Contemporary High School Creative Nonfiction

Note: This account is (mostly) true. Names have been changed per FERPA regulations.

“Houston, we have a problem,” I announce unnecessarily.

“More like a lot of problems,” Gabe offers. True that.

Let me back up. Second period is kind of a shitshow from the start.

I had almost completed the mini decathlon event our district requires teachers to accomplish during the six-minute break between classes. It is a ten-step challenge of mental and physical endurance involving equipment hookup, remote Classroom set-up, lesson coordination, media uploads, desk sanitation, and so on. We do this because we have remained open during covid for both live students and remote students at the same time. Because Technology Makes Everything Possible.

So I’ve swabbed the last desk in time to gasp out a Clorox wipe infused hello to the incoming freshmen, squinching my eyes up extra hard to show that I am smiling behind my mask. The live students, that is to say the ones in the classroom made of concrete blocks, sit at precise 4-foot intervals, desks centered on little x’s of duct tape. Their masked faces immediately bow over their phones as if at prayer, fingers clittering over the keys. My remote students, the ones on the Brady Bunch grid of the online Classroom Meet, flicker into existence and I greet them too. Then I attempt to open the attendance program. The spinning wheel of death indicating it isn’t loading rolls over any hope that I will achieve my personal best in this brave new world of pandemic academia.

The bell jangles, and I take a breath to start class, sucking half my mask into my mouth. As I ungag myself, I realize an unfamiliar person is standing by the door waving enthusiastically.

Ironically, I’ve never seen my live students’ faces, so I have no idea who anybody is. Cautiously, I venture, “You are?”

“I’m Kaitlyn, Ms. H!” she sings, pulling down her mask. The only students whose faces I’ve seen all year are the remote students, which she was until, apparently, this minute, though no one sent me that memo. I apologize and cast about for where I might put another desk. The pattern of x’s on the floor suggests a gap if I move the trash can onto the recycling bin. It’s a problem of geometry I put off until later and temporarily seat her on the bookshelf. This triggers an outcry from several students whose sole ambition in life has evidently been to sit on the bookshelves. I feel their pain. The student desks are about as comfortable as the Iron Throne.

I ask the live students to join the online Classroom so that both sets of students can work together, because Groupwork is Good according to all the workshops. I click and drag each name into groups, a mechanical slithering accompanying my start to the day’s material: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

“So, I asked you to take note of imagery around flying things and crawling things,” I say, “Share out your findings in your groups on a doc so you can build an idea of what Bradbury is suggesting. Five minutes.”

Immediately, an ear-splitting screech slices the air, feedback from the proximity of their laptops.

“Mute your mics!” I shout.

As soon as the shrieking stills, a hand goes up. “Xavier isn’t showing up,” Sarah explains.

I see that Xavier’s disappeared from the grid of remote faces on my laptop but has been replaced by the habitually tardy Tabitha who is staring vacantly at nothing. I move her into Sarah’s group.

Another hand goes up. “Max says he can’t open his doc.”

“Which email did you use?” I ask the square representing Max. “And please turn on your camera.”

“The school’s,” he answers. “And I’m still in my pj’s.”

“Very amusing. Come to class prepared, meaning not in your jammies.”

“My email hasn’t worked all semester.” The top of a tousled head hovers into view at the bottom of his square.

“Have you done anything to fix that?”


“Maybe contact IT because you need your email. For right now, share your home acco—”

“For the last time, stop throwing dirty laundry in the toilet!”

My head almost dislodges from my shoulders as I whip around to find the source of the deep male voice in our room. The students are staring open-mouthed at the Owl® nesting on the bookshelf.

The Owl® broadcasts the remote students’ mics. I check the faces on the Brady Bunch grid, all of whom appear equally disconcerted except one. Carley is gazing into the distance, her head bobbing slightly. I reach over to my file cabinet, grab the pre-made sign that says ‘CARLEY,’ and flip it in front of my monitor. She gives me an expression that says I have a lot of nerve, then pries her ear buds out of her ears with an air of injured innocence that would do a saint proud. She mutes her mic just as the deep male voice in her house shouts, “I mean it!”

“Carley, you are supposed to use your earphones for class, not your music. You need to know what is going on here, and the rest of us don’t need to know about clothes in the toilet.”

“Though that is actually kinda interesting,” Sarah observes.

