A cure for a pandemic of black boxes

The power and the responsibility to cure the disengagement of online classes rests with those students who can choose to turn their cameras on

With+apologies+to+Ezra+Pound%2C+this+all-too-common+Zoom+moment+evokes+an+adaptation+of+his+classic+1913+modernist+poem%2C+%22In+a+Station+of+the+Metro%2C%22+%22The+apparition+of+this+lonely+face+stands+out+against+a+crowd+of+cold+petals+on+a+wet%2C+black+bough.%22%0A

Illustration by Jena Weber

With apologies to Ezra Pound, this all-too-common Zoom moment evokes an adaptation of his classic 1913 modernist poem, “In a Station of the Metro,” “The apparition of this lonely face stands out against a crowd of cold petals on a wet, black bough.”

About once an hour, I feel my eyes roll to the back of my head.

In the span of 10 months, I have gone from seeing more than a hundred human faces a day to staring at a grid of black boxes for six hours. It’s mind-numbing.

Turning on your camera is an act of being present. It’s a way you can stop the four brief years of high school from slipping between your fingers.”

This daily disengagement is not for lack of my teachers’ trying. The creative endeavors of Mac teachers during remote learning has been applause-worthy. I’ve had a teacher use sock puppets to explain prejudice. Another shot a “how to make a cake” video in French. I’ve even had a teacher give us tarot card readings via Zoom. It’s all beyond impressive.

The numbness of my mind is not the result of a lack of interest either. I actually really find derivatives interesting. My newspaper class is a never-ending cycle of making puns for headlines. School is (wait for it) fun.

So if my “lack of focus” isn’t because of my teachers or because of the actual material, why do I constantly find myself staring into space for five-minute intervals? I blame it on the pandemic of black boxes.

At least once a day, I hear my teachers plead with their students to turn on their cameras. And I get it. Teaching an hour-long lesson to a sea of black boxes seems impossible. Teachers rely on their students’ faces to control the pacing of their lessons and to gauge how well students are grasping a concept. Is it really preaching if you can’t see the choir? I don’t know.

Teachers or the district should not require students to turn on their camera. We shouldn’t single out the students who need to have their cameras off.”

I also think students benefit from turning their cameras on. A good friend of mine recently wrote a column about how we students need to stop pitying ourselves and consider other people (hint, hint: see above). Turning on your camera is an act of being present. It’s a way you can stop the four brief years of high school from slipping between your fingers.

Here’s the thing: getting students to turn on their cameras is not something that can or should be fixed by school or district policy. There are students who need to have their cameras off because of legitimate connectivity or device issues. There are students who have ZOOM fatigue (which is a very, very real thing). These students should not be shamed in any way, shape or form. Any policy from the school or AISD requiring students to turn on their cameras would, without a doubt, have classist implications. Teachers or the district should not require students to turn on their camera. We shouldn’t single out the students who need to have their cameras off. Black boxes should not become the new red flag.

Look, I’m not here to talk down to anyone. If you don’t want (note: want) to turn on your camera, I won’t say anything. It’s not the end of the world. I’m just curious as to why we are in this predicament of black boxes. Is it because when nobody has their camera on, students are afraid to be the first one to take a step forward? Are we all scared to illuminate ourselves in a sea of darkness?

The way to navigate this sea of black boxes and lack of connection, lies completely in the hands of students—not the schools, not the district.”

I mean, I know I am. There are times when I’m the only one with my camera on in my class and despite the collected expression on my face, I am freaking out on the inside. So why do I keep doing it? Jewish guilt. Also my mom inflicted-guilt. But also, sometimes, more students begin to follow suit. And then it’s all worth it. Seeing someone’s face while they laugh at a joke or talking to people face-to-face in breakout rooms—it almost, just almost feels, like I’m back at real school.

So here’s my plea: If you can, I dare you to take the dive. Try it for a week and see how it feels. Nobody is expecting perfection or a 100 percent participation rate. There are days when I am in a foul mood (my mother can vouch), and I lie in my bed the entire class behind my black screen. That’s life.

But the way to navigate this sea of black boxes and lack of connection, lies completely in the hands of students—not the schools, not the district. We all have the power to stand with our teachers, the power to not let the sands of time slip through our fingers any longer. Show up and be seen.

Because I can promise you: your hair doesn’t look as bad as you think it does.