“No ideas but in things.” -William Carlos Williams
There is a yellow fire hydrant just outside my classroom window. I never really noticed it until a few months ago. We were outside on a mask break (who ever thought that would become a term that needed no explanation?) when another teacher and I noticed our big 8th grade boys huddled in a tight circle around it. What nefarious shenanigans were they up to? We watched, neither one of us feeling particularly inclined to approach them and follow through on whatever discipline might be required; they are 8th grade boys, after all. In reality, the need for discipline has been almost nonexistent this year. Masks and distancing have taken all of the energy once used for bullying, pranks and showboating (the culprits usually responsible for igniting trouble in a middle school).
The source of the boys’ fascination with the hydrant was the small, but continuous, flow of water coming from the nut at the top. A slight arc of water, maybe two or three inches high, was coming from the previously static object in our school’s side field. A substantial puddle had formed at the base and the boys were, for some reason, dipping the tips of their shoes in and then trying to push one another over. A strange game of chicken?
The hydrant kept flowing and as temperatures plunged here in upstate New York, the ice began to grow. It took over the hydrant, one side seeming to be permanently encased while the other side would occasionally look a bit more defrosted. This was clearly the result of some weather-science-sun something or other phenomenon. The puddle, too, became a tiny ice rink. On our twice daily outdoor excursions, the boys would gather at the hydrant while we chose to stay out of earshot, still keeping our teacher’s eye on them. Occasionally, one of them would try to make another one slip or someone would dare to throw a snowball, but for most of this winter, the hydrant provided the measured entertainment that they needed.
Looking at the hydrant today, glistening in the sun, water still spouting faithfully from the top, I am struck by what this pandemic has created. The students have more freedom and leeway than ever before….they go outside during class, sometimes even unsupervised. Formerly banished phones sit unabashedly on desks; backpacks and coats once typically shoved into lockers are now strewn at their feet; earbuds no longer hide under long hair, but peek out from knit hats and hoodies. There is a sense that we are all in this together, surviving, and that shared survival mode has allowed us to silently agree to ignore the things that are no longer important. It is a weird version of Maslow.
Yes, you can go outside to breathe fresh air and I will trust you to not hurt each other, physically or emotionally. Yes, you can have your phone out “just in case” and I will trust you not to text your friends in math class. I no longer suspect hidden drugs or weapons in your bags and coats, and I agree that maybe listening to music during workshop is actually beneficial to your teenage brain. We share the uncertainty and the loneliness that has rearranged our priorities. We share the welcomed distraction from the yellow hydrant.