by Katie Pham
That Thursday, the last day of class before a week-long spring break, we had a party. I had had this idea for a week or two. This voice in my mind telling me to gather the students together for a time of eating and conversation; something more relaxed than our two hour long English class, four days a week.
A student from Lebanon was saying goodbye to us before making her way to our downtown main campus to start a GED course (this is a high school level equivalency test, akin to a diploma). She had attended school in Lebanon until she was twelve. Her country had been ravaged by war and in January of 2000 she and her husband had come to America as refugees. She devoted herself to raising her four children. Now, her youngest son was a senior in high school and she had set her mind to achieve her lifelong dream of getting her GED. She was a beacon of hope for our class. This is what you can be! Look what you can achieve! There is hope for a future.
So that Thursday, I ended class thirty minutes early and asked everyone to wash their hands. Then we each put our food, or drink, or dessert on the long banquet style table. We gathered and expressed joy and gratitude for our student who was leaving us.
We were careful, more so than we have been in the past. News of the Coronavirus had been spreading, and many of my students were frightened. Most of them are older, 50-60. Some of them have health conditions. They’ve lived through more than people should. Civil war, genocide, the preventable death of children and loved ones in overcrowded refugee camps. America was supposed to be safe, wasn’t it? One of my students, a 62-year-old man from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, shared the death count with us every morning. I could sense his anxiety and stress. His wife cleans and disinfects hospital rooms; he is a dishwasher. Their family has been spread throughout the world. Some children reside in Australia, others in Malawi. They are here alone, separated from their children and grandchildren. Who would take care of them if they got sick?
This had been before our Governor advised wearing masks, social distancing, and not touching. This was before we had even a single death in Colorado. We said goodbye, hugging and kissing. Waving and wishing each other a happy Spring break. “See you in a week!”
That night, our school district announced an extended Spring Break. Two weeks, they said. Soon after came the announcement that schools had been closed indefinitely and that we were moving all of our classes online. But, what does online mean when you don’t have a computer, or internet? What does online mean when you can hardly read English, let alone type a message? This was the challenge that stared me in the face.
It has been eight weeks since that goodbye party. I’ve transitioned all my classes to WhatsApp groups. I’m designing lessons and creating content that is mailed to my students. Our team of four is in daily contact with 283 students. We still don’t have a return date.
Since that last day together, we’ve shared videos, pictures, and texts. Students send their joy and their fears through voice messages. Ramadan has begun and photos of rich Iftar dinners are shared. My days are spent making YouTube videos, and thinking of interesting questions to ask; questions that aren’t too overwhelming to low level students, and interesting enough to engage the higher level.
I recently shared in a chat group that I was so grateful that we had that last party together. It was a goodbye party for all of us, though none of us knew it at the time. I got a little bit choked up as I recorded a message, expressing my thankfulness for every person in that group. Telling them how much I missed them, they responded with videos and photos they had taken that day, and messages of love.
I don’t know when we will all be together. I know it will be when we feel safe to gather in our small classroom. I can’t even imagine how much joy will be in that room on that day. Until then, our community is kept alive online.