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A School Six Feet Apart
Grand Blanc High School had never seen anything like that first day back in 2020.
It was the one thing that came to mind as I stepped out of the car and waved goodbye to my mom, who blew me a kiss in return before pulling away–out of the drop-off line, out of the parking lot, out of sight. Unlike any other time in the past, 2020 was a year when a safe greeting was no greeting at all, a year when a simple hug could take your life. As my feet carried me towards the wide swinging doors at the front of the building, every sign of loneliness rang in my empty mind. The silence of the absent buses like a sound lost in the abyss of time, the red warning signs 6 feet away on the sidewalk like stickers permanently glued on my heart.
The quiet click of my laced brown booties moves me towards the black double doors of a new year and a very new reality. Without hesitation, I push them open and fall into the world of a high school under lockdown.
Like a strange dream, my feet carry me through the halls, passing hundreds of familiar faces yet not recognizing one of them under the masks that we could only wish were fantasy. Step after step, step after step, and suddenly I’m standing in the doorway of Classroom 21, staring into the next 180 days of my life.
The green chalkboard at the front of the classroom was coated with colorful dust, signifying that the black erasers on the curved shelf below the board had kicked into overdrive, during those wee seconds of the morning when the lights above cast a candle-like glow. The teacher’s desk was stealthily set off in a small corner, positioned in a way that exposed every pod of space in the room. The eastern wall was edged with windows, wearisomely long and rectangular.
They descended towards the wooden bookshelves, which were decidedly filled with a diverse range of hardcover books. The sun streamed into the window and rested on the flowerpots lining the sills, its heat snatching the water from their throats and leaving them gasping for nourishment. The student tables are pushed apart from their usual clusters, leaving the spaces in between strangely bare.
All the conversations that 6 months had taken away from us were now being carried out with vigor, the words melting into the air and stringing together like a sweet melody. The thousands of hours spent alone were being forgotten with every sentence like a departed nightmare, the joy spilling out from behind our masks.
I slid into my seat and leaned towards the happy huddle. Students who hadn’t been friends before were suddenly inseparable, bound by the depression that seemed so long ago now. Without a second thought, I felt my voice jump to life in my throat, and abruptly a quiet greeting found its way into the air.
Every eye turned towards me, which would typically be enough to make my shoulders wither with embarrassment. But all the days without socialization made me ache, and before I realized it the greeting had been echoed by every person in the small ring. My mind jumped towards the obvious response, “how was your summer”, but even as it came to my mind I shut it down. We all knew how the summer had been spent for everyone, and it was a memory none of us wanted to relive. Instead, I asked the only thing that came to mind. “What classes do you guys have?”
A flurry of conversation began as my heart warmed like it was Christmas Day all over again. Exclamations of joy as classes were compared filled my heart as I pulled out my own catalog and shared it with the group. In just a few minutes, it felt as if my entire summer of boredom had been given back to me.
The click of heels in the hallway brought in Mrs. Neisen, our homeroom teacher, who clapped her hands and hushed the room with her gravitating firmness. Mrs. Neisen’s hair was pulled into a bun, the wisps of hair around her face rebellious children who refused to submit to the control of strong hairspray and chestnut-colored hair dye. She was wearing a long skirt and a starch white button-up blouse. She appeared stern, but the wrinkles around her eyes that could only come from smiling constantly told differently.
She cleared her throat before beginning. “I am Mrs. Neisen, and I will be your homeroom teacher this year. A little bit about me: I have been teaching middle school for 6 years, but I also taught high school for 23 years before that. That means I have a lot of experience under my belt, so I hope you won’t go trying anything.” A few giggles murmured throughout the room.
“Class time for homeroom today is very short, so I would like to cut right to the chase. But first: how are you all? How was your summer?”
A murmur of “good” swirled around us. We were all good now, now that we were together again.
She sighed and rubbed her hands vigorously on the sides of her skirt. “I know this is quite different. I understand how it must feel to not be able to see your own teacher’s face and to be separated from the people you have been with for so long.” She grasped her hands behind her back and looked out at us. “This is new for all of us, and it will be a learning process. But I know we will conquer it together, one step at a time. We will start and finish this year together, and 4 years from now, when you graduate, you will all remember 2020 as a special year.” Mrs. Neisen’s eye wrinkles returned. “As a year where you couldn’t see anyone’s mouths, yes.” We laughed, muffled but in perfect sync as if we had practiced it over and over. “But even more than that, as a year where we conquered a pandemic together and even learned a bit in the process. Here’s to a new year,” Mrs. Neisen raised a piece of chalk to the board and wrote the word “Coronavirus.” Present, but pressing. “And a new reality.” This time, she crossed it out and instead wrote the infamous quote, “We’re all in this together.” Mrs. Neisen turned to face us one last time.
“Class of 2024: let’s begin.”
And then the bell rang.