There’s a moment that happens on occasion in American football, when a running back, having been handed the ball, breaks through all the defenders and sprints into the open field, with nothing between him and the endzone.
And sometimes, rather than making a touchdown, he gets blindsided by a linebacker he didn’t see coming.
That’s what 2021 has been like, especially these past few months.
I was vaccinated in June, and then again in August. We resumed in-person classes at Memorial University in September. Like many people, I felt a massive sense of relief—the pandemic finally seemed to be heading into the rearview mirror, and things were returning to something resembling normalcy. Except … yeah, not so much. I’m writing this at my parents’ house on Christmas day, but we won’t be properly celebrating the holiday until tomorrow because my niece and nephew were possibly exposed to COVID on a schoolbus, and thus need to quarantine for another day. I will myself have to quarantine for five days on returning to St. John’s.
We should be in the clear, running to the endzone with open field, but we keep getting tackled.
This is what I told all my students earlier this term: I wanted them to know it wasn’t just them, it was a general malaise that I was also experiencing. I told them they weren’t alone in feeling anxious, discomfited, or just generally off. I told them that if it came down to it, if they were struggling to get their classwork done, that there was no shame in dropping my course … or any other course they were taking. I told them that I would do whatever I could to help, provided they kept me in the loop. You don’t need to give me the gory details, I said—just tell me you’re having a rough go of it, and that’s enough. We’ll work something out.
I have to imagine there are those who will say I’m catering to the fragility of the snowflake generation in making such accommodations. Anyone having that thought can fuck right off. What saved me from breakdown these past few months was the fact that I had such extraordinary students: as I said to all my classes at the term’s end, they’re the reason why I have hope for the world. As a GenXer, irony is my default setting; for those inheriting the catastrophes of climate change and resurgent fascism, earnestness is their baseline. What would have been radically uncool in the 1990s is quite possibly what will save us all.
On Christmas day, I find myself thinking about all the best parts of the past year. My students are, as they often are, Exhibit A.
I taught a graduate seminar in the winter term that, in spite of the fact that it happened on Zoom, was hands down my favourite class ever. It was called “The Spectre of Catastrophe,” and looked at 21st-century post-apocalyptic narratives. In spite of the fact that the subject was perhaps a little bit too on the nose for our current situation, it was the most fun I’ve had as a teacher ever (and that’s saying a lot, as my following comments will make clear). The only advantage classes taught over Zoom have over in-person teaching is the comments students can write as the lecture/discussion unfolds. In this particular class, there was always an ongoing conversation scrolling up on the side. I used the ten-minute breaks each hour in our three-hour classes to read through the lively and often hilarious discussions happening in parallel to the actual class.
Getting back into the classroom this past September felt so very, very good. It didn’t hurt that I was teaching a roster of courses that were, for me, an embarrassment of riches: a first-year class called “Imagined Places,” which gave me the (gleeful) chance to teach Tolkien (The Hobbit), Ursula K. Le Guin (A Wizard of Earthsea), Sir Terry Pratchett (Small Gods), Neil Gaiman (The Ocean at the End of the Lane), and Jo Walton (The Just City) (for the record, everybody needs to read Jo Walton). I also taught, for the third time, “Reading The Lord of the Rings.” I had five, count ‘em FIVE, students in LOTR who were also in my fourth-year seminar “The American Weird: Lovecraft, Race, and Genre as Metaphor.” (I always measure my success as an educator by the number of students who take multiple classes with me. I assume it means I’m doing something right, though it’s also possible they’ve just got my number and know what it takes to get a decent grade). Given that the Tolkien and the Lovecraft courses were back-to-back, I had something like an entourage following me from the chemistry building in which I taught LOTR to the Arts buildings that was the home of the weird.
I called my Lovecraft students “weirdos,” because, well, obviously. It only offended them the first time I called them that.
Even given the fact that I was teaching a dream slate of classes, this fall semester was hard. I am congenitally incapable of asking for help, or for that matter recognizing that I need help until after the fact; these past few days of decompressing at my parents’ home have been invaluable in offering relaxation and reflection. I have also realized I need to find my way to a therapist in 2022.
But the moral of the story is that the students I worked with this past year kept me sane, and gave me hope. So on this day of prayer (even for those as atheistic as myself) I am grateful for you all. And given how many of you have signed up for yet more Lockett pontification next term, I can only assume I’m doing something right.
Or you’ve got my number. Either way, it’s all good.