COVID Classroom: A Love Story
by Mariel Eve Berlin-Fischler
Baruch Hashem (Thank G-d), my preschool had both the resources and the leadership to reconfigure and reopen, in-person and safely, for the entirety of its September through August school year. My opening message to the families of the Dagim (Fish) class read as such:
“As the adage goes, ‘in adversity lies opportunity.’ Though this year may look different than any we have seen before, we could not be more optimistic that your children are about to be engaged in a classroom experience that will bring about learning and growth opportunities otherwise inaccessible under the "old normal." These COVID times are trying, but mask wearing is a doorway to social-emotional learning and sensory endurance, and social distancing is a doorway to the diversity of methods available to show affection and compassion. We are being given the chance to teach love without hugs, friendship without proximity, and conscientiousness as a condition of togetherness. These are not simple lessons, but the journey toward grasping them will prepare our Dagim for the future in new and unparalleled ways. Children are our leading experts in resilience and adaptation, and we look forward to channeling their wisdom and capacity for unconditional joy and curiosity.”
It is impossible to convey the new heights to which these children pushed the potential of these concepts this school year. Their capacity for empathy, perseverance, good-naturedness, and passionate academic fascination is a credit to humanity. I cannot count the number of times my children’s discoveries and evolutions of self have moved me with great depth and returned me to the reality of a child—which holds more reality than we realize—that anything is possible and we can change the world.
Our preschool families created for us an original song entitled “Thank You” to show their gratitude, and the lyrics begin: “When the world is at a distance, you hold our children close / When the world is broken, you fix it most.” While this line brings tears to my eyes with each listen, I believe that this year, the fixers were the kids. There is nothing more humbling amid feelings of loss and sacrifice than to watch another individual give up the same and still continue living with an absolute sense of freedom and joy. We lose a Truth when we lose the consciousness that this inspiring individual could be a child. Those less versed in the ways of children might say, “well, they don’t know what they’re missing.” For those of us who have the privilege of sharing our days with young children, we know that watching them brings forth, rather, the nagging question, “what are WE missing?”
This longest, hardest, loneliest year of my career was the biggest and brightest star of my education journey and will forever serve as a memory of me finding my True North in the classroom. This was the year without “what was,” and so became the year of “what ifs” in order to find our “what is.” We had much to learn from this year. This was the year when community was the life raft on an ocean of uncertainty and when love was a matter of life or death. It took the raising of stakes to this level to throw myself with abandon into the heart and soul of my classroom and to raise and teach these children as if we were everything—because we had to be. My greatest surprise was to find that my children were already in this space, just waiting for the grownups to arrive and to see the world as they do.
The level of trust in my room was palpable. The children saw themselves and one another as capable and complete, and so did we. We rolled with the punches, changed thousands of plans, and looked at the maybes of our days as gifts waiting to be opened. Every single one of my three-year-olds wore their masks all day, every day, for the same reason they shared, the same reason they laughed, and the same reason they played. Because friendship means a lot of things, and this year, friendship meant masks. It’s funny how when no suggestion was made that masks could be uncomfortable… it never occurred to my children to feel uncomfortable. It’s amazing how when the suggestion was made that wearing a mask helped to keep their friends safe… many kids chose to keep them on even when offered the chance to take them off. This year I witnessed the love story of ten children, and the moral of this story was “love conquers all.”
Yes, there were some heartbreaking moments as I yearned for the “before,” but these children were living in the present, and I had to buck up and follow. We may have used more hand sanitizer in one year of classroom days than I have in my twenty-eight years of life on this earth, but we’ve also had the particular delight of a classroom of threes colloquializing “hand sanitizer” and instead asking for the “hani-tizer.” Hearing just-turned threes casually discussing the virus, pronounced by their developing lips as “viwus,”-- while enough to make a heart shrivel-- reminded me that calmness, conviction, and transparency is the best way to approach any challenge, not just the kinds we knew prior to the year 2020.
As I watched my class running across our local field today, on their last day of school, I remember their first time donning these coverings as they presented themselves on day one, armed with a backpack, a lunchbox, a nap mat, and a new garment which they understood to be part of a mitzvah (Jewish value of Torah commandments and good deeds). At our morning meetings, we sang and signed the Mi Shebeirach, the Jewish prayer for healing. Children, to their very core, are helpers. They deeply desire involvement, importance, and responsibility. As we actively wished each morning for people everywhere to be safe and healthy, I watched them grow thoughtful in considering those outside of themselves, grateful for their happiness and their healthy bodies, and empowered that by remembering these things each day, they could help the whole world. Perspective is a key to happiness, and one of which children are often deprived. Finding our place in the world is a basic human desire, and the twinkle in these small sets of eyes, to me, indicated a head start.
Running and laughing in the sunshine on their last day together, many still voluntarily clad in masks, I may not have been able to see the smiles on all of their faces, but I could certainly witness the love in all of their hearts.