An illustration of a man working at a computer in front of a window

Distracted from distraction by distraction.”
— T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets (1941)

1.

Coronials

Shakespeare coined the words bandit, lackluster and unreal. Who will be credited for zoomer, self-isolate and contactless? The answer is all of us.

Teaching online during COVID-19 was a humbling experience. It made me rethink the basic tenets of language and the teaching life.

Early on in the pandemic, my students, dispersed all over the globe, began sending me photos of ingenious self-protecting gear: a man covering his mouth with a dry coconut peel, a woman using a dishwashing scrub to do the same, and so on. Looking at them, I kept thinking that Zoom does nothing but turn our faces into masks. The difference between teaching in person and online is that in the latter you’re always looking at yourself.

In Mexico, where I come from, masks are an integral part of popular culture. Luchadores, the Día de los Muertos, the shining armor used by the Spanish conquistadors—Octavio Paz, in his book The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), talks about masks as devices we Mexicans use to not look at fate in the eye. Oscar Wilde, on the other hand, in his essay “The Critic as Artist” (1891), suggests that “man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

In other words, the mask, depending on how you look at it, is an instrument to reveal the truth and to conceal it. To me as a teacher, masks are, in principle, obstructive. Since the mission of education is to transform the student into an individual, masks must be taken off. Yet the word persona in classical Greek implied an “actor’s mask.” All of us are actors capable of manipulating who we are in front of others.

I learned to use Zoom rather quickly. In no time its lingo became standard: host, unmuting, chat links. In online discussions, I sometimes encouraged students to reflect on how many masks they were wearing that day. Could these masks be an invitation to see themselves anew, to invent a self in front of others, a “COVID-19 self,” so to speak, that might allow us to transcend the inclement conditions forced on us?

Those reflections were icebreakers. Talking about them allowed us to turn the screen where our faces coincided into a new classroom. Could we together make that strange, implacable classroom a site of encounter? Or would we allow the screen to become a collective mask behind which we all hid?

A personal anecdote here: I was a fidgety adolescent. I liked to learn but didn’t like to be in the classroom. It felt like a prison to me. The idea that education would be summoned in such a place, that I could focus on whatever topic by isolating myself, seemed unappealing, maybe even disingenuous. At heart, I liked the outdoors. I also liked to engage with people. To me the classroom was too confining.

Predictably, these traits made me see teaching as anything but appealing, the opposite of a lifelong path. I’d tell people that I would become a teacher only when I won the lottery. I wanted my imagination to set me free and didn’t think the classroom was a place where that could happen.

The Labyrinth of Solitude talks about masks as devices we Mexicans use to not look at fate in the eye.

Fate handed me an unexpected set of cards. Without much thinking about it, I became an immigrant and moved to New York City in the mid-’80s. Then, when I needed to make a living, someone literally pushed me into a classroom. He needed somebody in the classroom and said I could teach for the time being until I found something better to do.

I shall never forget the experience of being in front of about 25 college students. I didn’t know what to tell them. So I told them nothing. I simply began to read a poem, slowly, taking my time. Every so often, I would raise my eyes to see them. They liked it. In fact, they were mesmerized by the poem. I then told them a story about how the poem had come to be, and they were even more interested. Soon the students asked for another poem. And another.

I was thrilled talking to them. I was actually happier than usual, as if a mask I wore had come down. Being with them, reading the poems out loud, made me forget I needed to make a living. To this day, I think of that occasion as the time I won the lottery.

So much so that, at age 60, I can’t think of a worthier endeavor. To have been with bright “coronials” day in and day out—I’m the only one who ages in the classroom—and appreciate how elastic their minds are was an invitation to magic. (A friend of mine says that “coronials” are the babies born during COVID-19, “quaranteens” the young people who spent a portion of their teens in lockdown and “quarantinis” the alcoholic drink adults have taken to during the period. To me, though, the word coronials refers to the young people who defied all the odds to interact during the pandemic.)

Like war, like social upheaval or a major natural disaster, COVID-19 is a historic event beyond language. The scars inflicted won’t be fully understood for years, maybe an entire generation. As always in these cases, suffering wasn’t equitable: the most vulnerable economically, psychologically and racially were hit hardest by the storm.

These include many of my students. Paying attention in class while the family is hungry is difficult. There are other needs more urgent than school. No wonder a handful “zumped” the routine.

It was the stamina these students displayed that made me stronger. I would see their faces on my screen as they struggled to put their minds into a place of concentration, and I’d feel moved. I could see behind their smiles, listen beyond their words. They were heroes.


2.

Make Believe

A man in glasses sitting on a porch surrounded by green trees

Teaching gave Stavans a way to stubbornly embrace happiness.

Like them, I was struggling against remoteness. There was no one else in the orange room where I taught, just myself and the screen. But around me, things were falling apart. One day as I was focusing on Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal (1957), talking about its depiction of the plague during the Middle Ages and its references to the Book of Revelation, the basement in my house flooded.

