Gimme a Smile: Back to (Zoom) School

A grading scale myster-E.

By Peggy McKee Barnhill

For the Juneau Empire

Back to school time! It’s a long-awaited (or dreaded) milestone in a child’s year. This particular year, our normal expectations don’t hold. Everything is new and different. I think the grading system should change as well.

Typically, teachers use a five-letter grading scale: A, B, C, D and F. Wait a minute! What’s going on here? The first five letters of the alphabet are A, B, C, D, and E. F doesn’t even make the top five. What is it doing in our grading system? What happened to E? Did E graduate early? Did it get expelled for eating in class? Or does the fact that F is the first letter of the word “failure” give it the clout to bypass the lowly E to anchor our grading system? I just don’t know. The mystery of the missing E may never be resolved. We are left to consider the traditional letter grades and what they represent in this strange year:

A is for Almost. We almost got to go back to school. Then, boom, we got sent back to Zoom school instead. Instead of A, we are now at the absolute end of the alphabet with Z for Zoom. Definitely not the top of the class!

B is for Back-to-school shopping. There’s not much point in getting a new wardrobe this year, unless you want to invest in some fashionable face masks. Get yourself a new shirt and call it good. Forget about the full-length mirror in your bathroom. The over-the-sink one will give you a better idea of how you look on Zoom.

C is for Change. So many things are different from the way they’ve always been. On a normal grading scale, C means average. Since there is nothing average about school in 2020, the C grade has been chucked for this year. Teachers, you can give your students any other grade but C. Heck, give them all A’s for adjusting to the weirdness. Give yourselves an A while you’re at it.

[Gimme a Smile: Then and now]

D is for Dependability. Usually you can count on school starting up with that iconic essay, “What I did this summer.” This year’s essays might blur into each other: “I stayed far away from people and spent time on my computer.” In the midst of all the uncertainty, there’s that one constant, that one dependable vehicle for communication—the computer. We can start school in the midst of a pandemic because we can count on the internet to keep us going. And yet, on our first day of Zoom school, to no one’s surprise, Zoom experienced a partial global outage. So much for dependability.

F is typically for Failure. But rather than focus on failure, I want to explore a variety of F-words (all printable in a family newspaper) that might describe this moment in time. F could stand for foreboding or fiendish, fatiguing or fraught. You might feel like you’re living in a fantasy or facing a fake reality. It’s easy to find fault or be fearful, and we’re all fed up with this fickle infection. Folks can’t wait for researchers to finish a foolproof vaccine that will fix this frightful situation. Phew! Forgive me for having fun with some fabulous F-words. My personal favorite is “freaky.”

So, as we dive into this freaky, un-average school year, we have a couple vocabulary words to learn. The most repeated word for our times is “unprecedented.” If I had a dollar for every time I heard the word “unprecedented,” I could buy myself a different face mask for every day of the year. Like Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, I want to say, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” “Unprecedented” doesn’t mean “strange and different “or even “life-changing.” It means that whatever it is that is happening now has never happened before. But wait. We’ve had a global pandemic before, in 1918. There’s your precedent. It’s just that not many of us were alive the last time around.

Another vocabulary word is “pandemic,” of course, which shares a suffix with “epidemic” and “endemic.” I consulted my trusty dictionary, to learn that -demic refers to “a certain place or people.” “Pan” means “all,” so a pandemic affects all the people all around the world. Makes sense. Interestingly, the only other word I can think of that ends with -demic is “academic.” School. See how I did that?

As you go back to school — almost — embrace change, seek out dependability where you can find it, and don’t expect anything to be average. Finally, don’t forget to find a little bit of fun.

• Peggy McKee Barnhill is a wife, mother, and author who writes cozy mysteries under the pen name “Greta McKennan.” She likes to look at the bright side of life.

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