Subduction Zones

Back to school in 2020

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in Features • Illustrated by Eric Lauterbach

The existence of a boundary can have a palpable effect on the behaviour of objects and people in its vicinity.  

Timothy Tombassi, “Mapping the Ontological Debate”

The lobby had the abruptly abandoned feel of Roanoke. Signs reminded students to register for fall classes, to attend spring sporting events, to bolster resumes for summer internships. A new layer of dust coated the public computer screens and the coveted couches in the corner were empty. Unlike the nights and weekends when I’ve stopped in to grab something or to take advantage of the quiet to work, no one knew if or when we’d return to Boston University or to our old lives. No one knew whether the world of just a few weeks earlier could ever exist again and if so, how to get there. No one knew what kind of world we could build in the meantime.  

As a teacher, I’m supposed to have at least some answers. Every day students asked about changes to University grading policies, what would happen with our London summer program, how to get the belongings they’d left in their dorms. I had apologies, but no answers. In five days, I had attempted to transform lectures and discussions into remote classes, learn Zoom, reinvent assignments, adjust deadlines, and reconfigure sections based on which time zones students were in. I had so many unanswerable questions of my own that I had to make things up as we went along while trying to pretend otherwise.  

Students would ask about something they’d read in an email I for some reason had not received, and my confused look and the resulting nervous laughter kicked off the class-opening ritual of airing frustrations. And then there were the bigger questions: How might the pandemic fundamentally change higher education? How much will degrees matter, especially if the economy’s headed for a major recession? How could one justify a $75,000 per year education under the circumstances? “These are all such good and important questions,” I’d say, as though that acknowledgement could replace an answer.   

One student said that the scariest thing was that her parents didn’t have answers either. “This is the first time the adults in my life don’t know anything,” she said, and other students nodded. I was the adult, the person whose inability to produce answers was both frightening and disappointing. I couldn’t even answer questions about our own program, in which students begin college in January after taking a gap semester in the fall when freshmen typically start. Our program’s main selling point is an excursion-focused semester in London during the summer of students’ first year.  

Our students spent fewer than eight weeks on campus before they had to go home. Some cared for younger siblings while their parents worked. One quarantined in her bedroom after her parents both contracted the virus. One had joyfully come out at school but then had to return to a conservative Catholic home. Some international students remained in mostly abandoned dorms wondering when they’d be able to get home and how long the university would let them stay. Two weeks after the spring semester ended, I taught the summer semester remotely with as few mentions of London as possible. Separated by time zones, but unified by uncertainty, we continued in a direction we all hoped was forward.  

Astronauts say that space travel provides a new appreciation of Earth as a single, fragile entity on which all known life resides. From space, superimposed and value-based borders disappear. From far enough away, individual oceans disappear, the whole planet awash in blue instead. But from the International Space Station or anywhere in near-Earth orbit, visible boundaries remain. At night, the planet’s vascular network of electricity illuminates veins that, among other things, help spread opposing ideologies. On a clear day, the pyramids and the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant are visible from space. One can discern deserts and rivers and mountains formed by the convergence of tectonic plates. When two plates collide, the denser one gets forced under the lighter one and eventually melts away.  

In high school, a close friend became addicted to drugs and I distanced myself for my own safety, so I wouldn’t get pushed under. I’d learned in science class that tectonic plates can also move away from each other. When this happens in the ocean, the movement causes earthquakes that bring molten lava to the surface. Eventually, the magma cools and forms a new crust.  

The summer after my freshman year at college, I waited tables at a breakfast restaurant in Chicago where no one knew me. I could be anyone and I could develop — or not — whatever boundaries I wanted. One way that freedom manifested was in the way I used my name around other people. “Joelle” was the English major and aspiring writer, the professional who attended interviews and conferences. My family and friends called me “Joey,” my childhood nickname, and the me I increasingly decided against letting people see. I’d started introducing myself as Joelle, and that summer, that’s how everyone knew me. Strangely, that made me proud.  

