It’s office hours. One-on-one with students on Zoom. Pandemic teaching feels like an apocalyptic burnout in a gray sci-fi future, cold light streaming through your window in colors of hopelessness.

My office hours are no longer about academics and negotiating assignment deadlines. They’re about survival. We have gone through a whole year of Covid-19, and the suddenly dead and dying are still hovering just an inch above the left eye, whispering that you could be next.

Today, my first appointment logged in and asked- How do I forget? A haunting question. His assignment is late, he doesn’t seem to care about that. He tells me he can’t sleep because he went out partying carelessly and brought Covid to his parents. He wants a reprimand to expiate his guilt. I feel like a priest at a confessional.

You don’t want to hear about my Congolese student who wept through the screen over isolation. Said he lives in Denver, Colorado, where he returned after the physical closure of the college in Washington DC. Denver is a far cry from his village by the Congo basin, rich with its silver waters, green canopy, and the golden rays of the tropical sun that wouldn’t let you cry alone.

But here, the winter is bitter and lonesome, and the spread of disease in America has brought in a silent madness. I once wrote a play called “Hush: Voices from Extraordinary Alienation”. I know what this student is going through.

I get back to his question- How do I forget? And I say- Speak, son. And he pours out barrels of sorrow and memory and experiences of an African man in a foreign wilderness. Most of it has nothing to do with Covid. He wants to forget the feeling of dejection.

It’s been like this a lot lately. Students wading through existential questions. Dealing with the crushing weight of college debt, emergent stress-induced mental illness, and now a pandemic. I listen with a burnt-out mind, but I listen. I am the adult here. I’m obligated to listen.

Teaching a class of 50 college students on zoom — ya’ heard right! — is a form of waterboarding. You’re drowning in cyber fluids, and after you log off, you spend the rest of the day trying to recover. Sophomore and senior classes get a lot smaller, a bit less stressful, just enough to breath between gulps of cyber fluids.

I want to tell the ones struggling with student debt that banks stole their future but they can buy that future back in installments for the rest of their employed lives. What a dreadful truth to tell them.

I want to tell them that good ol’ capitalism clipped their wings and forced them to jump off the cliff while singing “the future belongs to the brave.” What a cynical truth to tell them.

I want to tell them that someone removed the cushioning below because Ayn Rand taught us that cushions are socialist systems for wimps who do not deserve to survive. What an American truth to tell them.

And what good is telling them all that when the plague is taking lives? They just want to forget yesterday’s trauma so they can turn in their assignment on time.

*First published Feb 22, 2021

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