Thank a Teacher, Now and Always

Early in the fall for the past several years, my friend Julie and I have spent a couple of afternoons at Jere Whitson Elementary School showing fourth graders how to do leaf rubbings. It’s part of a year-long unit I volunteer-teach about Tennessee. The students and I talk about the long hunters. About Cherokee warrior Dragging Canoe. About the three U.S. Presidents from Tennessee. About how Putnam County got its name.

But my favorite lesson, with the possible exception of making bird feeders out of pine cones and Crisco, is the leaf unit. Julie and I collect and flatten leaves from six different trees: cedar (the best-smelling), maple, redbud, sycamore, sweetgum, and—of course—tulip poplar, the Tennessee state tree. We peel fat crayons and show the students how to lay a leaf flat on their desk, vein side up, and then rub the crayon across a piece of paper covering the leaf. Voila—a beautiful work of art appears. It’s magical.

Or it was until Covid-19 hit.

The world has been turned upside down in almost every way imaginable, including schools. In Putnam County, most students are attending in person. Those who don’t are learning virtually. When school started back in August, I chose not to return to Jere Whitson as a volunteer. Though I have no underlying health issues, I’m considered “high risk” because of my age. Also, I knew I’d be working a lot of hours at the election office. It didn’t make sense for me to volunteer at school, though it sure did make me sad.

But a couple of weeks ago, I got a text from Whitney Pastorial, one of the Jere Whitson fourth grade teachers. “Would you like to zoom?” she asked. Not only would I like to, I told her, I actually know how! I zoom with my Sunday School class and with a couple of other groups of friends. Whitney and I set a date and time and she promised to e-mail the link.

Then the prep started. Because of Covid, students wouldn’t be allowed to share leaves or crayons. Time constraints—three separate 15-minute zoom classes—forced us to narrow the lesson to three leaves, so Julie and I plucked and flattened 75 poplar, 75 redbud and 75 sweetgum leaves. I peeled dozens of fat crayons, put everything in a box and delivered it to Jere Whitson.

At the appointed time, Whitney opened the zoom meeting. Two dozen children I’d never met rushed her computer to wave and say hey. I think most of them were smiling, though I couldn’t be sure behind the masks. When the excitement died down, I explained what we were going to do. But explaining something on zoom isn’t the same as showing it in person. Not even close. Because the students are supposed to socially distance, the ones who figured it out early on couldn’t move around the room to help their classmates. Those who wanted to make a two-toned rubbing couldn’t since they only had one crayon. Want to trade a big leaf for a small one? Not if you’ve touched it.

It was absolutely worth my time and effort to teach the leaf lesson. I loved seeing the kids, if only on a screen. But here’s my take-away. School isn’t supposed to be like this. Teachers and kids are supposed to touch each other. Help each other. Put their heads together. Share. Laugh and talk and have fun while learning. I got only a 45-minute taste of what it’s like to teach school during a pandemic. I can’t even imagine how hard it must be to do it five days a week for months on end.

The heroes teaching school during these strange, hard times deserve our support. They deserve our help. Most of all, they deserve our undying appreciation.

(October 17, 2020)