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A Year in Review

A Year in Review

In preparing to write the piece that follows, I looked back through my mental repertoire of writers and thinkers that I have read and studied who might serve to provide inspiration in the face of a challenging year. In the midst of my mental and physical exhaustion from coordinating remote learning and in-person learning all year long, and sanitizing all student surfaces at least five times a day (in addition to the regular essential functions that people who work in school provide every day), I was unsure that my recall was going to be as sharp as it usually was.

The Magic Realist author Jorge Luis Borges wrote in “Funes the Memorious,” “To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes [the main character who remembers everything flawlessly], there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.” I taught this Borges piece earlier in the year, and rereading it at that time I was struck by its doubly empowering and arresting notion that things become murky over time precisely because we are thinking about them, and that this is perhaps a good thing. So, rather than continuing to be overcome by the oddity and challenge of what we all just experienced, the mellowing and abstraction that occurs in our collective and individual memory is a marker of progress.

Any year is taxing, but the tax for the 2020-2021 school year was formidable; it was punctuated by mandatory quarantines, the severe illness and loss of many people’s family and friends, social isolation of many others, and perhaps even alienation from the tasks and philosophical tenets that make us whole. When these atypical disruptions are added to the decidedly uneven impact of the pandemic across different schools and different communities, the portrait of the year becomes even more complicated.

And yet, educators rose to the bizarre occasion as their respective situations called for, and they did so in order to provide an essential public service.

We provided the best possible academically rigorous, socio-emotionally supportive, and physically safe environment that we could, often at the expense of personal comfort and at increased personal risk. And, while the public, in my estimation, was roundly supportive of our efforts, every story is idiosyncratic and bears remembering and telling. Thus came my ultimate inspiration for this piece, echoing out from well over a decade of generalization and abstraction, locked in my subconscious since I last read it.

Talad Asad wrote in his essay “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam,” “Narratives about culturally distinctive actors must try to translate and represent the historically situated discourses of such actors as responses to the discourse of others, instead of schematizing and de-historicizing their actions,” and I do not take his point to apply only to academic circumstances. Plurality is a gift, and we ought to take care to preserve and represent those differing perspectives on the year that we just experienced as the memories mellow and become abstracted. My narrative as a teacher in rural Maine is surely different than narratives from other parts of the country; I am curious to learn from others as time goes on. Though the pandemic has been wrenching and devastating to our United States and the rest of the global community, the advantage of entering “uncharted territory” is that we are less burdened by prior reference points, limiting context or schema, or didactic history. As professionals and people, we each get to choose how to respond, just as Asad asserts that we ought to in his work.

For my part, I will first take time to pause and reflect, and then make a deliberate attempt to understand the experiences of others. I will validate and acknowledge my students’ experiences, and encourage them to chart their own courses forward. I will listen to and engage with others in critical discourse, even when our ideas are seemingly incompatible. I will reaffirm the importance of scientific thinking in my literature and elective courses. And, I will grant myself the personal latitude to be human as I negotiate these social, political, scientific, and educational mores myself.

I remain fortunate to be an educator and to work alongside so many committed colleagues, teachers and otherwise.

They and I have done the very best that we could this year, and we ought to be proud of that and not lose sight of the fact that the next year is coming, slowly but surely. As the poet Mai Der Vang writes in the first portion of her recent poem, “Look to the New Moon”

 

If you must hear the story

of my turbulent gaze after waking,

 

the march of my hours to hermit

into a higher body, it is that

 

whatever you put into the Universe

eventually returns.

 

In our oneness of gift,

we are eyes together,

 

nerves together, affected together…

 

What a year it was, and what a year the next will be.

We will be able to choose how to respond as we see fit, and I hope that we will be able to do that together in our broader community of teaching and learning with all the time and space necessary for our many valuable voices.


Joe Hennessey is a high school English teacher in Guilford, Maine and is the 2019 Maine Teacher of the Year and the 2020 National University Teacher Award Winner for Maine. Additionally, he was selected by his students as the Faculty Speaker in 2015 and 2018 and received the Yearbook Dedication in 2016 and 2018. Prior to moving to Maine, in 2013-2014, he received the Yearbook Dedication and was named the Teacher of the Year at Collegiate Academy of Colorado. Mr. Hennessey is a Graduate with Distinction in Humanities from the University of Colorado at Boulder and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He is a proud member of NNSTOY and can be followed at @MeTOY2019.

 

 




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