Little Boxes

I blearily log into my morning Zoom class that day. I’m usually there ten to fifteen minutes early, just like I would be if it were an in-person class. Even though typical Zoom behavior is for students to log in at :59 on the hour, or even a minute or two late, there’s always one student who comes early, too. In the face-to-face times we might awkwardly sit in the same room while they look at their phone, or more likely, I would ask them something about what they did over the weekend, or what TV show they would take with them to a desert island if they could only take one. This day I notice that ________, the early bird, wasn’t there. I think that I will double back after class and text on Discord to see if they are sick, or just slept in. I sure would have slept in that morning if I could. I barely have time between my first class and second to go to the bathroom, and I have conferences about papers after that. I’m just about to send that text when an email pops up. The subject line says, “Death Notification for __________.” My student, missing from early-bird-chit-chat this morning.

Sometimes a writer will describe, “the words stabbed like a knife,” and the reader rolls their eyes. Very few people actually know what a knife stab feels like, and those that do probably wouldn’t compare it to words. But I did feel a sort of stab–a shock of shaped force created by those words. The suddenness of the email, the efficient cruelty of the subject line. I breathed hard, through my mouth, while I clicked to read the whole email. It didn’t have any answers, just more cryptic language: “Please find attached a death notification memorandum for _____________. Feel free to contact my office with any questions.” Another click, on the memo itself. A memo? With those generic forms we learned in typing class: date, to, from, subject, cc?

My name is in the cc: along with the student’s other instructors. “We have lost a member of our community” and “The death of a student is extremely painful for the family and our community.” and “The community will share condolences on your behalf.” 

I sit back, stunned. They’d been in class Wednesday. We’d had a paper conference right after. Was it COVID? I call the number from the email and am told that the family doesn’t want to share any private information, and that I will receive, since I’ve asked, some policies and suggested guidelines for how to deal with this with other students. Then, secretly, I’m told the truth, but admonished not to share it.

I think of __________, attending Zoom class from a skinny dorm bed, wrapped in blankets because the heater in the dorm room is busted and they are waiting for a repair.

I want to talk to my mom. The feeling slams into me. I want to sit on her bed and tell her everything, to have her smooth my hair, rub my back in circles like she did when I was younger, soothing circles that grounded me. The longing is so fierce in my chest that it takes my mind a few beats to catch up. Calling her will not help. She isn’t guaranteed to recognize me or remember who I am. She isn’t guaranteed to remember how to answer her cell phone. I haven’t seen her for more than a year, since COVID rules at her care home prevent anyone going inside.

I think of ___________, locked away in their cold little dorm room, dropped off at college by hopeful parents. I think of my mom, locked away from me, from the other residents. I call her anyway, not for what I want, but to break into that little box where she is kept. It rings and rings. She forgets how to charge the phone when the battery runs out. A robotic voice tells me her mailbox is full–probably with messages from my sister about how to plug the charger into the little space on the phone, how to make sure the other end is connected to the wall socket. My mom will not remember to check those messages. I can call the front desk, and the receptionist will tell me that they are very busy but someone will go and check on the charger later. But they will forget.

I start to run through my last conversation with ____________ in my mind. We’d talked about their paper; how they could make some revisions and earn pull points on the assignment. We had joked about how at least if we had to be so cold we could enjoy hot cocoa. There hadn’t seemed to be a cry for help there. What if I had missed it? What was in the subtext that I was too tired, too busy, too frazzled, overworked, barely-holding-it-together-myself to notice? How had I failed them?

There’s a website where I can get an appointment to see a counselor online. I fill out the form and receive an auto message that tells me they are booked for the next six weeks. I will have to parcel out my mental health burden amongst my family and friends. How much can I share with each person so that I get enough back to help myself without tipping them into their own crises? We are all holding as much weight as we possibly can to get through the day–how much can anyone be expected to carry?

But they do. They each pick up a piece of my sorrow and manage to remain standing themselves. They tell me I couldn’t have known. That I’m not responsible. That these things are complex. They tell me I will be okay. They send emoji and virtual hugs. My husband and son give hugs IRL and listen to me practice my speech.

I am the one who has to tell my class that we have lost one of our own. I have to tell them, but not tell them any details the family wants to withhold. I have a proscribed truth from a policy-level decision, and I must turn that into real human empathy.

And I do this. I cry during class. I remember ________, I tell stories and invite class members to share recollections. I share mental health resources while hoping that the wait for students is shorter. I send daily emails and texts to check in on them. They don’t know for sure what has happened, but they are all smart, and I don’t want this to cause them to succumb to hopelessness. This is now a delicate ecosystem (as every class is, really). No absence is unexcused (maybe they need time to process alone) or unremarked (they need to know I noticed that they weren’t there, that I am here to support them). No assignment is too late to receive credit.

I begin to check in with all of my students in class every day. Something personal, not related to class, and to send check-in emails. My other classes don’t know anything is amiss, they just benefit from the extra attention. I double down on the thing I have been saying since the pandemic began and we all had to pivot to this weird, on-line education: They are great. They are awesome. They are doing something that no one has ever had to do before–yes, there have been pandemics before, yes Shakespeare wrote King Lear, but he didn’t do it taking18 credits of a mix of synchronous and asynchronous classes, isolated in a dorm, living in a state he’d only visited before, on a campus that was closed. They are doing something that no one has even been called upon to do before and they are doing it with grace. I am proud of them, and I say it.

I have so much love for all of their little faces, bordered by their Zoom windows, and I have never been so relieved for a semester to end. For them to go home and celebrate winter holidays, to have sleep, and good meals. For there to be no more little boxes on my screen for a while.

I want something more. I wanted to go to the (Zoom) funeral (I asked the appropriate office for permission for my whole class to attend, or just for me, but no one ever answered me).

I want days and days where my computer is turned off. Where I don’t have any emails, or receive any requests. Let the bookstore order form wait for me this term.

I call the receptionist at the care home, who goes personally to plug my mom’s phone in. When it’s charged back up and I reach my mom, we talk about the weather, about the cookies I’ve sent her for Christmas (my sister sent better ones), about the news. She seems impatient to be off the phone and I’m left to wonder: could she hear me? Did she know who I was? Does a short phone call in the middle of this isolation help? Is it something to cling to, or just a reminder of how empty things are the rest of the time? Or was I just interrupting her TV show? I give her what support I can and then start to prepare for the spring semester, moving forward, one Zoom at a time, to something better. 

Jonatha Kottler

Jona (rhymes with "Donna") has a BA in English, an MA in Liberal Arts from St. John's College, and is a candidate in the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She lived abroad in Amsterdam, NL and Edinburgh, Scotland where she published fiction and non-fiction works in NY Magazine, The Guardian, and on Audible. She is a huge nerd who has written seven short films and co-created the comic book series The Wonderverse. She knows a whole lot about Batman, and the MCU.