Life During Virustime

Within a couple of hours, everything changed. On Friday afternoon (a rainy day), in my English class–we were starting a unit on American musical theatre–my tenth-grade students were dancing and singing to “Singin’ in the Rain.” That evening, at 9:15 p.m., it was announced that schools would be closed as of Monday and that instruction would continue online.


Although the rumors and announcements had been mixed up to that point, the closure did not come as a complete surprise. That morning, we had held the March 15 celebration–the commemoration of the Revolution of 1848–in individual classrooms. Class 10C gave the performance, which came to the classrooms through the speakers. I was upstairs with the ninth grade and my colleague Marianna. Here is a SzolnokTV video of the performance, the classroom broadcast, and the presentation of a special memorial award.

On Saturday morning, one of my ninth-grade students, Lilla Kassai, had an art exhibit at the Ferenc Verseghy Public Library, one of my favorite places to go in Szolnok. I would have been in Budapest yesterday, but synagogue has been cancelled along with everything else, so I went to her opening. It was a beautiful, probing collection of pieces; I was especially taken by the eyes in the various portraits. She talked about each of her pieces to a rotating audience. Her mother, a colleague of mine (the school librarian and a teacher as well), welcomed me warmly and introduced me to family members. What I didn’t realize was that this would be the last chance to see Lilla’s art for a while; yesterday evening it was announced that Szolnok’s cultural centers, museums, and libraries would be closed indefinitely as of Monday.

Paradoxically, it’s harder to teach online than in person. This has nothing to do with technological ineptitude or insecurity. It has everything to do with the lack of physical presence. In a regular classroom, everyone is there, except for those who are absent. Any announcement or discussion is heard by all. Questions can be addressed on the spot. You can have dialogues. Online, you have to wait for people to connect and respond. For the most part, we won’t have real-time virtual sessions, though I hope to schedule a few; instead, there will be deadlines. Teachers will be able to work from home or school, but there will be no meetings with students in person.


The rationale for this national decision (to continue instruction online), or part of it, is that we might be able to keep the school year on schedule so that graduation and final exams can take place. It’s uncertain whether this will work, or what will happen if it doesn’t, but we just have to give this our best.

There’s lots for us to do online: we can read poems, stories, and articles, watch films and newscasts, listen to songs, and more. We can work intensively on writing–and maybe start an online journal. But it’s possible, as always, that the plan will change tomorrow, or next week, or in two weeks. So it’s better not to get too carried away with online plans–but then again, not to be overly tentative either. It would be a shame to hold back, to stick to the dull and changeable, and watch the months go by.

I can’t help thinking of “Life During Wartime”; hence the title of this post. It’s a world war against an invisible bug. It’s human to want to live normally–to get back to regular life as soon as possible–but “this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around.”


“It’s All About the Brute Struggle,” Says Schools Deputy

rhinocerosLutte, NY–After receiving numerous requests, pleas, and demands for adequate resources and space in the public schools, Associate Schools Deputy Bruce Eris divulged the Department of Education’s philosophy at a crowded district assembly. “It’s all about the brute struggle,” he said proudly. “If the kids aren’t tearing each other to pieces, you’re still in la-la land. We can point you to plenty of schools that are dealing with the real thing. You’ll see the difference right away.”

Murmuring and shifting followed. The moderator called for silence.

“You guys are saying you can’t cram yourselves into tiny classrooms,” he continued, panning his glance around the crowded hall. “Well, some people do it day after day. They might not like it, but they do it. If you can’t do it, it’s your failing, not ours.”

The first parent at the microphone suggested that it wasn’t good for students to be toppling onto each other, pushing past each other, and competing with each other for bathroom stalls. “Good?” Eris guffawed. “What is good? You’ve got your idea of good, but I’ve got mine, and I can tell you, lady, mine is based on sending my work teams to hundreds of schools and reading their reports. Your view is of these walls right here. You say they’re too narrow. Well I say let them be narrow! I say let this come to a boiling point! We’ll be happy to close you down.”

A teacher brought up the difficulty of teaching a good lesson when things were at the “boiling point.” “In the classroom, students need some space so that they can focus,” she said. “If a kid pushes another kid, even by mistake, it can throw everything off.”

“That’s what ineffective teachers always say,” Eris snorted. “We know that line. You’ve got to look at effective teachers. Effective teachers never have kids pushing each other, even when there are fifty of them in a tiny room. For a long time we’ve been saying that if we get effective teachers in the classroom, virtually or physically, your kids will get a good deal, even if we have to double the class size.”

A student spoke next. “Mr. Eris, I see a contradiction in your worldview,” he said. “On the one hand, you say that the ‘brute struggle’ is the reality, and anything short of it an illusion. On the other, you say that ‘effective teachers’ restore peace and productivity instantly just by walking into a classroom or appearing on Skype. Are you suggesting, therefore, that the ‘effective teacher’ is an illusion?”

“I’m not an intellectual sort of guy,” retorted Eris, “and it sounds like you’re coming at me with some highfalutin learnings that aren’t on the state tests—something your school could cut, if it really cared about resources. But I’ll give it a shot—the only thing is I have to leave right afterwards.” He took a sip of water and looked at his watch.

”If you want to talk philosophy,” he said, “I’ll tell you our philosophy. It isn’t contradictory as you’re making it out to be, but it takes some effective thinking to put it together. Now like I told you, I am not an intellectual, but I know what effective thinking is, and I practice it every moment of the day. That’s why I’ve got the salary I have. Do you have my salary, kid? Do you?” He took another sip.

“What’s your answer?” someone cried out.

“All right, all right. This is a kind of a trade secret, but here it goes. You see, the brute struggle is going to reveal who’s effective and who isn’t. The effective ones will have these amazing, packed classrooms where the kids are doing something productive every second. The other classrooms will be in chaos. So we will separate them out. We’ll fire the bad teachers, get rid of the bad schools, and then start up some new effective schools, and then let them go back into strife when they get too crowded, so that we can close them down except for the effective few. Eventually everyone’s gonna get the message. Be effective or bust. Finally you know how it will work out? Every single damned school in this district will be effective. You’ll see a hundred kids in a room, all standing up, all straining to learn from a teacher who wastes no time and takes no excuses—and gets them to exert their own creativity and critical thinking. Anyone who doesn’t cut it will be gone.”

“What do you mean, gone?” another voice called out. The room had grown loud; the moderator called for quiet.

“I don’t know and I don’t care,” he said. “As long as the ineffective folks aren’t in our face, they can go wherever they want. It’s a free country. There are other districts. Private schools. Prisons. Canada and Mexico. Jobs at Kinko’s. The sooner they get out of here, the better. Speaking of getting out of here, I have to go now. I have a dinner engagement.” Eris and his three attendants walked briskly out of the hall.

After a hush, a principal spoke up. “All right now, let’s follow Mr. Eris’s advice and get this brute strife thing going,” she said. “If you haven’t hit someone in this room, you haven’t done your duty. Let’s see some punches here.”

Strangely, no one hit anyone. Clearly a sense of humanity was keeping people in check—and holding them back from the final ruthless glory.