Carley is busy adding her two cents to the clothing-in-the-toilet directive. She then taps her mic back on, holds up a copy of Lord of the Flies, and says, “It’s not like I don’t know what we’re doing.”

I keep a straight face as I hold up my copy of Fahrenheit 451 and move her into a group session.

For one brief moment, only the soft skirring of the keyboards breaks the silence. Then the PA system clears its throat, emits a burst of static followed by the advisory that PowerSchool is down and to please hold attendance, followed by the secretary asking if she did that right.

I take a calming breath and decide to ignore the covid rules dictating that I can’t go past the line of duct tape in front of the student desks. I stride up the aisles scanning to see which kids are not on task. “Paul, come on, stop playing Fallout Shelter,” I comment in passing.

“I can’t get into the Classroom,” he responds apathetically.

“Why not?”

“I forgot my password.”

Three kids shout out the instructions for resetting it, which is helpful since I’m distracted by one of the remote students who is trying to get my attention in a series of stop-motion frames. I watch her freeze in assorted positions and then she disappears.

I make a note to email admin to have a hotspot set up for her since that happens so often.

The Owl® now begins chirping from its spot on the bookshelf. I wiggle the cables, simultaneously redirecting the class to share their thinking about the ‘crawling things’ imagery they found. I’m beginning to work up a sweat as I race to the board to write the words they shout out: “Salamander!” “Black-beetle colored helmet!” “Thimble-wasps!” and so on.

“Ms. H, the remote kids…” Margaret in the front row interrupts.

I turn to see all of them except Carley pointing to their ears. I unplug the Owl® entirely, relying instead on the inferior laptop mic. “Can you hear me now?”

All but Carley nod.

I then turn on the smart tv and start the slideshow on my laptop. I spent hours lovingly hand crafting a slideshow of striking images and appropriately sized fonts, partially to help the two sets of students stay on the same page but also because Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences tells us it is Good to appeal to visual learners. I tap screen mirroring and observe that the tv has remained a benign unblinking blue. I’m going to have to reboot my laptop, which means I’ll have to restart everything. I’m grinding my teeth and try to relax as I reboot, restart the online Classroom, pull up the slideshow, hit the screen mirroring, reselect the right tv, and wait for the remote kids to come back in. Amazingly, only Carley fails to show.

We preview a few slides of insects, while they shout out the associations they feel.




“I like snakes.” There’s always one and I would have bet money it would be Gabe.

“Eww, they are slimy!” Sarah counters.

“No, actually, that is a misconception,” Gabe pontificates.

“You are correct, Gabe. But by and large, humans are evolutionarily programmed to fear snakes since they are deadly. Can be deadly,” I hasten to clarify as I can see Gabe priming himself to debate the finer points of reptiles. “So, what is Bradbury associating all this creepy crawly imagery with?”

Silence deadens the room, interrupted by a flowering of laughter when the slideshow is suddenly replaced with a video featuring baby Groot and baby Yoda in a dance-off.

“Hilarious,” I say to Gavin, the purveyor of this entertainment. I pause to consider that baby Groot is the cuter one, and then realize I have what is referred to in hushed tones as a Teachable Moment. “So if we were to replace baby Yoda with, say, a cockroach, we’d probably all find ourselves feeling negative towards the cockroach, our bias against crawling things being fairly strong.” I trespass across the verboten duct tape line to snap shut the jaws of Gavin’s laptop. “So, Gavin, what is the crawling imagery associated with in the novel?”

“I dunno. Umm…bad stuff?”

“OK, a tad vague. What is the “bad stuff?”

Margaret boldly jumps in. “Well, like, her earbud things?”

“Right. And?”

Gabe groans. “The technological stuff, people, all of it.”

“OK, hold that thought.” I restart the slideshow. “Switching gears, what about imagery of flying things? What did you find?”

They shout out the various passages of birds and butterflies and wings found in the novel.

I accompany their offerings with the images of animals in flight on the slideshow and we brainstorm the associations they feel.  “What does Bradbury use this imagery to describe?”

“Books,” Gabe volunteers in a voice revealing how painfully obvious the answer is and could we all just move along? I sense he has some revelation he deeply wants to make, some blow he hopes to strike against the very foundations of education.

“So Max, what is Bradbury revealing by associating books with this kind of imagery?

