zoom, zoom, zoom

My last class. My last zoom meeting with the students this semester. I turn off the camera, mute the microphone, relax my face, lean back on the chair, and finally put my feet on the desk – something I could never do in front of my students on zoom. It is such a liberating feeling to once again be completely yourself in your own office at home. No more worries about how messy my room looks (in case I forget to tidy it up the night before the class), how sleepy and a bit swollen my face looks because I have woken up literally 10 minutes before the zoom class, how ridiculous my sweatpants look underneath the desk as my students can only see a nice blouse on top, if the students can hear my boyfriend talking (very!) loudly on a business call in his office next door, if the WiFi is going to work through the entire class, if everyone has their cameras on and you are not just staring at yourself for two hours straight (very uncomfortable feeling, I have to say), if the planned seminar can be effectively delivered online or if it is a total disaster and I should definitely rethink the online lesson plan — all those if’s and how’s.

This sudden switch to online teaching has been a hell of a ride. Nobody was prepared for that. I remember on March 13 (three months ago already!), at 6:30 am I heard the usual, slightly annoying alarm sound, opened my eyes half way, took my phone and saw a message from my friend: on the radio, it was announced that all classes were suspended due to the pandemic. It was Friday. Everyone was happy to have an extra day off, but I had an anxious feeling that things were going to change drastically at the university (my sixth sense maybe). And next week, on Monday, the universities announced we had to deliver the rest of the Fall semester online. O-N-freaking-L-I-N-E.

I struggled a lot with this move. I was terrified to switch to online teaching. The rest of the Fall semester I taught offline, giving students writing assignments and refusing to organize online meetings. I have always struggled with the fear of public speaking, but I have managed to control it over the last 5 years of my university teaching (I still sweat every time before the class starts, but I am more used to that now). During my years of teaching, I have polished my lesson plans, teaching strategies, and techniques. I knew what I was doing, so my fear of public speaking subsided. Until the pandemic hit and the online teaching became a new norm. And the fear of something new and unknown hit me to the bottom. I remember I was angry for this switch. I was frustrated. I was completely lost. I cried a bit. I could not sleep at night. Anxiety just went 150%.

To be fair, everyone was stressed. Everyone at both universities where I am teaching. The first thing students and instructors noticed was how the universities started bombarding us with emails: every single day we would get a bunch of messages from ALL the departments imaginable about ALL sorts of policies and rules, next steps and decisions, suggestions and assumptions, pieces of advice and recommendations. Sometimes these messages were contradicting each other, which made it even more confusing for students and professors. Apart from that, as I am teaching at two different universities, I got conflicting, drastically different emails from them: one university would go this way, and the second would go another. Completely different strategies, procedures, regulations. I felt so exhausted by simply reading these emails every day.

And the students, poor students. Not only did they have to deal with the sudden switch to online delivery, many of them also had to move from their residencies and go back home, wherever home was. I got so many emails from students who were on the verge of crying because of the whole situation. Somebody had to vacate the dorm within 48 hours. Someone had to leave the country and be quarantined in another country for 14 days. Somebody’s parents lost jobs. I got such emails every other day at the end of the Fall semester. My students were stressed and shocked, and completely disoriented.

And at that moment, I realized that this was not about me. It was about the students who struggled the most and needed the most help. I instinctively understood that the biggest thing I could do was to stay connected with them. So when in two weeks, the Spring semester started, and I was asked to teach two courses, I decided to embrace my fear and do everything I could to make the classes as close to the real ones as possible. In a period of one week, I figured out how to use zoom, bought the last available Logitech camera at Walmart (camera were sold out like crazy everywhere), reconsidered how to teach the 3-month course in a period of 1 month or even less via zoom. I had to overcome my own anxiety of seeing students for the first time via camera and creating the positive atmosphere to discuss literature. Every single assignment, activity, group work, task, discussion that I have developed over 5 years had to be restructured for the online format. I recorded video lectures for my students to watch offline. I met my students online every single day. I had virtual office hours. I put every activity into a new format without sacrificing anything or removing it from the syllabus.

But, most importantly, I was always there for my students. And I felt like they needed that. I saw a lot of them suffering from isolation, loneliness, and disconnection. I felt they wanted to meet online. And even though for most of them, it was a required first-year course, I felt that at this moment of our life, at this unprecedented period, it was literature that connected us. We read poems, novels, and plays about human suffering, survival, and traumas and got inspired by the tremendous perseverance, strength, will, and an incredible spirit people demonstrate in the face of adversity. Whether a book was about the Holocaust or slavery, AIDS epidemic or homophobia, they all resonated with the students and made the events happening in the world – be it Covid-19 or protests – so significant, so relevant to all of us.

I am writing this post at the end of Spring semester, 2020, when I said goodbye to my students and waved at them for the last time on camera. I met these people virtually for the very first and last time, but the connection we built was real, absolute, and 100% authentic.

Covid-19 and Caves?

Today after watching and reading news on coronavirus for hours and feeling more and more anxious about the pandemic, I thought: when was the last time I felt complete peace in my body and mind? Not just a 5-minute relief or a fleeting sense of excitement, but a feeling of absolute happiness, stillness, and inner harmony. Was it this month? Last month? Last year? After a few minutes, I finally remembered.

It was in January, almost 4 months ago. It was in Mexico, Playa del Carmen. For the first time in my life, I did snorkeling. Not the shallow water snorkeling, but the deep and dark cave diving and snorkeling, where you cannot touch the bottom, when you cannot even see the toes of your own (or someone else’s) feet. Upon entering the cave, I distinctly remember the smell. It was not the typical smell of sunscreen, swimming pool, or a touristy beach. It was a new smell – a smell of something mysterious, fresh, and unknown.

My boyfriend saw the cave: how deep it was; how dark it was; how bottomless it seemed. And instantly refused to get in. But I could not resist the urge. I made the first step, took the first plunge, and found myself in another reality. The world I knew stopped existing. Colors changed. Sounds transformed. Feelings were exaggerated. Sensations – heightened. All the noise of everyday life – cars, people, mosquitoes, animals, my own buzzing thoughts – all was mute. Put on silent. All I heard was the sound of my own heart – excited and calm at the same time. All my worries and anxieties dissipated. I lost the sense of time and space. I was blown away by the beauty of the corals below my feet. There wasn’t even any fish there. Just the silent and magnificent corrals. And when the sun ray went through the water, it lit all the corals and, I swear, I felt like I had tears running down my cheeks (yes, it turns out you can cry underwater, too). It was surreal. I was in some very beautiful fantasy movie.

I did not want to get out. My poor boyfriend was waiting for hours near the cave, feeding mosquitoes, and I kept promising to him: “One more round, another minute, I swear.” And my head disappeared under the water for the next hour. When I finally got out of the water, the silly smile did not leave my face. I just could not help it. I was so peacefully content. It was addictive, this feeling of happiness. I could never forget it.

Now, living during the turbulent time of the coronovirus pandemic and not knowing what is going to happen, I wish – right now, at this very moment – I could go snorkeling and leave the outside world above the water. Will you take the plunge? Where is that cave that can save us all?