In an ontological exploration of boundaries, University of Exeter researcher Antony Galton says, “boundaries are only of interest because they define the limits of regions. But precisely because of this, boundaries can acquire a life of their own.” Their very existence can influence people’s behavior, consciously or not. Some boundaries become hard walls. 

My dad died on Labor Day of 2006, the day before the fall semester and my teaching career began. I hadn’t prepared a lecture or exercise and didn’t have copies of the syllabus, which normally would have been unthinkable. But canceling class on the first day wasn’t an option. I didn’t want anyone to think I was a flake or to regret hiring me. I made up a story about photocopier mishaps and got on with it.   

The performative nature of teaching helped solidify boundaries. The word “performance” suggests contrivance, but it’s more about finding a balance between artifice, into which I lumped authority and confidence, and sincerity. Performance: “there’s no such thing as a bad question.” Truth: There absolutely is such a thing, including all questions already answered in the syllabus, so please ask good questions. Performance: “You’ll love the reading for next class — it’s super interesting!” Truth: I think you’ll like it, but just please, please read it so I don’t have to hear myself talk for an hour.  Performance: “My name is Joelle Renstrom and this is College Writing and Research. I’m looking forward to this semester with you.” Truth: My name is Joelle Renstrom, and all I want is to make it through the next three hours without falling apart.  

I moved to Boston in 2008, seeking a place where people didn’t know me in grief or at all. I had spent two years living where I’d grown up, where everyone knew my dad and what had happened to him, and where everyone knew me as Joey. If I could put enough geographical distance between Joey and the new Joelle I had tried for years to be, maybe I could leave those unwanted parts of myself behind with the furniture I stacked on the curb. Perhaps I could leave behind the constant feeling of cold concrete in my stomach. The memory of my dad begging me for a pear he could not eat. The dread squeezing my lungs when I woke up in the morning and remembered.  

I’d had two years of teaching experience when I moved to Boston, though they were complicated by grief and the challenges of staying focused and present. I couldn’t leave my bruised heart back in Michigan, but I’d be fine if I could establish classroom boundaries — especially ones so unmistakable they’d be visible from space.  

My first class of each day was 10th grade Honors English. One student couldn’t read Macbeth or The Inferno because her family was Jehovah’s Witnesses. A few students were virtually impossible to understand through thick South Boston accents, to which I hadn’t yet grown accustomed. Another student was studious and painfully insecure, and she scooted her desk up against that of her best friend, a sweet Vietnamese girl who doodled hearts around the name of one of her ninth-grade teachers on the cover of her notebook. My favorite student, the most cynical of the lot, cheered for Frankenstein’s monster when it hunted Victor down.  

For months everything was fine, until one day, out of nowhere, a student I’ll call Timothy, who tended to be quiet and sullen during class, prone to disengagement rather than to outbursts, slammed down his book and said, “This is bullshit!” I tried to laugh it off, to pretend he was referring to what had happened in the book, but he wouldn’t stop. Later, the principal told me that Timothy’s sister, with whom he was close, had been admitted into a mental health facility. He was now home alone with his alcoholic parents. I also learned that even though the student had spent 16 years in Boston, he had never tasted lobster. It was on his bucket list, which for some reason broke my heart as much as anything else.  

The next day, I pulled Timothy aside and told him how sorry I was about his sister. I said I knew how hard it was to focus when something like that was going on, and that I’d give him extensions or do anything else I could to help. He stared at me with blank blue eyes, as though I was swinging a watch in front of him. Then he turned and walked away.  

He refused to participate in the next class and told me to “fuck off.” That week, all the bumper stickers on my car were either crossed out with black Xs or scraped off with a penknife. I found photos of spiders — I’d mentioned being arachnophobic — tucked in among my lesson plans. And then my favorite student, champion of Frankenstein’s monster, began sitting in class with her arms crossed and desk empty. “She’s rude,” Timothy said to the principal about me, unwilling or unable to provide examples. My favorite student said I’d marked too many grammatical mistakes on one of her papers. When I told one of my colleagues what had happened, she shook her head. “This is why you never let them see you smile before Christmas.”  

