Wind Tunnel

When I was young and foolish and in my second year of teaching high school English I decided that it would be a good idea to make a wind tunnel in my classroom.

We were midway through a unit on Pierre Boulle’s short 1963 novel Monkey Planet, a title that took on a life of its own when later translated into English as Planet of the Apes, and the class of juniors and seniors was rollicking good fun. We’d talked about satire (which Boulle’s book really is), animal rights (which Boulle’s book really isn’t about), and a handful of other topics, and I wanted to give them an experience to demonstrate how difficult it can be to find yourself in a culture you don’t understand. 

So, over a week or two I gathered as many fans as I could, borrowing from everyone I knew until I had a collection of box fans, oscillating fans, and odds and ends that would collectively create the windstorm I was looking for. I dug out a couple of candles, a CD player (this was the 90s) and the biggest roll of black butcher paper I could find.

After school I tipped all of the tables in my classroom on their ends, making a series of rectangles reaching toward the ceiling down the center of the room. Using the black paper I extended the wall, making sure to completely separate the two sides except for a small passageway between the two.

I set up the interior of the room, windowless, opposite from the door to the hallway, with all the fans poised and ready for me to flip the switch on a powerstrip. About six feet in front of the bank of wind machines I placed a candle on the floor, the only object on that side of the room other than the fans. I turned off the lights on that side of the room to make sure no light could get in through my makeshift wall. It couldn’t.

Once that was done I crawled through the narrow opening and pulled back the black butcher paper to seal off the dark side of the room. Here I added a couple of lamps I’d scrounged to make the room even brighter, set up the CD player with some upbeat 1960s jazz, and moved the rest of the furniture to the sides of the room to leave room for the students (on this side) to move around.

The next morning I greeted my class by randomly dividing them into two groups and handing each a fact sheet about the society they’d be a part of for the next hour or so. I’d stolen names from a philosopher I liked, and the students got to reading about the “Evets” and “Yoks,” two very different types of people.

The Evet culture was centered around silence, darkness, and their collective charge to always keep the sacred candle lit. They’d be challenged in this by occasional windstorms, but those would always be preceded by a loud noise, anathema to the Evets’ world. The Evets themselves had to remain silent, so to communicate and collaborate (as they’d need to in order to keep the candle burning) would require creativity. Their side of the room, their whole world, was dark except for the candle and quiet except for the warning noise before the wind. I encouraged them to stay as close to the ground as they could be, and make their movements as slow and deliberate as they could. It was an oddly serene world of darkness.

For the Yoks life centered around light and loudness, movement and talkative exuberance. While they could only say the word “Yok” (analogous to the character of Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy) they said it often and with great inflection. They moved around the room, music swinging, and the only charge they had was staying active and energized. 

I let the cultures find their centers for about ten minutes, or the time it took for a couple of flicks of the wind switch. My Evets’ candle survived those, but just barely. And then…

I opened the doorway and moved one student from each side to the other.

What happened next was wonderful. The students, who love to play, played. They were earnest in their inhabiting of our imaginary cultures and held to character as this new addition stepped into their world. Curiosity, attempts at understanding, more than a little misunderstanding, the range of experiences were a ball.

We kept up this artificial cultural exchange for half an hour or so, and the results were as fun as they were informative to the discussion that followed the final windstorm of the day. What that all looked like, however, isn’t the topic of this post; this modest entry is about the fact that right now no goofy ideas like this can happen in our classrooms. Our teachers are creative and our students still love to play, but right now, right now, the pandemic has us hoping our students just turn on their cameras and wondering if they have the bandwidth to connect in real time.

Classes that rely on interaction and proximity, particularly subjects like dance and theater, music and sculpture, are striving to find new ways to keep their programs moving forward and their students engaged, and…

Truth be told it’s really hard.

Comprehensive Distance Learning, as it’s called in my corner of the world, is as unlike anything we’re used to as the Evets’ world and the Yoks’.

So much of what we used to do, what has always worked so well, what we and our students love …so much of that simply doesn’t work right now, or at least not as well or in the same way. This is really stressful for our teachers and our students. Our parents feel it too; they see their kids every day and have a front row seat to the stress of remote learning.

We’re doing our best to navigate this unfamiliar landscape, but even as we try to figure out how to do our work in this very different world the worry and stress our educators are feeling shouldn’t be ignored. 

Unable to step into another teacher’s classroom, or gather in person for lunch, or walk to the copy room together, it’s easy to feel isolated. Unable to catch a colleague after a staff meeting or easily meet for coffee to talk about a challenge we’re facing, it’s easy to feel alone.

