Let us gather today to remember the noise of a first-grade classroom. Last November, and for over a hundred Novembers before that, there were children in my classroom, and those children were loud. Now it is dystopically silent, as if it is awaiting a future team of archaeologists to draw conclusions about a past civilization of small people who struggled to add and whose pencils often broke. There are no stories being shouted about slights on the school bus and triumphs on the playground. There are no wet shoes squeaking across the floor. There are no words being sounded out for the first time.
Before, we made music. Now, to avoid the incoherence and microphone feedback of singing together over Zoom, I sing “The More We Get Together” at my computer screen while my students are on mute — a lonely concert for faraway children whose voiceless mouths sometimes appear to be moving along with me. Before, new words tiptoed off the tongues of young English learners for the first time. Now, due to the vagaries of computer speakers, microphones, and slow Internet speeds, children’s speech falters in competition with background noise and audio glitches that sound like construction equipment. Before, first-graders argued over glue sticks, space on the rug, and appealing picture books. Now, because they have nothing to share in virtual space, young children in a Zoom class cannot participate in the intense disputes of childhood.
Surely, you might be thinking, that last point was made in error. The lack of arguments must be an improvement. This writer, you might imagine, has not borne witness to the furies and bitterness unleashed in a skirmish over a magenta crayon, an altercation over a ruler, or a standoff over the classroom copy of “Green Eggs and Ham.”
I assure you, I have seen them all. I know that childhood conflicts can be passionate and intense. I know they can be loud. But I mourn their absence in a Zoom classroom.
When children argue, they learn about themselves and the people around them. If they want something in the world — a glue stick, a turn in a conversation — they can use their words to make it theirs. Sometimes, though, that desire conflicts with other people’s interests. That glue stick over there? I want it, but so does Xiomara at the exact same time. An opinion about “The Story of Ferdinand”? I have a strong one, but Jamal does too.
A noisy argument offers a space to work out those understandings and arrive at more productive modes of behavior, like disagreeing with respect and sharing limited resources without hostility. With a teacher’s support, young children can also begin to make noise for a higher purpose. Arguments over concrete objects eventually, as children grow up, evolve into actionable debates over subjects like sexism, gender identity, and police brutality.
As adults, our daily life is a bottomless reservoir of potential arguments. We jockey for space on the T, reach for the last box of raisins at the grocery store, decide how to divvy up speaking roles for a presentation at work. Most of us can get through the day without these conflicts escalating into crisis. That is not an inconsequential achievement. It comes from seeing ourselves as people with legitimate needs and interests who live in a community of others with their own legitimate needs and interests. And it begins in noisy classrooms, with the mediation of a decent teacher.
When I see my students on Zoom, I am in full control of the noise and I can turn off their microphones with omnipotence. Children no longer need to regulate their noise to fit their social environment, because a teacher can do it for them with the push of a button. I can create silence, and it is deafening.
Josh Benjamin teaches first grade in Dorchester.