Our professor smiles and waves, we all wave back. My graduate Creative Nonfiction writing class is underway. I find myself in the exact same predicament my kids complain about daily—Zoom school. I thought they were exaggerating. I convinced myself it was just teenagers being teenagers; they dislike school for its parameters and force feeding. And here I was, twiddling my thumbs and finding my Zoom school absolutely excruciating.

On a typical school day, both my kids spend approximately five hours on a computer looking at a teacher and/or their peers. I haven’t a clue how they can absorb anything. During my Zoom school, I caught myself focusing on my classmates way more than the material we were discussing. I found it curious that Molly was smoking a cigarette in a dark room with the only illumination being her laptop. The reflection of the screen in her glasses was mesmerizing. I zoomed in even closer to see if I could see myself in her glasses. I couldn’t. Brian, a middle-aged man, stood straight in his seat at attention, observant, ready to work. Bare walls behind him led me to believe he might be a bachelor. I find out later the house he and his wife are in is a rental; their home burned to the ground in one of the Boulder fires this summer. Young Alison stares at the screen lifeless. I keep checking to see if she moves in case I need to call 911. A few others are less interesting, and then I get a text inquiring if I want to go see some live music this weekend. I’m an adult for goodness sake—shouldn’t I be able to control the urge to respond?

Then it hits me. I really feel it—I have complete empathy. This is the pain both teachers and students have been experiencing over this past year.

Zoom school has many issues. I’ve heard horror stories about students hacking into Zoom sessions and doing inappropriate things. Sometimes kids record themselves nodding and looking like they are paying attention when they are probably asleep. Many kids Zoom from a bed or couch, and at this point, the teacher wonders if this is a battle worth fighting. Parents are in the same situation. Should I just be happy that he logged in and seems somewhat engaged? Or should I fight the battle that makes him sit straight up at his desk in his room alone with a gray wall and laptop to stare at? 

Yesterday, I heard laughter coming from my son’s room during school hours. Initially, I smiled, thinking, that’s great—a Zoom moment that brings him some happiness. I walk into his room and he’s got the laptop open with a teacher speaking in the background, but his real attention is on his phone and some sort of silliness. I yell. I tell him to treat his lessons like he’s in a classroom: “Would a teacher allow you to have your phone out in class?” He puts the phone away, says “Sorry,” but of course that won’t be the last time. How on earth can a teacher keep the attention of a student on a screen longer than 15 minutes? How can I expect my busy (yet sloth-like) teenage son to keep focused? So, like the teachers, I adjust my expectations for survival mode. We can only monitor, police and do so much.

I’d say the worst part of Zoom school is having discussions. Simple questions that once contributed to lively in-class discussions are tossed out, then fall like lead balloons. “What persona do you think David Foster Wallace employed for this essay?” my professor asks. Creek, creek, creek. Those are cricket sounds if you didn’t know. And we are adults! I’m paying a lot for this Denver University education. What are our kids doing on their Zoom lessons? For fear of embarrassment, students rarely offer their opinions or insights even when they ARE in a classroom. So, the alternative becomes teachers talking most of the time and creating assignments to be completed for tomorrow. I like to call this Yawn School. But I understand. I really, really do.

My dear teacher friends—valiant warriors who were thrust into this new world and fight daily to keep some form of education available—I applaud you. I appreciate you more than you’ll ever know. I know that for most of you, the best part of teaching is the connections with your students and coworkers. Videos do not replace this and you’re forced to try and try again to make this system work. If you quit, I’d understand. But most of you don’t. You power through and attempt to make the best of it. Thank you. Truly, thank you.

What can anyone do? We are stuck. The entire world is in a variation of this education situation. As a parent, I’ve decided to be supportive of my kids, understanding of our teachers, and patient with it all. As a student, I will try harder and focus more on content rather than my classmate Nikki, who seems obsessed with butterflies and cats. Plus, this is not forever. Nothing is forever. Right?