The results are sobering. As great as much of the work is, as hard as the teachers are working to make their classrooms inviting, engaging, and challenging to every student, the results don’t always match the efforts. Sometimes it’s the students being unable to connect online (bandwidth, home circumstances, and mental health compromised by stressors beyond the school all can get in the way). Sometimes it’s the feeling of overwhelm that our kids report they’re experiencing, not only a result of school, but also of their own sense of disequilibrium that the current state of the world is pushing on them). Sometimes we simply don’t know why the student’s camera is off, why they’re not participating, or even if they are why they’re not able to engage in the same way they would if we were on campus together.

That lack of knowing is another challenge. We as educators are good at solving problems, but right now it feels like we’re working in the dark, our collaboration compromised by the sensible and prudent rules imposed by the pandemic. We’re used to creating a world of laughter, learning, and light, and right now we’re simply doing our best to keep the candle of learning burning in the wind tunnel in which we find ourselves.

As a principal I wish I had the answers to these challenges that my school needs right now. I don’t. Instead I’m working with my staff to develop ideas that might help. None of us can do this alone, but together we have a chance to better adapt and maybe even end up with a better experience than those human astronauts landing on a planet of talking apes. And…

We don’t have to throw our hands in the air and let Dr. Zaius rule the world. We can work together to make some kind of difference.

Just like those students from my second year of teaching, who are now in their 40s, many with kids of their own, we arrived at school this year and were presented with something unfamiliar and a little uncomfortable. It’s disorienting to find ourselves in a different world, but I remain tenaciously optimistic that we can adjust, work together (despite the challenges), and make our way forward, even when the winds blow the hardest.

How Much — How Little

Emotions are high. Tears, anger, frustration, arguments, hurt feelings, and a feeling of failure have all been on my computer desktop this week, through emails, Zoom meetings, and snippets of social media. It’s been weeks since we started school, such as it is, not together on a campus, but remotely through keyboards and computer screens across town, and few days go by when, as the principal of an amazing school, I don’t see tears and shaking heads as part of my working day.

Emily Dickinson caught the emotion of it all in her short, short poem:

In this short Life
That only lasts an hour
How much—how little—is
Within our power

It’s in those last two lines that I suspect at least some of the emotions originate. It’s easy to feel that much, very, very much to be honest, is not within our power.

A counselor I work with made the comparison between our pandemic prompted separation and being an astronaut. Astronauts, she said, know when they’re coming back to earth. We don’t.

And so… as a high school principal I see small things turning big ones for many of the students and families I work with: that mis-marked absence, that grade on a quiz, that inability to see anyone beyond an inch wide square in a video conference. Day after day, week after week, those small things add up and can feel big.

When it’s not in our power to chat with a friend in the hallway, stay after class to ask the teacher a question (discreetly), or stop by the counseling office without an appointment, we start wondering what is within our power.

For some the answer is disheartening, unhealthy, or worse. The pain I see in the eyes of my staff, students, and parents is real. And…

In another, more well known poem Emily Dickinson reminds us that:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

“Chillest land” and “strangest sea” sound about right, at least on some days, and the hope that Emily Dickinson writes about, resilient, consistent, and quietly powerful, is appealing. We all want to believe that the stress we feel can be overcome. We need to hope and hold on to hope, and Dickinson’s “thing with feathers” is a nice reminder of that need.

Nice, of course, but… right now this present gale does seem to be “abashing the little bird” and, for me at least, that familiar poem isn’t the only place I’ve found some comfort and inspiration from the Belle of Amherst, and it might not even be the best.

One poem that struck me as apt for today was a lesser known piece (at least to me) from early in Dickinson’s poetic life.

Besides the Autumn poets sing
A few prosaic days
A little this side of the snow
And that side of the Haze –

A few incisive mornings –
A few Ascetic eves –
Gone – Mr. Bryant’s “Golden Rod” –
And Mr. Thomson’s “sheaves.”

Still, is the bustle in the Brook –
Sealed are the spicy valves –
Mesmeric fingers softly touch
The eyes of many Elves –

Perhaps a squirrel may remain –
My sentiments to share –
Grant me, Oh Lord, a sunny mind –
Thy windy will to bear!

This poem, which I didn’t remember as I was reading it out of the big book of Emily Dickinson poems I brought out during the summer, reminds me that while there is much not in our power (the coming of fall, for one thing, and its attendant chill), we can control our view of it. We can choose to notice “the eyes of many elves” where others might see only gray days and frost on the ground) and look inside ourselves for peace and “a sunny mind” to see us through the winds we bear.

I like that, a sunny mind against the winds. How much is within our power.

Or maybe it’s just time to go watch Elton John sing “I’m Still Standing.”

I think if she were alive today even Emily Dickinson would smile at that.