“Books can make you fly?” He offers his guess with the hopeful optimism of a person who has not done the reading.

“Sure, symbolically.” Max sits up a little straighter, astonished to have even come symbolically close to the mark. The movement brings his SpongeBob pajamas squarely into focus.

Rebekkah’s phone starts buzzing, inching its way across the desk like an industrious dung beetle. She snatches it up and shoves it into her bag. “I’m sorry Ms. H. I told my mom not to keep calling during this class. I really did.”

I nod and try to take a calming breath but instead inhale some mask lint which shoots into my lungs like a bug. I start coughing, a covid-era faux pas, so I dash out into the hall to avoid a humanitarian crisis.

When I step back into the room, Gabe is standing behind the sacred duct tape line and continuing the lesson extempore. “The technological stuff is always insects or snakes which are all low and repulsive, so you feel bad. The books are always birds which can fly and are beautiful, so you feel good.”

“And given the deeply sarcastic tone there, you disagree,” I challenge from the doorway.

Gabe produces his ace in the hole. “It’s like he’s saying newer technologies are bad and old-fashioned stuff like books is good. But—” Here he pauses theatrically. “Books were once considered technology too. It’s all technology, people, laptops, phones, television, all of it.” Ah, so that’s the gem he’s been hoarding until just the right moment. He takes a bow and heads back to his seat.

“Excellent! So is Gabe’s claim correct that it is all technology?”

Half of the students consult with their laptops while the other half whip out their phones to ask Siri to define technology. Gunslingers in the Old West could not have been faster on the draw.

The monotone voices of multiple Siris perform a Gregorian canon around the room. “Technology is the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.”

“How are books practical?” Paul asks.

“How are books scientific?” Gavin adds. Between them, they guffaw heartily.

“The science of making paper, ink, printing presses, that is technology. More to the point, many people at first felt books, reading in general, would steal our memory and undermine our communities. Some perceived them to be dangerous, just like people do regarding technology today.”

A voice pipes out of my laptop. “If books are dangerous, why do we read them?” Unbelievably, Carley has joined the class while we plumbed the shallows of symbolic interpretation.

I am delighted she’s back in the fray. “Probably so that you learn how to handle dangerous ideas. Is this book dangerous?”

“No, it’s boring,” she responds instantly, flapping her copy of Lord of the Flies in the air for emphasis, apparently still not on the same page as the rest of us. Literally, to use the word ‘literally’ correctly.

“OK. And are the ideas in it boring?”

“I’m too bored to know what the ideas are.”

“Fair enough, though being bored by the same book as the rest of us would be a start. But back to Gabe’s point, if everything is technology, why is Bradbury using contrasting imagery in the novel?”

“Books are better?” Margaret hazards.

“If books are better, why are people burning them?” Paul protests.

I make a mental note that his answer indicates he may actually be reading the book. “How do you feel when the books burn?”

“Like celebrating?”

“Ha!” I concede. “Let me rephrase. How does Bradbury want you to feel when books are burned?”

“Sad,” Andrew says from the back of the room where he slouches most days without participating.

On that note, the Brady Bunch grid of the online Classroom disappears. The smart tv goes blue.

Several students call out unnecessarily, “The server’s down.” I risk taking another calming breath and count to ten in my head.

“At least books are more reliable,” Margaret asserts, maintaining her loyalty to the written word.

“So, why is Bradbury using imagery of crawling things only some of the time, for what types of actions?”

“Umm, the firemen with the salamander are burning the books.” I make a mental note that Paul might be overly focused on the burning part, and should I be concerned?

“So, burning books is bad?” I ask.

“Server’s back up,” several voices call out.

“Yes?” Paul answers as if truly unclear about what position to take on the ethics of burning books.

“I’d love a slightly more convincing “Yes” there, but good enough. But it’s not about the things, symbolically speaking. It's what they represent. What is in the books?”

“PowerSchool is back up. Please take attendance at this time,” the PA system answers, followed by the secretary saying she thinks she did it right this time. I grit my teeth and try to pull up the PowerSchool.

“Knowledge!” Margaret crows. “The birds represent, like, learning. And the crawling imagery is whatever is destroying knowledge like the firemen, or, you know, preventing it, like the earbuds and the TVs on the walls…” She stops, embarrassed by the enthusiasm of her outburst.