I had chosen what I thought was an appropriate time to lower a boundary, to reach out to a struggling kid, and what did I have to show for it? More dread about showing up at a high school than I ever had as a teenager. I felt naive for believing that moving 850 miles and calling myself by another name was an act of magic. For not understanding how easily the past fits into the narrowest trunk, the smallest backseat. How it lingers around the tender edges of a new life in the making and then climbs astride the mind as though on old bicycle, remembering in no time how to turn the pedals. 

At first, the pandemic amplified the performance of teaching. Maintaining routines and adhering to course objectives became to some extent role-playing, as did believing that no virus could invalidate what we did in the classroom, even if remote and imperfect. From mid-March until July, I conducted Zoom classes from my office, where I could teach more effectively than from my kitchen. I continued to dress the part. No matter how different the world was, I could at least look the same, and students could see the logical fallacy poster and the letter from Ray Bradbury on the wall behind me. I had to force my usual constant bad jokes, as they bespoke the confidence of a teacher who knew what she was doing. Six months earlier, I’d seen everything. It hadn’t been difficult to pretend otherwise, at least in the classroom, in over a decade.  

I wanted to tether them as much as possible to the “BCV” (before coronavirus) world; I needed that link as much as they did. Although via screens, we could see the same faces we’d seen since January, back when student nightmares involved homesickness, exams, and dining hall food. Back when we jabbered endlessly about our upcoming session in London. Back when students and professors shared the same blissful ignorance about what was coming.  

That communal lack of awareness made me remember my arrival in New York City on September 8, 2001, and my excitement at finally entering the “real” world, the supposed goal of my 17 years of education. In the aftermath of 9/11, I lost my job offer and my living situation (and, for a time, my cat). I was lucky — my face wasn’t on one of the missing posters that haunted my aimless walks. Yet I wondered why everyone I knew had pushed me toward a reality in which planes flew into buildings. 

For me, the ramifications of 9/11 pale in comparison to those of the pandemic, not to mention climate change. Many of my students grew up with eco-anxiety, terrified of global warming, extreme weather, rising seas. Those who grew up in the U.S. practiced armed shooter response drills in school. Some worried about family members getting deported and about not having health care; many still do. Student loans gave them nightmares when the economy was healthy. Now even the systems and structures they hadn’t thought to doubt are smashing into each other and splintering. Even though I know what’s happening to my 401K, being 40 is far less terrifying than being 20. 

I checked in constantly, asking students if they needed anything, as though I’d have whatever that was. Students apologized for forgetting things, as though they had to explain why they’d been distracted, as though it mattered that they’d missed a discussion board post. “How is everyone?” I’d ask at the beginning of each class, and they’d shrug. “How is everyone, really?” I’d ask, and the hands would go up. We often talked about how strange it felt to continue classes as nations went into lockdown, as people died, and later, as people protested. Yet we all clung to the semblance of normalcy class provided, even though the concept of “normal” didn’t seem to apply anything anymore. 

Geographical and physical boundaries have crossings, bridges, gates, doors. Humans cross oceans, summit mountains, and rocket through Earth’s atmosphere. Galton points out that such traversals have become culturally sanctioned and commercialized, which creates a “slippage in our thinking, between borders and border-crossings.” Crossing a boundary can obscure or alter its line, much as observing a scientific experiment changes the results. Certain objects, such as computers and phone screens, are both barriers and gateways. Sometimes, it’s hard to know which is which.       

One Sunday night in April, I got an email from one of my most good-natured students informing me that her dad had suddenly passed away. Her parents lived in Bombay, and with the lockdowns and restrictions, it would likely be months before she could get home. 9/11 was a closer parallel to the pandemic, but it didn’t change my life nearly as much as my dad’s death had. What if I’d had to weather both of them at once? Dual catastrophes, one global and the other personal, both the end of the world.   

