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Ready and waiting, I sat in front of my laptop, about to zoom into retirement. One by one, the little boxes lit up with student faces, student pets, avatars or simply bold-printed names and pronouns.

After 41 years of teaching literature and writing, over 30 of which I had combined with serving as an academic dean, this was to be my last class. Could I shake this feeling of pending loss? Could I part with my teaching addiction? Much as I reminded myself of all the reasons for my decision -- more time for family and old friends, writing, piano -- I felt my heart sink.

My laptop was perched on a stack of books at the kitchen table, so my students could only see my top half, eyes bright and eager, smile oh so welcoming, favorite scarf perfectly arranged and draped over my silky turquoise blouse. In the darkness below the screen, I adjusted my baggy pajama bottoms and slipped off my furry Land’s End slippers. My attire reflected just what I had been feeling ever since we shifted to online teaching in the midst of the pandemic -- I was caught between my visible identity as a professor and my anticipated invisibility, as I would soon shuffle off into oblivion in my bare feet and pj’s.

Retiring on Zoom has been one of the strangest experiences I’ve had in all my years at Mount Holyoke College. The rituals of on-campus toasts, collegial hugs, fond farewells, expressions of mutual gratitude, even love, were all postponed indefinitely. What I had at this critical moment of parting was my computer screen. It was all so unreal that even now, several months after that last class, I find it hard to grasp that I did, in fact, retire.

We began with brief student oral reports on final projects before an attempt at a grand wrap-up and overview of our literature seminar on Gender and War. Throughout the pandemic, my students had connected the themes of my seminars with their surreal, even gothic, pandemic experiences.

In the fall, we delved into the concept of “desperate housewives” in the 19th through 21st centuries while we all were trapped in the home, the traditional “woman’s sphere” -- albeit with the relative freedom that technology provided to link us to the outside world. In March 2020, at the height of the pandemic, when we first shifted at midsemester from campus to our respective kitchens, bedrooms and hallways, I was teaching a course called Landscape and Loss, and students’ forum posts included descriptions of their reconnection with their own regional landscapes even as they expressed their sense of loss and their longing to return to our campus landscape. I joined in the forum post, describing the view from my study window and how much I missed my office on campus.

Now, in this war seminar, the themes of their final project presentations tapped feelings my students were experiencing firsthand in the context of a worldwide pandemic: PTSD after losses to COVID, family efforts to heal, displacement, the role of gendered language and art in depicting chaos and despair.

Much as I had griped and grieved when we had to move away from the luxury of teaching and learning around an actual seminar table, and much as I reluctantly parted with my romantic vision of my last class before retirement, I learned a critical lesson through pandemic teaching: the value and surprise of letting go. In the last portion of my last class, I applied a Zoom tool that I had finally mastered -- creating breakout rooms after their presentations, where students could discuss some key questions about the course as a whole in small groups, and where I would not intrude with comments or analysis. The students temporarily disappeared, one by one, abandoning me for automatic entry into some unknown room in cyberspace. It was still terrifying at first, despite my mastery of the tool. I was left alone on the screen to stare at my image, now monstrously enlarged, while I awaited their return. At least, with some Zoom experience by now, I trusted they would, in fact, return! But I felt unprepared for their return, unprepared for this parting with teaching that would have to happen on Zoom.

Staring at myself onscreen that final day, I remembered the only other parting for anticipated retirement that I had experienced so far: a recent Zoom ceremony to celebrate the faculty teaching award I had just received. The pre-pandemic annual ceremony had always been in person, with a full audience, to celebrate the accomplishments of peers. We mingled, we toasted, we shared hors d’oeuvres and recipients thanked everyone for “being there.” And here we were, only “there” in some imagined space.

But I reminded myself, on this last day of teaching, with no doughnuts to share for our last-class celebration, that there had been a surprising advantage to that online event. In the Zoom chat, former students and others across the globe shared bits and pieces of memories. They included the award-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who studied with me in the ’80s; the Posse Foundation scholars I had mentored; and countless other alums and colleagues. They wrote from Seoul, Beijing, Karachi, Chicago, Florida, California. They wrote about the classes they still remembered from as far back as 1980. Whether retired or not, whether online or on campus, invisible or visible, I saw that our classes together had lived on in our collective memory.

With this reassurance in mind, I awaited the online ending of my very last class of all classes. In the horrifying moment just before the vanished boxes reappeared, when I usually wondered whether they would ever return, I now trusted the students would refill my screen. And one by one, they did reappear, with much to say about their conversations and with applause emojis in every box. We had agreed to give a final toast and take a photograph at the end of class. Gradually, all the cameras came on. A few students had been invisible, though audible, but in these last moments together, they overcame any obstacles, and their smiling, if also tearful, faces appeared before me.

I told the students how much I had learned from them, how I knew that we would never forget each other, that we had weathered a storm together and shown collective resilience, and that writing and literature had been our tool for making sense of all the senselessness and loss. We toasted with coffee, champagne, juice or water, and I snapped the photograph. Was I ready yet to let the screen go dark with this photograph saved? Ready or not, I watched them disappear, never to fill those little boxes again.

With a profound sense of something much larger than a single course having come to an end, I stared at my own reflection on the now-emptied screen. I knew I would have to find a way to continue this teaching and learning that I love so much. The focus would now be on me, what I want to learn going forward. Having taught writing and compelling literature for all these years, I would turn to my own writing and reading with the echo of all those lives I had touched and whose lives had touched mine.

One of my creative writing students from the ’80s sent me a message recently that resonates: “Somehow, you filled the room, and each of us in it, with joy, hope and belief in ourselves … With your guidance, we turned the raw material of life into meaningful narratives.” As I sit at my laptop now, I feel ready to begin following my own guidance, to commence rather than retire.

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