Into the momentary silence, the heating vent in the back of the room begins its winter malfunction, a high-pitched mosquito-whine over a sibilant hissing. It starts every winter when the temperatures drop and can continue for as long as half an hour at a time, an ear-worm drilling into your skull. I’ve sent messages to maintenance, but such requests are routed through a mail system I am pretty sure is still part of the Pony Express.

The students set up a whine of their own to provide harmony to the rhythm of the heating vent. Together, they are working up a head of steam, a rising swell of agitation which is 100% contagious.

“Houston, we have a problem,” I announce unnecessarily.

“More like a lot of problems,” Gabe offers.

I look out the window to gain some composure. It is cold out, at least if the heating vent is any indication, but sunny. We may have a problem, but we also have a solution, I realize. After the school shootings, they wouldn’t let us take the kids outside during class, but because of covid and the need for distancing and fresh air, we are allowed outside again. Given the class I’ve just had, it’s practically a mandate. Anyway, according to Gardner, kinesthetic learning is Important.

“Guys, I appreciate your patience with today’s technical difficulties and assorted interruptions, but I think we need to call it a day. Put away your phones and close your laptops and your books. Grab your coats. We’re going out. I’ll lock the room.”

“Without our phones?” Gavin looks like the idea shocks him to the very core.

“You bet.” I decide I have another Teachable Moment. “Let’s experience imagery through the senses. Through being alive.”

 I shut it all down, the Meet session, the slideshow, the PowerSchool program for the attendance I never took, everything.

We leave the hissing cricket chorus to torture an empty room and file out of the building, past the windows where faces of students in other classes press up against panes, each square frame a picture of indignant outrage. Once we reach the soccer field, my students spread their arms and begin to run, scattering across the grass, dipping and swooping and filling the air with laughter. If I squint a little, I can see that they are flying over the green.

February 10, 2023 15:10

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Lily Finch
21:47 Feb 10, 2023

Laurel, Your passion for teaching is not lost on me, despite your struggles, whether Covid restrictions, technology malfunctions, or unwilling students as participants. It is admirable when a teacher can seize the moment to turn an almost disastrous moment into a stellar teachable moment that is memorable for students. I am sure yours will be of that kinaesthetic learning moment outdoors while studying Fahrenheit 451 by American writer Ray Bradbury. Thanks for the good read.LF6


Laurel Hanson
10:44 Feb 11, 2023

Much appreciated. The covid teaching years were, shall we say, memorable.


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Stevie Burges
03:42 Feb 11, 2023

You made me so very happy that I no longer teach, and certainly didn't teach during any Covid shutdowns. Thanks for conjuring up how it would have been if I were still working. Many thanks.


Laurel Hanson
12:27 Feb 11, 2023

Given all the frustrations represented here, I am impressed with anyone able to actually read it! It was therapeutic to write, but I should stress how wonderful the students were through it all, friendly, supportive, and lots of fun even as they struggled with something so very harmful to their developing minds and social skills. They were champions. I am glad I was able to teach actual students through it all, and not go remote as most schools did, so I hope it doesn't come through that it was horrible. It was just...challenging. Thanks fo...


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Wendy Kaminski
23:36 Feb 10, 2023

Passionate. You would have to be *exceptionally* passionate to deal with that, omg. I felt my soul wilting as I was reading just how much it took... how much learning did we lose, the last 3 years, just dealing with conveyance technology? I suppose it was less than if we had no technology at all, but sheesh. I loved the dry wit of this piece, and the tenacity of the narrator/presumably you. :) "I dash out into the hall to avoid a humanitarian crisis" and "being bored by the same book as the rest of us would be a start" were favorites. I p...


Laurel Hanson
10:56 Feb 11, 2023

Full confession: this one was more of therapy than a story. I was afraid it might be "too boring" in its technicalities for anyone to wade through, so full marks for persevering! And thank-you for reading it! "my soul wilting" describes the feeling we had going into it when we had to get rid of every object in the room to allow for the spacing and teach in rows (I'd always taught in a circle) and just the rules.... Aggh.. But the kids were lovely and funny and supportive. And everything described here is actually true! Just a little condense...


21:26 Feb 12, 2023

The "mundane lives" of teachers are never that. And never boring whatsoever.


