My turn, Larry Efird: Teacher’s journal of the plague year

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 3, 2020

By Larry Efird

Oftentimes, I’m amazed at how well classical literature relates to the needs of the modern world.

I suppose I shouldn’t be, but it always seems to catch me off guard for some reason. As a teacher, one of the most rewarding parts of being in a room surrounded by teenagers is when they realize that “all that stuff” we’re reading actually has a purpose. A witness  from the past was inspired enough to write something down so that others like us could read it centuries later and see that although we may be divided by time,  we’re still connected through human experience.

One such piece of literature is “Journal of the Plague Year,” written by Daniel Defoe in 1722. Ironically, he carefully created a factual perspective of the great plague that devastated England in 1665  through  a fictional account based  upon oral history  as well as his own childhood experiences.

I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that many people are currently keeping journals  and personal diaries during these most perplexing days. One reason is perhaps because some of us are taking a great deal more time than we normally do for reflection about what is truly important. Not too long ago, we were taking something as small as a trip to the grocery store for granted, and maybe we were even complaining because one item on our list was nowhere to be found.  Now we’re often happy when we can find one thing on our list! 

More importantly, we are realizing genuine human contact is essential to our emotional well-being. Teaching from home has also  been eye-opening for me. 

Because most teachers are “people persons,”  sitting in front of a computer and trying to inspire our students is rather annoying, if not impossible, since so many of them won’t log on to start with.

At first, I was somewhat aggravated with the students who would not bother to respond to my countless emails and who totally ignored their assignments in Canvas, our basic e-learning headquarters. But then I stopped to think that this was a bizarre experience for them too, and their entire social life had just been turned upside down. I had to realize that my job as an educator was forced to take a back seat to counseling and encouragement. They don’t need me to nag them. They need me to listen if they need to talk. They need me to understand their concerns. They need me to feel their confusion.

After all, they didn’t ask for this to interrupt their lives either.

In our Google class meetings, more students than not don’t even show their faces or unmute their laptops so they can be heard. In some respects, they’re invisible. All I see is a dark spot on my desktop screen with their name, so at least I know they’re “there”— maybe.  Some of the ones who do have the screen on only allow for the top of their heads to show, or the ceiling in their bedrooms.  I’ve seen more than one ceiling fan in attendance at any given time!

This week, one of my students asked me when Spring Break was over.  I wanted to tell her, “On Memorial Day,” but I reminded her we had “started classes” this past Monday.  Another student asked me if there was any work he should be doing. Really.  I couldn’t figure out what he had been doing for the past month, but I guess he suddenly felt the need to inquire.

I have to say that I do not prefer online teaching, but strangely enough, I’ve gotten to know some of my students better through the computer than when they sit right in front of me. They tend to be more honest online and with answering questions electronically. I’ve even been moved to tears by some of their stories as they journal their  unique experiences and confess their fears.

2020 may have turned into an unwanted “Plague Year,” but it is also turning into a year where human beings are seeing the need to stay more in touch with themselves and with others, ironically. 

That’s something worth writing about so future generations will know we didn’t just survive a plague; hopefully, we became better people because of it.

Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.