As part of an assignment in his 12th grade Advanced Placement Literature class, teacher Franco D’Alessandro challenged his students to create primary source documents in the form of a memoir, examining and reflecting on this past year of the pandemic.
“Understanding that this pandemic will be examined and talked about for years to come, students looked at a variety of resources, from Anne Frank to David Sedaris, for inspiration,” D’Alessandro said.
In the first half of their essays, the students were encouraged to reflect on what they have lost, feel disappointed by or regretful about, and what they missed out on. In the second half of the essay, they transitioned to a place of deeper reflection to look at the silver linings: the things that surprised, amazed or inspired them, such as any acts of kindness they witnessed or experienced; the skill they developed; the unexpected friendships; the family connections that deepened and the hobbies they picked up.
D’Alessandro, a playwright and poet, completed the assignment alongside his students and reflected on his experiences throughout the pandemic in the essay, “Time is the Greatest Distance.”
Read D’Alessandro’s memoir below.
“Time is the Greatest Distance”
I am not a nervous person. But, Covid has made me nervous, and not for the obvious reasons.
As a kid, I was often called “bold” —a common enough Irish epithet with more than a double-edge as, depending on the context, it can mean nervy, fearless, or just a pain in the arse. Since much of my life has been spent either working in the theater or teaching in the classroom, I am not exactly shy or easily intimidated.
And it’s that playwright/teacher brain of mine that has those immortal and haunting lines spoken by Tom, in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, running around in my head: “For time is the greatest distance…”
You see, I am worried that this year I will not be able to connect with my students the way I usually do. I am nervous that the all-important social dynamic will be yet another sacrifice made at the altar of Covid19. Masks, plastic shields, social distancing, hybrid schedule, 50% occupancy...all of these things are conspiring to destroy my teaching magic...to ruin my ability to connect with the kids so that they can become “my kids.” And, I don’t think I realized how much that has become a part of my identity.
A little known secret about teachers is that we do care what our students think about us. They reflect our work. It would be like painters not caring how audiences respond to their paintings. Now, why a person would willingly subject themself to the ridicule and scrutinizing of dozens of teenagers at a time is still beyond my own comprehension, but we do. And we love it.
I think I am more sensitive -now more than ever- to that part of my identity that is connected to my students. 2020, aside from being the year that robbed all of us of our normal lives, has robbed many of us of precious actual lives. For me, it was a year of five family deaths (in six months) and no real funerals. Certainly, no real gatherings for mourning —denied those Atlantean embraces that somehow hold the shattered world together, at least for a little while… My family is Irish and Italian, and we don’t do 50%, shortened, virtual, distanced anything, never mind goodbyes. The social distance felt like solitary confinement for the soul. You see, I buried my father (he was almost 92 and ready to go after three cancer battles), as well as two aunts, and one uncle, all of whom were elderly and none of whom died of Covid. It was my cousin, Eddie, who bravely battled stage IV cancer for years, that got to me. He was older than me (but still too young) with two children in college. That loss hurt deeply. That loss stays with me in a way that the others do not and cannot. Because with all the death and sadness, it is the lost time that has unsettled me and keeps me up at night. The time he lost with his kids, that’s what I cannot shake... because even though these students are not my children there is a bond I have come to cherish that I fear will be another casualty of this horrific and deadly pandemic.
The social dynamic. The personal connection. The friendships with students are actually more important than the AP exams or SATs or any of the thousands of other academic hoops we all jump through. What I have come to realize is that we teachers are more coaches than anything; we coach the mind, not the body. We try to inspire our kids to be curious, to want to learn, to see themselves in literature (in my case), and in the world around them. We are coaching them to become themselves. And it is the greatest gift of a job one could ask for. And I treasure it, but I treasure them so much more.
I think I am nervous about the lost time. Time —that ethereal yet cement-like substance that creates unbreakable bonds. Time —lost, irretrievable, life-defining—that major theme in The Great Gatsby, which we just finished reading. Time —that life force of meaningful, life-defining relationships. I am nervous I am losing time… that the monosyllable of the clock is, as Tennessee Williams said, “Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.”
Maybe it is the diction or maybe it is the syntax (it’s probably both), but I loathe the downright oxymoronic phrase “social distancing”. It’s stupid and antithetical. It has no place in either my Irish or Italian cultures. And in a world where the human touch is often life-saving (I have seen it firsthand), I want to cry out: “I SEE YOU BEHIND THE ANONYMIZING MASKS AND DEHUMANIZING SHIELDS. I HEAR YOU THROUGH THE ENDLESS ECHOING CYBER CHAMBERS. COME HERE TO ME! DON’T BE DISTANT! WE WILL GET THROUGH THIS TOGETHER! NOT...APART...NOT DISTANT! TOGETHER!”
Lately, I’ve been thinking that I need to channel that bold little lad my Irish granny so admired. I need to look this virus in eye and say, “Not today, Covid, not today! You won’t rob me of my connection. I will not lose any more time! I will not be distant. These kids need me...and I need them!”
The author is a playwright, poet and educator living in Bronxville, New York and is an English teacher at The Bronxville School. His internationally acclaimed play, Roman Nights, has been produced around the world and is currently being developed by Rose Pictures as a feature film or limited series. His latest collection of poems, Everything Is Something Else, will be released in February 2021 by Finishing Line Press.