It’s pushing 4:30 in the afternoon as I pedal up to River and La Cholla, my favorite spot on my ride home from school. If I’m lucky, something like this version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity will land on my playlist. (Maybe listen while you read? And after, this) At this time of day, with six full lanes going each direction (seven, counting the bike lane) hundreds of strangers roll past each other giving little thought to one another.
I love it here because there’s something about being on my bike, anonymous, exposed, and vulnerable, that makes me aware of the abstract connections between us all. Like the priest in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, I wonder what distant intentions and acts of chance brought us to this point in space at this moment in time. I imagine innumerable braided paths of falling dominoes beginning deep in the past and stretching far into the future. There’s a different story in every vehicle, and more than a few this year are stories we wish had never been. But we keep rolling.
Ten hours earlier, it was still dark when I rode into the parking lot at my school at the foot of the Catalina Mountains. Thoughts about dominoes through the generations occurred to me then as well, with two big differences. I don’t know where the paths of the many dozen colleagues and students I work with began or will end, but I know they arrived here and now with the intention of getting ready to knock over the next domino on their path, or helping someone to. Nor are we strangers. We know each others’ names and our stories.
In my year and a half here I’ve grown to know the people I work with professionally and personally. Their skill is unparalleled. Last week, in an end of semester reflection activity, I asked students who I should pay attention to if I wanted to be a better teacher during the pandemic. They named 19 different teachers. Every department was represented. What greater testament to my colleagues’ range of skills and ability to connect with students could there be? It doesn’t stop there, our non-instructional staff, like the proverbial duct tape and WD-40, simultaneously holds us together and keeps us moving smoothly.
On a personal level, I’ve made friends and confidants. Everyone is good for a laugh or a chat. The number of times I’ve asked for a favor and been denied is equal to the number of times I’ve been to the moon. I know and am grateful for the investment our administrative team has made in my success here. I don’t know what I’d do without the head of our math department, our counselors, and our special ed teachers.
Of course, I spend most of my day with my students. They try so hard to keep rolling while trying to make sense of their interrupted lives. Weekly emails from students and parents are real and personal. They don’t make excuses for the trials that they didn’t ask for, aren’t their fault, and that they don’t want. They just ask for a little more time to finish an assignment. What can I say but, “Take all the time you need.”
It can be incomprehensible what my students and colleagues are capable of. Consider this: My first two periods of seventh grade accelerated math have a total of 36 students, mostly six graders. Since November 1st, about when the current Covid surge began, we’ve had 29 days of instruction. That’s a total of 1,044 potential absences. There have been 9. That’s a 99.1% attendance rate. It doesn’t stop with these students – my mentor told me last week that my school’s teacher attendance is the best in the district. Somehow, we roll on.
There’s something else happening this year that might have occurred before, but never registered. At the end of class, as they walk to the door, there are always a couple of students who say, “Thank you, Mr. Merz.”
I hope my students and colleagues know how happy I am that they’re part of my life.
2020 is a year of loss that people are saying should be its own swear word. We’ve had to recalibrate what we know about happiness and sorrow, pain and relief; courage, love, and hope; fear, loss, and despair. We’ve met our goals and we’ve failed, been faithful to our virtues and surrendered to our vices, been noble and petty. We’ve learned that, as Ralph De La Rosa might say, how any of us is is how all of us are.
And on we roll.