Op-ed: I feel so empty this morning

Sunday, May 3, 2020 - 8:20pm

I feel so empty this morning. No Zoom meeting with students to look forward to, no preparation. Classes are over.

I had to say goodbye to 55 students on Monday and Tuesday, in four different classes. I thanked them and praised their hard work, like I usually do.

I dressed up, put makeup on, did my hair, wore my favorite earrings, tried to find within me a happy face for one last time in front of the camera. Days of putting on a smile, trying to bring positive energy to a virtual class while confronted with a full screen of sad faces, tired and worried. I wanted to honor them one last time.  

At the end of class I told my students how proud I was of them for showing up to class every day. I congratulated them on finding ways to adapt to the craziness, for being engaged and connecting with each other. I told them, “No one will ever forget what you all have been going through and everyone will praise you for your strength and resilience, no matter how big or small. You should all be very proud of yourselves!” I also said I was sad for not being able to say goodbye in person, in a normal classroom. And some of them cried.

At the end of the day, I was emotionally drained. I closed my computer and started weeping in my kitchen for ten long minutes. Nothing had prepared me for this — never would have I imagined feeling so sad on the last day of class. There were times in my 23 years of teaching at the University of Michigan that were difficult — health struggles, family deaths, catastrophic events in the news — but nothing had really prepared me for this.

I was on the phone with my mother on March 11 when the email came out. I had seen my students in the classroom that same morning. I was never going to see them again. Although I had expected the news, I was shocked by the reality of it all and stared at my screen, speechless, tears streaming down my cheeks, listening to my mother’s comforting words. My children witnessed my distress and at that moment understood what it meant for me to be a teacher.

The following day I started running a marathon. Hours of daily work, preparation and class time. Live sessions with my students to keep them engaged and speaking French daily. Tons of exchanges with colleagues via email, BlueJeans meetings, phone conversations. A wonderful sense of community and collaboration emerged but I was feeling lonely and lost, afraid of what was coming ahead, uncertain about my teaching choices, doubting my ability to adjust. The situation was evolving on the hour, changes needing to be made daily. And yet students were showing up to class, doing all the work, adapting to their teachers’ new technology endeavors, trying to make sense out of this new crazy normal.

And all of this kept me going. Preparing my classes, going to workshops, seeing my students every day and connecting with them virtually kept me sane and helped me forget the depressing reality. I learned so much about my students and about myself throughout those 40 days.

They shared their personal struggles, living situations and experiences, their worries and fears — I felt very connected to them. More than ever. We were far apart yet so close.

I lost a lot of control in my teaching and realized it was okay. I could not hear and listen to everything students were saying and sharing in breakout rooms. I will never know what really happened in all these virtual meetings, but it was probably empowering and simply reassuring for them to have their own private space. I envision that a sense of normalcy arose from speaking privately to classmates once again, even if the conversations drifted.

I am so thankful I live in a community that allowed me to teach remotely, provided me with the needed tools to make a somewhat smoother transition and enabled me to finish the semester for these well-deserving students who I will miss deeply. However, I have witnessed inequities in students’ resources and abilities to stay connected throughout the end of the semester. Socioeconomic inequalities have been exacerbated by the current situation, not only within different regions of Michigan, but also in the Ann Arbor area. We should all continue to advocate for a fair and accessible educational system. 

Now I have to let go and conquer this void that I feel. I am confident I will overcome the sadness and the sense of loss. I just need the strength to confront the reality around me.

Sabine Gabaron is Lecturer IV in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures and can be reached at sgabaron@umich.edu