But in retrospect this and other catastrophes are nothing in comparison to what feels like Armageddon. Relatives in couples would find themselves as perfect strangers and want out as soon as possible. And my mother, 79 years old and living alone in Mexico City, was overwhelmed by illness. COVID-19 brought along boredom, alienation and delirium. A battalion of doctors diagnosed her with a unique case of Alzheimer’s that reduced to six weeks the savaging that the disease frequently performs over years, if not decades.

She had been active at first, using FaceTime to connect with the family. But the pandemic restrictions took a toll. In a conversation, she would forget things: the day of the week, where she had left the car keys, the cost of a gallon of milk. Her forgetfulness accelerated, and with it a feeling of impending terror.

She is now monosyllabic. There is no difference between night and day for her. Why wasn’t I near her when she needed us? Was she going to die “like her ancestors in the Holocaust,” without anyone at her side?

Teachers are supposed to be bastions of strength. My mother’s illness at first forced on me an unbearable sense of sadness. And, along with it, a feeling of inadequacy. She lived thousands of miles away. The pandemic made it impossible to do the usual: hop on an airplane. I felt personally lost, disoriented. But then, through teaching, I rapidly found that my interaction with students was curative.

I frequently thought of my father. He had an illustrious career as an actor in the theater and on TV and film. He died a couple of years ago—mercifully, since I’m sure COVID-19 would have broken him as much as, if not more than, it did my mother. Early on, when I said that I was now intent on becoming a teacher, my father told me that the road I had chosen (or better, the road that had chosen me) is, first and foremost, an activity meant for thespians: teachers look for ways to be characters, and only when they do are they successful. That’s because, as he said, “in the end a teacher does nothing but make others believe.”

In my 365 “virus days”—I got my first Pfizer vaccine exactly a year after I quarantined, on my birthday—I taught more than at any other time; or maybe, given the intensity of it all, it just feels that way. Before the pandemic I had been discussing Shakespeare’s major plays (Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet) in person with a class of “inside” students, meaning inmates in the local Northampton jail, and “outside” students, meaning Amherst undergraduates. Soon I, along with everyone else, was barred from the jail. Since the facility couldn’t arrange to have Zoom, I never saw my “inside” students again.

Other courses were more malleable. In fact, the experience was rather pleasant. I engaged students in Talmudic readings of Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605–15) and One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), which to me are not only the two “bestest” books written in Spanish (the adjective comes from one of the students) but are a staple of the universe as indispensable as, say, the color yellow. And I taught courses on the making of dictionaries and on visions of the divine across religions, on telenovelas and on the history of books from the Bible to Harry Potter.

I would have thought that, during COVID-19, students would be too distracted—too “socially distanced”—to read books seriously. After all, the Internet isn’t thought of as a place for deep thinking. Amazon, Facebook and Netflix are always just one click away. I was surprised: my best experiences in close, sustained reading happened precisely as everything around us was clamoring for our attention. As I see it, this was a triumph of the spirit.

Do I teach by example? I do. My interest is not in witnessing how my students accumulate information. That they are able to do with the help of Google. What I want for them, what I enjoy seeing, is that they learn how to think, because that they will take with them forever, applying it to life itself. Furthermore, I’m not interested in having them think like me, which could be described as cloning. I’m eager for them to disagree with me, with others, even with themselves, to be “superspreaders” of originality. Thinking freely means thinking unpredictably.

I would see their faces on my screen. I could see behind their smiles, listen beyond their words.

I confess that I have used my classes as a much-needed distraction. I’m never nervous when I’m about to teach, but in this age of uncertainty, that readiness became even more pronounced. Really, I couldn’t wait for class to start. Teaching relaxed me to the point of being restorative. (I don’t like the word therapeutic.) It brought me inner peace.

Before class would begin, I knew well where I wanted to go with the students. What I didn’t know was how to get there, or whether a 70-minute class online would feel like an eternity. The journey would depend on the interactions among all of us, myself and the students. Any disruption—the shocking news of the day, for example—could shape the dynamic in unforeseen ways. It was up to me to make use of any extemporaneous element to everyone’s benefit.

That is, nothing would go to waste in teaching. I simply let things happen and registered, along with everyone else, the encounters we went through together. This approach allowed people, including me, to discover parts of themselves. That discovery was always a source of magic. It was something mysterious.

When I think of it, it makes me hopeful. As old routines gave way to new rhythms, the classroom became enviably steady. In some way, that steadiness was a stubborn affirmation of our embrace of happiness as a response to the apocalypse.

I don’t say this lightly. I’m far from the only one who constantly thought of dystopias during the pandemic months. If the classroom is a space of experimentation, it is also where young people explain what worries them and what solutions might be implemented. To put it another way: it is where they are able to measure the size of their dreams.

