We start my semester in rows. Then we slowly breakdown the rows into a circle. In the round my students see each other and discover what characteristics they have in common. With the circle we come together, creating space to connect, to reflect and to share. At a time of crisis, that impulse increases. At the height of the World War II, when the National Gallery was empty of its pictures, its rooms were repurposed as a concert space. Audiences flocked there daily despite the dangers of bombing. Why? Because we need community.
Yet, over the last few years, due to the pandemic, we were told to keep apart, speak through boxes online. We were told not to gather. Our venues were shut, our students isolated. The economic impact on institutions large and small was catastrophic. Students are separated from each other, and the burden of the country fell on workers, doctors, nurses who could not choose the risks they take, or when and where they worked. We knew distancing was necessary, but it went against every instinct we had developed over the generations— since the postwar renaissance in this country created the enthusiasm, the support system and the renewal of classrooms for all students.
Now we are returning to our classrooms, and our communities. Our initial response is naturally to crave a return to the normal. Normal? Some say: we should wait until the virus has irradicated, until we can fill classrooms and offices and theaters again, and then we will get back to business. But this may not, and surely should not, be the route to follow. This crisis forces us to address our purpose and our ways of working. In ways that have been mirrored across the country, for example in ultra-rapid changes to transport patterns and home working, changes that were already thought of as necessary will be accelerated. We must now think of new ways to engage with our communities as a priority. Maricopa Colleges should redefine its strategic purpose as offering a civic space for people and ideas. It is these local connections to our communities that will provide a bedrock for our future work.
My students are torn between their communities, yet, like the audiences who filled the National Gallery to hear music, they want to be with each other, learn as a community to live with common principles. If we do not encourage the community, and persist with separation, we will lose what we see as same, and only see what is different. The classroom is for community building and seeing the faces of our selves.