need to bother anyone with petty burdens. I would never ask and I would never be turned down. If I stayed busy I had reasons to ignore people who I felt didn’t help enough after my mother died and everything fell apart. I could drive around listening to podcasters try to explain a situation my political science degree had taught me was bad news in the long term rather than think about my tenuous housing situation, the various persistent frustrations at each job, or what exactly went wrong that I ended up in this situation. I was 33; it was supposed to be my Jesus Year—my year to do something important, and I tend to think I ascribed meaning to everything. I told myself I worked so much so that I wouldn’t have to think about how much I was working, but the inescapable truth, as I pulled into the grocery store at the end of the day with exact change for bread and nicotine, was that I was doing it because I needed the money.
As a consequence of all this, I had no idea whether it would have been pedagogically sound to give in to popular demand and show off my face, which freed me to do whatever seemed funny—keep on the KN-95, which was hard to come by and matched all of my best shirts.
The pandemic was shaking life past the point of recognition for hundreds of thousands of people. Others were inconvenienced: missing high-paying jobs in foreign countries, counting toilet paper by the square, learning to pick out outfits based on how they’ll complement a new mask. For the rest, the pandemic barely left a dent because they were already being impacted by forces beyond their capabilities. It’s not to say the pandemic was somehow escapable—it wasn’t—but that it stood in line behind all the other inescapable things, vying for attention.
As I listened to Emily recite the classroom expectations the day before we left for remote learning—to return two weeks later, the death rate having stayed the same but the hospital bed situation having improved—I realized that some amount of kids were listening to the same basic rules about speaking out of return and respect. I didn’t know how many. Thousands, maybe millions of young people were hearing the same routine in broad strokes day after day. I had listened to those same rules for years. I hadn’t thought of them in decades. The whole scene was familiar in a way that Juice Wrld and Among Us will be familiar to these kids, a memory sanded down by time, the shavings left behind on the floor of the classroom, the grounds of experience.
Aaron Bruener is an essayist from Richmond, VA. He earned his MFA from University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program and currently lives in Cedar Rapids, IA.