The usual support protocols and the option to take an incomplete or leave of absence seemed woefully inadequate under the circumstances. I composed and deleted responses, unable to articulate a meaningful or genuine response without lowering boundaries. The same thing had happened with Timothy and my decision backfired. Since then, I’d largely become an even-tempered professor, almost as unflappable as my dad had been. But boundaries can feel like gateways and vice versa. Had I confused or conflated the two?  

I wrote the student back and told her how sorry I was and not to worry about class. I told her about my dad, how I couldn’t focus on anything for months, how I didn’t think I would survive. I offered to video chat, to listen or to cry with her, and said I understood if nothing seemed to matter, least of all our class. I signed the email “Prof R,” even though it wasn’t the professor who had written it. It wasn’t even Joelle. It was Joey, the kid who missed her dad and who cried when other kids missed their dads too. 

Acknowledging how little class mattered in the grand scheme unexpectedly underscored its importance in the present. Not only the curriculum, which includes rhetoric and research skills but the students’ resolve. They logged into Zoom, sometimes still rumpled from sleep or whispering into a headset to avoid disturbing family members. What mattered was that upon connecting everyone waved at one another in genuine excitement. They hoisted pets onto their laps and posed them in front of the camera to make each other laugh. They described what was happening in their towns and those who attended protests gave reports.   

In a presentation, a shy student shared that she’d believed in karma until her dad had an affair. Unable to square that knowledge with the idea of karmic justice, she researched people’s desire to believe in conceptions of fairness that likely don’t exist. “We love you!” messages flooded the chat and classmates who gave spoken feedback thanked her for sharing her story. A student exploring the origin of homesickness recounted how many sobbing phone calls he made to his brother in January. Students sent <hugs> and ({}) through the chat and told him that if he was ever lonely again, he should call or text them. Then the student who had just lost her dad presented and mentioned her dad’s passing. Classmate after classmate expressed how sorry they were. “You’re so brave,” said another. “My dad passed away when I was seven, so I understand. I’m here for you.” In the chat, the student kept writing, “Thank you, everybody! I <3 you all so much!” I fumbled with my earpiece so no one could see me cry. 

I don’t want to think about what happens next, despite the dozens of daily emails that demand it. In preparation for opening campus, arrows designate the directional flow of hallways and stairs, footprints designate how far apart to stand, and signs remind people to wear a mask at all times. My office is in a cluster of four, and a placard on the door to the outer common area reads, “room capacity: 1.” “Room capacity” refers to how many people can safely fit into one area with posing an undue risk of transmitting or contracting COVID, but it’s also an apt reminder of the previous two semesters, of how portals often masquerade as boundaries. 

In 1907, Ellen Churchill Semple wrote in the Bulletin of the American Geographical Society: “[n]ature abhors fixed boundary lines and sudden transitions; all her forces combine against them. Everywhere she keeps her borders melting, wavering, advancing, retreating. If by some cataclysm sharp lines of demarcation are drawn, she straightway begins to blur them by creating intermediate forms.” Perhaps it’s not the construction of boundaries that contains virtue, but rather, one’s ability to shift those boundaries. “The line where a land-born river meets the sea tends to become a sandbar or a delta, created by the river-borne silt and the wash of the waves, a form intermediate between land and sea, bearing the stamp of each,” observed Semple. That’s not exactly what schools mean by “hybrid” classes, but the word does suggest a transcending of boundaries, a merging of dichotomies. The creation of something new. 

During our final class, I told students I was proud of them for finishing the hardest academic year imaginable and for being A+ humans all around. I told them I’d miss sharing space with them, and that despite the idiosyncrasies of Zoom, our classes made me feel better and more human than anything else in my life. I thanked them for giving me hope. When I asked if anyone had any last questions, one of my favorite students raised her hand. “When this is all over, can we come to your office and give you a hug?” My breath caught in my throat. My webcam captured the tears in my eyes, but I didn’t much care. “You’d better,” I told her. It’s still one of the things I look forward to most.   •

This post used photos by Nick Bolton, NASA, and Engin Akyurt, courtesy of Unsplash.