Students surely learned dimensions of themselves that they didn’t know beforehand. They became appreciative of minutiae. One of them recited a poem by Billy Collins called “Aimless Love,” about the love for small things: a chestnut, a wren, a seamstress. “This is the best kind of love,” Collins announces, “without recompense, without gifts, / or unkind words, without suspicion, / or silence on the telephone.” After the recitation, the student confided, “I love.”

Her sentence felt redemptive.

A person looking at a computer filled with faces

3.

Upside Down

I love words. They are my closest friends. Watching them interact is enthralling. I like to investigate where they come from, how they evolve to be what they are and in what ways they relate to other words. Each of us uses a unique treasure trove of words to appraise the world. In that sense, to me words carry our DNA.

During COVID-19, I came to realize that, perhaps more than the usual classroom, the Zoom classroom was all about words. Students appreciated them in special ways, making them their friends too. Rather than inhibiting people, online learning had the opposite effect. Because we only had words and the silence between them, everyone used them in careful fashion.

I was struck by how sophisticated the students’ vocabulary became during the year, as if they recognized that, in the absence of all other strategies to communicate, our lexicon and how we use it is an invaluable tool.

A man standing in a nice home leaning against a stairway railing with family photos in the background Honestly, it felt as if we were using a universal tongue. I felt this especially as my classes went global. Those thumb-sized, beautiful faces distilling enthusiasm, wonder and resilience were linking from everywhere on the planet: Argentina, France, Ghana, Denmark, Japan, Canada, Italy, Chile, China, Puerto Rico and so on.

Before the virus, the planet was in the middle of an intense conversation on anti-globalism, which is ironic, given that COVID-19 made us all, for better or worse, global in an unimaginable way. It required us to retrench, to hide, to be trapped in our own condition. But it also made us connect in whatever way possible. People didn’t surrender to the lockdown; they fought back with a mighty fist.

I think of how the influenza pandemic of 1918–19 forced people into silence. The only way to communicate then was through what we call today “snail mail.” Classrooms became empty in many places, because gathering together regularly to learn was impossible.

Something even more startling happened in the classroom during COVID-19: people of different ages asked to congregate. Amherst alums from various walks of life (doctors, lawyers, scholars, psychologists, entrepreneurs, pedagogues) joined in. The interaction between the young and not-so-young was a source of pride. And since travel wasn’t in the picture, invitations poured in. In a single week, I could teach middle- and high-schoolers, workshops for immigrant writers, seniors in community centers and patrons in public libraries. The lessons could be in a slew of languages: Spanish, Hebrew, Yiddish, etc.

I am in awe of how easily my words reached different locations on the planet during the pandemic. As much as I was imprisoned in my own room, I was able to transport myself to other latitudes, unimpeded by cumbersome borders. Although I missed terribly the human touch, I felt quite close to people—closer than I ever thought I could by means of screens.

Staying at home allowed me to concentrate on projects I had been meaning to complete. I retold the Mayan book of origins, the Popol Vuh, which, appropriately, is in part about how the gods are displeased with humans. I published How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish, about Jewish immigration to the United States. And, intent on not letting journalists be the only ones chronicling the COVID-19 tragedy, I edited the anthology And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again, in which I invited 80 international writers to reflect on the meaning of their lockdown.

Talking about borders: the pandemic unfolded as the United States government shut doors and erected walls. Lysol isn’t a medicine. Immigrants likewise aren’t lice. To me immigration is the most essential of human acts. Mythically, it starts with Adam and Eve. Historically, it is found in the birth of any society. Immigrants represent freedom.

I retold the Popol Vuh, which is in part about how the gods are displeased with humans.

Online learning turned us all triumphantly into immigrants. We were arriving and departing unencumbered, without anyone asking for a visa. The only passport that was required was the thirst for knowledge. Often after a Zoom class, a few students would linger in the session, talking about all the places they had been in the last few hours. These encounters forged friendships. There was the common recognition that, once this nightmare was over, a new lease on life would be given to all of us.

At the beginning of COVID-19 people talked about “returning to normal.” But at some point along the way that phrase disappeared, giving way to “B.C.”— Before COVID—and to the depiction of the period as “the whole masktake.” To me it feels as if it wasn’t only my mother whose self was stolen, in her case by that vicious thief Mr. Alzheimer, but the entire planet’s. In any case, we have all genuinely realized that whatever we understood as the past is no longer retrievable. Probably what we all learned is that normalcy is overblown.

In short, teaching in the COVID-19 year showed me how to use technology in advantageous ways. It taught me that, more than anything else, teaching is about learning how to focus the mind, mine and others’, in extreme circumstances, in the middle of a life defined by cacophony. If distraction is the sine qua non of today, the classroom is where we focus.

Everything was upside down. But, as it turns out, it was also downside up, which is a way to say that trying times are times for trying.


Ilan Stavans is Amherst’s Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture and the publisher of Restless Books. His book Selected Translations: Poems 2000–2020 is just out from the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Illustrations by Giovanni Alberti
Photograph by Jessica Scranton