When people ask me how I have spent the last 13 years in classrooms full of teenagers, I normally just smile and explain that I love my job. Teenagers have an inherent generosity that I admire. Even if they try their best to keep it a secret, my students’ ambition and creativity lurk in between eye rolls and reluctantly agreeing to help an adult like me with a technology issue.

Teaching is not easy, but it is a remarkably joyous job that fills me with gratitude. Even while navigating the prodigious fear of school shootings or listening to students think through inexplicable loss or the less solemn yet still onerous task of trying to be more interesting than SnapChat, I cannot think of one day in my career when my students and I haven’t laughed together. This is what I miss the most. This is what technology, even when synchronous, cannot replace: the community we have the privilege of creating within each class, where an otherwise random group of people works on the messy, frustrating, hilarious and beautiful process of learning together. I miss the place where we learn from and with each other, side by side.

I miss the dissent with which students put their phones in the caddy on my wall at the start of class. I miss the collective sigh when I ask how many pages they read instead of watching Netflix over the weekend. I miss the moments of downtime when students share about their pets, their extracurricular activities, a new job or even a sudden hardship. I miss their smiles, their groans and the sound of their backpacks thudding to the floor.

While I agree with the Maine Department of Education’s decision to keep our classrooms closed for the rest of the academic year, I must also acknowledge the tremendous loss for all our state’s students, especially those for whom school is a safe haven, and for our seniors in high school.

I’ve seen a lot in the media about how kids these days have it easy, that they should think about their ancestors who were drafted into war, that they need to stop complaining. I get it. I always try to teach with a lens of perspective. And yet. Perspective goes both ways.

I ask us to think about the world in which our current high school students have come of age, the tragedies they have witnessed, the fear they have felt, the wars they themselves have escaped to find peace in Maine, and the fact that even before this pandemic began, one in five Maine children was food insecure.

Since remote learning started, many of my students have emailed to ask about my grandmother, who lives in New York City. At the age of 16, she arrived in the United States alone, as a refugee from Germany during World War II. She will be 99 in two weeks. I used to talk about her in class for perspective. Now, I tell my students she’s fine, which she is, and I wonder if it is safe to tell them how scared I am that I will never see her again. Where do I put that grief?

I place it next to the kindness with which my students ask after my family, knowing the loss they themselves are experiencing. They see their parents and loved ones losing jobs. They see their colleges closing. They see an uncertain future, their dreams of walking across a stage at graduation slipping away, people they love getting sick. Many are working to support their families. Where do they put that grief? How do we help them shoulder it?

Teenagers’ capacity for forgiveness is almost too boundless, their resilience perhaps unfairly strong and their ability to adapt far more dexterous than any adult trying to guide them. Let them grieve. Let them be angry that their world has shifted. Let them feel the loss. Let them want a world with more safety.

Love them. Create space for them. Help them feel hope again. I promise, from reading their writing and seeing their talents every day, that these students are everything we need for a better, brighter future.

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