About Thomas Courtney

Thomas Courtney is a senior policy fellow with Teach Plus, a member of Edsource's Advisory Committee, and author of many articles on educational curriculum and policy. He is also a fifth-grade teacher, guide teacher, and father of a child at a Title 1 school in southeast San Diego.  

 

Please do not tell your students yet.

The words from the principal flashed at me in neon while my body sank into the swivel chair at the front of the class. I fixed my face or so I thought, aware of the many eyes that would be on me now.

Instinctively, as if worried that harm was about to befall them, I looked around at the children whom I had come to care about, not just teach. I sat there watching them all, feeling as though the air had suddenly grown too thick to breathe. In the back of the room, my student teacher was giving a student a morning high five. Around the room, my students chatted, ate, and prepared their work. Leo was trading his apples for a cheese stick. Charlene was talking to a friend about talent show tryouts—they were coming up in a week. Basketball tournament forms were coming in from various classes. Projects were due. The fraction unit was starting on Monday. Kids were happy and silly, and hyper. They were normal. But what would normal now look like?

Everyone was here except for Daniel. I made a mental note to call his mother, worried about him especially. Daniel was a special education student with autism. He was born with physical complications that made simple things like walking difficult. And he was a sweet boy but he was still getting used to working around others. Our class loved him dearly, and they loved most of all trying to make him smile. This was a rarity but a very special event because he would often tell us, “I’m smiling,” as he did so.

  “Mr. Courtney?” said one of my most inquisitive students, Faith. “Are you okay?”

“He looks like he didn’t do his own homework!” Said another student. Others laughed. Our classroom was like that. It always had been. I believe in student smiles. We tease a bit, and then we work our “booties off.”  I believe in creating an environment that feels like a family. And now I had to tell them that today was probably our last day as one.

“Thunder Eagles,” I said, “I need your attention for an… important announcement.” 

I could see my student teacher grow serious. She walked to the front, and I tilted the computer screen for her to see the message. The class looked at us, and we both nodded. We just didn’t keep things from the kids. You can’t ask children to be honest with you when you aren’t honest with them.

School would be closing due to an unknown virus- COVID-19. 

Children do not always take news well, and many times I have learned, their reactions are immediate. But that wasn’t the case this time.

One of the young men sitting cross-legged began to rock back and forth violently. I came to squat before him thinking I would give him some encouragement when he burst out laughing. “No school!” He roared happily.

Others laughed too. Good, I thought and I glanced at the student-teacher. Her face mirrored my thoughts. Good, it said. 

I made hastily printed directions, handed out books and materials, and texted parents throughout the day. I even ran over to the store at lunch and got a cake for the student teacher’s last day–a promise I had made to the children. It was today or nothing I figured.

And then I said goodbye, hugging cautiously, giving “elbows”, air-fist bumps–watching them leave for who knew how long, thinking that this was just a precaution, that we’d be back after spring break.

Days flew by. Days where once real kids with snotty germs and stinky kooties ran into my room with mud from the grass field all over their shoes; Days which now involved a computer screen in my den—a virtual place where my students’ rare moments of laughter were like fantastical echoes of what was really inside of their little boxes.

My student teacher and I tried our best. When attendance was high we squirted ourselves with a hose, jumped in a pool, and I even delivered pizzas “live” on Zoom. We tried our best to bring the feeling of family back, but the truth is it wasn’t the same.

And all the while, one face was never there inside of his box. My Daniel. I knew his family had been struggling to make ends meet, and I tried my best to reach out, to find a way to get them a computer for Daniel. I also worried because Daniel received physical therapy through our school among so many other services he needed. I knew the lack of routine was going to hit him hard. After almost two weeks of not hearing back, I put on my mask, loaded up my hand sanitizer and got in my truck to see if I could make a more personal appeal to help them even though it wasn’t school approved. I knocked on the address we had for them at our school and stepped back six feet from the door.

My heart fell when after the third unanswered knock, a neighbor told me they had just moved and they hadn’t left any forwarding information. I got in my truck and drove home, feeling like a new weight had been placed on my heart. 

Daniel had been making great progress this year. He was practicing speaking with others, learning a ton. He had even let one friend hold his hand for a short walk at PE. His smile, although it was rare to see, was contagious and wonderful when we did see it. I knew in Daniel’s special way, he had been happy in my class. And it hurt to think I hadn’t been able to talk to him about what happened.

Months passed. And like all teachers, I did everything I could to make the best of the situation. We had some laughs, and we had some long days. But we never had Daniel. The students often spoke of him, sharing how much they missed trying to make him smile.

The school year ended, and the students joined their promotion ceremony virtually. Without hugs, pictures, or handshakes, I bid them good luck and happy summer. I scanned the screens one last time, but Daniel hadn’t come.

And then one afternoon I was driving through the neighborhood, and there he was. He was out for a walk with his mother. She was helping him cross over cracked concrete in her tender way, holding his hand. He had sunglasses on which I knew was to protect his eyes from the daylight, and a Star Wars mask.

I pulled the truck over, slapped on my mask, and flew across the street.

“Daniel!” I called, pointing to myself. “It’s Mr. Courtney, buddy!”

Daniel didn’t move. I immediately regretted making such a hasty decision. Didn’t I know that this might scare Daniel? You’re supposed to be a professional you idiot I thought.

As if to confirm my fears, Daniel screamed through his mask.

While his mother cried out, Daniel ran across the cracked concrete and before I could react he was hugging the air out of me.  There was something about the moment I felt Daniel’s arms squeezing me for dear life.  At that moment I realized how few hugs I had gotten recently too, and so I squeezed back. Daniel squealed.

“Mr. Courtney,” he said. “I’m smiling, you just can’t see it!”

“I know Daniel,” I said through my mask. “You can’t see it either, but I’m smiling too.”

Pandemic

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