The Voice in My Head…and the Mask on the Screen

by Mary Tarashuk

For the past three months or so, I’ve been writing this article to launch Behind the Doors of the Teacher’s Room, a personal goal I’ve had for quite a few years. I have been doing all of this writing in my head, mind you, stepping in time to that familiar dance of avoiding anything in the vicinity of my personal laptop. To date, nothing has been committed to paper.

The noise between my ears these last ten months has been deafening at times; COVID teaching, COVID mothering, COVID politics, COVID fatigue; a cacophony of COVID echoing around, bouncing off my cerebral walls, creating a good deal of uninvited chaos.

And amidst all this uncertainty, the angel on my right shoulder and the devil on my left haven’t stopped arguing long enough for me to make any real sense of it all, much less write about it. Each voice makes a strong argument, perched righteously on either side of the swirling chatter, sitting in judgement over the state of education, the state of my classroom, the state of the Union and the state of my own mind.

Something’s gotta’ give.

The angel and the devil on my shoulders need to stop interrupting each other. Their bickering is interfering with my ability to stay focused on what is truly important. Yet here I am, sitting in the middle of their incessant clamor to be right…to control the situation…to point fingers.

Perhaps giving each voice an opportunity to speak without interruption will help, to look at the halo and the horns and explore each of these opposing forces, in an effort to organize the mess with some sense of diplomacy. And since I am the only Speaker of this House, I get to preside over both formal and informal sessions of this internal cranial congress. Whether the angel or the devil has been granted the floor is entirely up to me.

I am well aware that the voice of reason and kindness is the one in white, the one with the halo, the one I use to define myself as a good person. And the one with the horns? Well, she’s in there too…and her voice needs to be heard. Somewhere in between is the real me. Congress is bicameral, right?

And the voice I use in our virtual classroom isn’t always the voice that is currently speaking in my head. I may be mask-less and teaching from home, but the mask I choose to put on during the course of any given day stops a very different kind of virus from spreading.

The voice in my head and the voice I use after the unmute button has been clicked are not always in sync. Curbing my language on the screen is a no-brainer. Controlling the thoughts in my head is beyond my human ability. But what comes out of my mouth is up to me. Thankfully, more often than not, it’s the angel of restraint who is granted the floor.

Let’s look at a few examples:

Scenario #1: It’s about three weeks into the virtual school year. By this time, we are set-up up for learning. Our notebooks, focusing on various subjects across the curriculum, are ready to go. Several classroom routines have been established, and a few class jokes have found their way into our vernacular, both on and off the screen.

“Okay, gang. Let’s take out our Science Notebooks,” I urge with an overly enthusiastic chirp. “Hold them up, so I can see them!”

This is ridiculous,” the voice in my head begins. “Are they seriously expecting us to teach like this?

In one rectangle on-screen, I see the kids who are physically in the classroom, arms extended high overhead, each set of hands proudly displaying a one-subject, spiral notebook with the words “Science Seekers” written in big, bold marker on each cover. In the other rectangles on screen, most faces at home have been replaced with notebooks in a variety of vivid colors. Some of my chuckleheads are zooming their notebooks in and out, exploring the camera feature on their devices with glee.

They have no idea I’m still trying to figure out how to juggle this impossible situation we’ve all been thrown into. But It’s my job to keep them engaged, to keep them excited about learning (The chirp was a bit much, but I’d rather err on the side of positivity).

It becomes clear that we all haven’t mastered the mute button when I hear a stern, adult voice coming from somewhere off screen. “Hold it up before she yells at you!” it commands.

The Voice in my head: What the…? Who is that? Are you kidding me? Why is someone intentionally striking fear of me into their child? Why are you even in the room, lady? Get out of here and let me do my job!

The Voice on the Screen: “Nobody is in trouble, gang. I just want to make sure everybody has what they need before we jump into Science today,” it assures everyone in the room (on or off the screen).

Question: Is it possible for a modified chirp to drip with sarcasm?

Scenario #2: We are doing a spot check, making sure everybody is able to find (and open) an assignment in our virtual classroom. Most of the kids are navigating the clicking quite well, but a few are having some trouble.

“If you were able to get into the assignment, go ahead and begin while I help some of our friends click around to see what’s glitching out on them.”

As my more tech savvy learners begin, I notice something strange at the bottom of one of the screens at home. It takes a moment before I realize what it is.

The Voice in my head: Oh my God. That’s somebody’s forehead! Are you kidding me? Who is crawling around on the floor under their child trying to do the clicking? Why are you in the room? That poor kid. Holy shit. You’ve gotta’ be kidding me. Your kid is already in the assignment and doing just fineGrrrr.

The Voice on the Screen: “You’ve got it, _______. Go ahead and keep going while I check to make sure everyone else is all-set too.”

Scenario #3: We are now over three months into the school year. We have become a thriving community of learners…glitches and all. Virtual learning has now offered me a much deeper sense of what my students are living with at home. COVID-19 has given us all a front row seat into each other’s lives, reaching far beyond the boundaries of our physical classroom.

It’s late. It’s been a long day. I click open an email from a parent and read the request. “Can you tell me how to check the assignments again? I stumble upon them from time to time, but I can never remember how to get in there to check on how things are going.”

The Voice in my head: How hard can it be, lady? It’s two clicks. I worked so hard to develop a Virtual Back-to-School Night presentation that you clearly ignored. I’ve sent five updates home, each containing important information and links to all of the resources you need to stay aware of what’s going on at school. If I can juggle single motherhood and still keep all of these kids engaged and enthusiastic about learning, why can’t you get your shit together?

The angel in my head is suddenly requesting time on the floor.

“Shhhh, Mary,” she soothes. “Calm down. Maybe she has a lot of stuff going on in her life too. Maybe she’s just overwhelmed right now. You know exactly what overwhelmed feels like.” her soft, feathery voice reminds me. “Are you forgetting all of the incredible support and generosity you’ve been given this year from the other parents? Remember, you only see glimpses of her world. You don’t know the whole backstory…and she doesn’t know yours.”

Damn, I hate when that angel is right.

I ask my students to step into the character’s shoes when they read. I tell them stories about my life, my children, my family, my friends. And I ask them to look for their own text-to-life connections, to try to empathize while they read, to think about what is going on in the story, in an effort to understand why characters do what they do, think what they think, and see the world the way they see it.

Maybe it’s time to take a lesson from my own plan book. Maybe I just need to embrace the halo and the horns and wait for the plot to unfold.