Michiana Chronicles: School Daze

Jul 16, 2020

I woke up at 3:00 last Friday morning thinking about a scene in a movie we’d watched the night before. One of the main characters, a police detective, had been called to the local secondary school to fetch her son who’d run afoul, himself, of the law of the blackboard jungle. After the conference, she wormed her way through a packed hallway of students walking the other way toward an exit.

From that scene I drifted in my mind to hundreds of kids jumping up and down in Diamond Lake, and from that to the local grocery store chain that we can’t count on to require people to wear masks, and from that to the President, at which point I knew, there’s no going back to sleep when I’m angry. I might as well get up.

Now, I circle back around to the kids in the hallway and the fact that in a matter of several days that’s where we are asking our teachers to be. Under ordinary circumstances it’s a tough job. In the middle of a worsening pandemic I wonder if we are asking too much.

I wonder how I’d feel today, knowing that in two weeks, I’d be heading back into a classroom. I would doubt I can handle it; I think about someone who would tell me I can. I wonder how Chrystal is feeling.
 

Chrystal Wilkeson

"Ohhhhh, well everybody’s kind of in a tailspin over what to do as we plan for the beginning of the year. I can’t imagine what it must be like for administrators, but I know that teachers are nervous."

New Prairie High School English teacher Chrystal Wilkeson, one of the greatest teachers I encountered in my 27 years there. She’s a leader among teachers, the chairman of the English Department for many years and the person who suggested in the year 2000 that I teach a semester long elective class on the Holocaust, after she accepted my proposal to teach a semester long elective class on the literature of the Vietnam War. Chrystal and I were partners. Most of all, she’s great with the kids.

There’s nobody who will work harder to make it work, with love, for the benefit of her students than Chrystal.

SID: "What would be different for a student when they walk into your classroom as far as you know?"

CHRYSTAL: "I hope that they’ll be required to wear masks. I know that the school will provide masks for teachers but there hasn’t been a definitive announcement about whether we’ll require students to wear masks. I think it’s in most schools largely impossible to do social distancing. You’re going to have 100 percent of your student body at any one time and even if we did have half the student body there that’s 500 kids that are walking around the building and, let’s say I have 32 kids in a class. That’s 16 kids, still, in my small interior room with no windows and I don’t know if I’d be able to give them six feet, you know, in between. So, I don’t know what it’s going to look like. And, that is the scariest part. I know that I can, I’m going to have to, change my teaching style completely because you know how I am. I like to help kids, get right in there and work with them. I have reading conferences every day with kids and now I’m going to have to do it through a plexiglas window and that’s just awkward.

I mean, I think I’m thankful that we’ll have an opportunity to see kids, maybe, but at the same time, I just hope we can all manage the situation under circumstances that are really unknown to us as of today. There’s so much already for us to manage in the school setting. Emotionally, there’s so much emotional weight and so many other things, pressures, that we have to take steps to mitigate every day that I’m not sure adding on this layer is something I can even imagine doing. I’m just sort of struggling to settle in to what this will look like, the frustration of not knowing at all what the plan will be. I can’t even describe it for you, because I hear every day on the news how important it is for the kids to get back. And I agree.

There’s no one on earth who wants kids in front of them more than I do. I want to teach kids. E-learning is painful, for me. And I know it’s nearly impossible, or impossible for some of the kids, especially out here in this rural area where we really don’t have reliable internet or some people don’t have access to internet at all because of their rural addresses.

I feel like people need to understand the risk involved.

When we were still going face-to-face, last year, I was already cleaning desks with Chlorox wipes and making the kids use hand sanitizer and spraying my room with Lysol every night and cleaning the doorknobs. I was already doing that stuff.

I’m sure that as school should start again, I’ll be doing that as well, but it’s especially scary for me, because I’m in a high risk group. I’m a veteran teacher, 28 years in, 56 years old, diabetic. I’m genuinely scared."
 

Sid Shroyer spoke with his former New Prairie High School teaching colleague Chrystal Wilkeson about getting ready to go back to school under especially trying circumstances.

Chrystal teaches English at New Prairie High School, her alma mater, and has taught grades 7-12 at New Prairie over the past 27 years. Chrystal was named Teacher of the Year at New Prairie High School in 2000 and 2001, earning the award for the district in 2001 and finishing as a semi-finalist for Indiana Teacher of the Year. Her father, Charles E. Stephens, was named Indiana Teacher of the Year in 1974. Chrystal was also runner-up for AP English Teacher of the Year, awarded by AP TIP-Indiana in 2016. She attended Indiana University Bloomington and earned her Bachelor’s degree in Secondary Education, English from IU South Bend in 1992. She completed her Master’s degree in Secondary Education and Educational Leadership from IUSB in 2010. Chrystal lives in New Carlisle, Indiana with Keith, her husband of 34 years, and their daughter Ashley.