Lisa held her lip gloss in one hand, cell phone in the other, and sat on her bed cross-legged, looking like she was getting ready for a date. A single strand of small white lights hung delicately just above her bed like pearls against light turquoise walls. In another frame, Craig wore a red sweatshirt and sat on a gray couch. In another, Zach was under his covers at first–I could just see his eyes–but he soon sat up, revealing his Spiderman pajamas. Denise’s bedroom walls were dormered, sloped on the sides, purple, with teal lights flashing in each corner. At one point, she put her face really close to the camera on her laptop. “I was so bored last night,” she confessed to us, “I gave myself bangs.”
It was the second week of e-learning, and I was using Zoom to connect with my high school freshman English students. During the first few minutes on Zoom, I found myself staring at everything around them–what their spaces looked like, how they chose to present themselves during our Zoom session. In theory, of course, who they are at home isn’t really so different from how they show up at school–what they wear, the color of their backpacks, whether they use earbuds or headphones, their glittered or cracked phone cases, the stickers on their school-issued Chromebooks. “Save the Planet,” and “I hate everything,” are a couple I’ve seen, along with an Apple sticker conveniently placed over the word “Acer” to make their Chromebook look like it’s a more expensive Mac. They seemed even more eager to be noticed, though they’d never say so. Zach changed his virtual background twice. Craig looked sheepishly at the screen from under his covers.
I was in my sun room, a pretty south-facing room with three exposures, a space quite typical in brick three-flats in Chicago. Behind my desk is a perch for one of my two cats. I didn’t realize this was visible until one of my students asked, “Is that your cat sleeping up there?” Some of the students said, “Where?” and others pointed, “There!” and then all of a sudden, animals began appearing on students’ laps and we began asking each other the names of our pets. It was endearing to watch my students cuddling with their pets in their beds.
Teachers’ classrooms are our performance space. My classroom has bright turquoise paper covering all the bulletin boards. Near my desk is a large yellow poster with the 1967 slogan made famous by its opposition to the Vietnam War, “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” I’ve placed bright colored paintings and ceramic tiles all over the room to make it brighter. A few months ago, I hung a shoe rack–an improvised cell-phone cubbyhole contraption in the hope students put their phones away during class. It’s been semi-successful at best. Masks students made for extra credit when we read Romeo and Juliet–how odd it feels to write the word “mask” just now–imagining what they might have worn if they had gone to a masked ball, about to meet their beloved, are anchored to the bulletin boards with push-pins.
If you were to remove the roof and a wall on the side of the school, it would look like a giant four-story dollhouse–it is the biggest high school in the country under one roof–and you’d see the little boxes of all the teachers’ classrooms, each longing to self-express. There are 250 or so classrooms in my school, all empty now.
Things became more routine the next time I used Zoom with my students. We used Zoom as a verb. Zach asked Craig, “Did you Zoom yet today?” Denise said, “I didn’t understand the lesson yesterday when my teacher Zoomed with us.” It was warm out the second time we Zoomed–one student sat on top of her house. I could see the patches of black roof behind her, the blue sky above her head, the way she took deep breaths, grateful for the fresh air.
As many have already pointed out, the gallery view function of Zoom looks remarkably similar to the opening credits of The Brady Bunch, the famous sitcom that ran from 1969 to 1974. I was born in 1970 and watched it religiously with my brother and sister. I was jealous of the way the six siblings got along. Conflicts were resolved quickly. Though family meetings in my home didn’t go nearly as well–and were never called meetings–and watching the Brady’s success at conflict resolution gave me hope for my own interpersonal skills that were often mocked by my siblings.
Behind his warm smile and stellar parenting skills, Mr. Brady, America’s perfect heteronormative dad, felt boxed in, too. The actor Robert Reed was in his own box in real life. He kept his being gay a secret, and when he died of colon cancer in 1992, it was revealed that he also suffered from HIV and had kept this a secret, too. He felt that the role of Mr. Brady was beneath him, that the writing was full of gags, and often argued with the show’s creator, Sherwood Schwartz. Reed was trained as a Shakespearean actor, and he found happiness towards the end of his life teaching Shakespeare at UCLA.
I wonder how often my students feel boxed in, how the ways they choose to self-express will change as they age, how we’ll relate to one another the next time we see each other in person next year. They’ll have new teachers–we’ll never be together like we were this year again. Even on Zoom, I can see that they are growing up. And I think about what everyone’s homes would look like, too, if all the roofs and walls came off and could be seen like a dollhouse from high above, each room a little box, some smaller and some bigger and some safer than others, each home another square, every empty school and neighborhood another boxy grid.
–April 13, 2020
Liz Shulman is a writer in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in Tablet Magazine, Punctuate, and Understanding and Dismantling Privilege, among others. She teaches English at Evanston Township High School.