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Rebecca Miles
17:31 Feb 15, 2023

Hello fellow teacher ( cat's out of the bag now). All I can say Laurel is, your lessons sound, even when potholed with technological craters, to be light years better than anything I ever delivered in Corona. You got your students talking!!! I got mute- inducing masks in the classroom and at home, icons, silent little avatars that didn't do associations except stay at home lessons equals log in and go back to bed. This was heaven for an English teacher, love the riff on Fahrenheit 451. Great book to teach; it's always been on my to-do list. ...


Laurel Hanson
19:56 Feb 15, 2023

So glad you enjoyed it! I was on the fence about submitting this as I figured reading someone's lesson plans wasn't exactly a good time, but then it occurred to me that maybe people should know what happened as a result of covid. It was a very demanding teaching experience. We had one weekend to put all our classes into the Classroom format and get our material compatible with that (way easier for English than classes that have a lot of worksheets) in order to go fully online, but that only lasted three months before we started the next sch...


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Roger Scypion
00:55 Feb 15, 2023

Great story! A teaching moment about teaching during COVID, Kudos to you!


Laurel Hanson
12:05 Feb 15, 2023

Much appreciated!


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Jack Kimball
19:30 Feb 14, 2023

HI Laurel. You certainly brought us into the world of teaching during COVID and I can't imagine. At the same time I was envious you get to discuss literature as your profession. Ironically, I just finished Fahrenheit 451, reading it again for pleasure. I sometimes wonder if Bradbury would have laughed at all the symbolism assigned. I also just read 'Zen in the Heart of Writing' by Bradbury, particularly the Dandelion Wine chapter where he discusses his word association process--which was fascinating. I get it birds are positive but maybe ...


Laurel Hanson
19:40 Feb 14, 2023

Oh we English teachers make such a do over symbolism! I was focusing more on the imagery designed to affect the reader's response; burning birds is way worse than burning slugs to most humans biased against the creepy crawly word, increasing the sympathy for the books. Doing that with kids helps them understand intention in the book a little better. So in that sense, I believe Bradbury's choice of imagery was crafted. I think a lot of symbolism ends up working not because the author sets out to do so but because it works organically as su...


Jack Kimball
19:45 Feb 14, 2023

Yes. 'organically as subconsciously recognized elements' as you say makes sense. Amazing really.


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Kelly Sibley
22:38 Feb 13, 2023

Yep, nailed it!


Laurel Hanson
23:21 Feb 13, 2023

I'm thinking maybe you are in the educational trenches! Thanks.


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Michał Przywara
21:49 Feb 12, 2023

Love it! It's both funny and loaded with creepy crawly moments. The fortitude it takes to deal with all the issues, and constantly having more shoveled on the plate - it's staggering. I can't really blame the students. I remember once being a little shit myself. We thought we had it bad, but it's just not comparable to what students in recent years have gone through. I think they know we're collectively mailing it in as a society (and what kind of future do they have to look forward to? Why care?) even as teachers put in herculean efforts ...


Laurel Hanson
10:54 Feb 13, 2023

It is hard to express how much I love your feedback. That you enjoyed the tone of this frustrating piece is great, but that you also understood what I was trying to do with Fahrenheit 451 in this context is icing on the cake. I couldn't tell if I was muddying the waters with the Owl joining all the sound imagery associated with crawling things and I was hoping that Gabe cleared it up adequately - that everything we create is tech, so it's not really the tech that is the problem, it is the distractions and interferences. The fact that you got...


Michał Przywara
21:40 Feb 13, 2023

Nah, I saw what you were going for with the students :) And the human interaction thing is not at all surprising. Regarding technical problems being boring - that might be true. But you get around that by giving us humans reacting to the problems, which is interesting. I suspect most people have at least once in their lives wanted to do a good job at something, and couldn't because technology/managers/whatever kept tripping them up. Frustrating!


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21:25 Feb 12, 2023

Definitely told by a true teacher during the pandemic. My hats go off to all the struggles school teachers faced in situations such as these. And a triple hats off to you for capturing your 2nd class period in such a phenomenal manner.


Laurel Hanson
21:36 Feb 12, 2023

Many thanks!


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Richard E. Gower
19:03 Feb 11, 2023

What a terrific story...it grabbed me from the very first sentence. Well done!!


Laurel Hanson
19:59 Feb 11, 2023

Oh my word! Thank-you!


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