The Washington Post Magazine

Teaching ‘Hamlet’ While Quarantined

Technology often gets a bad name these days. But after a student at my high school tested positive for coronavirus, I saw firsthand the importance of being able to connect.
(Jing Li for The Washington Post)

My Advanced Placement Literature students’ tiny faces peered out at me from individual cells on my laptop screen as we studied “Hamlet.” “Is Denmark a prison?” I asked them. “What makes one’s world a prison?” The school where I teach, SAR High School in the Bronx (pronounced by its initials, S.A.R., not like the SARS virus, as Stephen Colbert joked on late-night TV), was one of the first in the country on quarantine after a student tested positive for covid-19 at the beginning of March. So my students and I — physically isolated in our homes, worried for our health and the health of those around us — sat together but apart on our second day of quarantine, looking at our screens and discussing literature.

Our conversation about Denmark as a prison was wide ranging, including an exploration of Jeremy Bentham’s 1780s model prison, the panopticon, a darkened central tower surrounded by rows of cells. When we explored Hamlet’s laments and feelings of imprisonment at being watched by his friends, family and courtiers, my students’ discussions took a turn for the meta as we recognized our own imprisonment. We had begun reading “Hamlet” in our classroom weeks ago, the coronavirus at a safe distance, but now we were in our own rows of cells on the sanitary medium of the screen.

Back when the virus had nothing to do with us, “Hamlet” was a school assignment; now it makes us wonder what the future will bring for each of us individually, for all of us collectively, and whether it will protect or punish. The unknown future, always just on the periphery for high school students, has moved front and center, and the questions that felt most important until recently — What will be on the physics test? Who will win the basketball game? — have been shunted aside for more existential questions: Will we all live? What brave new world is this?

Our new world is one of total connectivity, with all of its germy entanglements.

America is imprisoned in its own way by the current scourge; some of us are literally required to stay in our homes while others are imprisoned by panic and anticipation. Disease is a prison; fear is a prison. We at SAR are in its eye now, but we’ll all be there soon enough. What was once confined to Denmark — or to Wuhan, China — envelopes the globe, and we see with each passing hour how futile attempts at containment can be. Our new world is one of total connectivity, with all of its germy entanglements. We are Richard Powers’s human overstory: united even as we wish to extricate. We watch the news and see the truth: We cannot fully separate ourselves despite our best efforts.

We know that connectivity got us into this mess in the first place, and yet we are bewildered when a virus from the markets of the Chinese province of Hubei inhabits the classrooms of a Jewish high school in the Bronx. Connectivity has happened before, but never this fast nor this easily. And when it’s spreading something we don’t want, we grab whatever flimsy shields surround us and draw them closer; we build the walls higher.

Yet, as I have realized during the quarantine — while endlessly tuned to Facebook, online news, NPR and the energized faces of students in my remote classrooms — connectivity is not only the enemy but also an ally. Ultimately, it’s what will get us out of this mess too.

Today’s classes, and tomorrow’s, and however many more days of quarantined classes we are asked to endure, are not Bentham’s prison or the horror of Big Brother’s telescreen, despite appearances to the contrary. It’s so easy to criticize technology. We worry about kids on their phones, their loss of attention span and time wasted. We watch the documentary “Screenagers” and buy magnetic-lock bags for students’ phones by the dozens. Anti-tech is a popular place to be. But now, stuck at home yet teaching nonetheless, I feel the promise of tech and the amazing, hopeful connectivity of our world, the possibility of taking control of the panopticon. We are secluded from the potential spread of germs but not separated from our learning. The kids lounge on their beds or perch at desks; one had a younger brother in the corner of his screen, and another petted a giant dog. We are together, and learning, even in the midst of fears and chaos. We study “Hamlet.” The world will endure.

Gillian Steinberg on her balcony at home. She was quarantined after a student at her school tested positive for covid-19. (Mark Davis)

On the first day school was closed, in early March and a lifetime ago, we were still free to go out, and I treated the surprise vacation like a slightly worrisome snow day. By the following afternoon, we were told to self-quarantine for three days. The school kept us responsibly informed with daily online meetings, but the situation evolved so quickly, and, hungry for information, I also turned to the Web, not sure which local news sources, email groups or individuals to believe.

Then, after one day without quarantine, we were told to head back inside for another nine days. I followed every directive, knowing the good it could do, but as the decisions of local officials shifted, my frustration mounted.

Technology can separate us, distract us and instill fear in us; teachers know well that it sometimes does all three. It can feel like its own prison. But it can bring us together too.

I don’t feel confident in our politicians to know, or listen to, the right answers. So much of the political response seems haphazard and uncertain; we saw this coming, so why aren’t we prepared? I wonder whom to believe, how much to worry, and what that worry will accomplish. And as the novelty fades with each additional day indoors, the resentment grows. My quarantined son and I are supposed to stay six feet away from my non-quarantined son and husband, no easy feat in an apartment. More than that, I miss walking outside, sitting in Starbucks, mornings at the gym.

But then I check myself, recognizing that the life of ease and advantage I’ve always lived has become even starker in quarantine: I can choose from seven grocery delivery options, five streaming services to catch up on movies I missed this year, 20 neighbors and friends who’ve offered to drop off whatever we need.

I was interviewed by The Washington Post on the first day of quarantine — just a few quick lines about the experience. I live in New York City, where, 20 years ago, before digital media, few people would have seen that interview. But immediately, friends from near and far reached out: We saw your quote. We heard your school is closed. How are you? What do you need? The Post article got the attention of ABC News, and after my 20-second clip I started receiving messages from high school acquaintances I haven’t heard from in decades who found me easily with a few clicks. We’re praying for you and your students. Hope you’re doing well.

I know that my situation is privileged. My pay isn’t being docked; I’m not using up my sick leave; I have great insurance. Privilege allows SAR’s remote classes to be possible; privilege allows me to chat on my phone while my husband works on his desktop, one son takes his own online classes (video chat on the laptop, note taking on the school-issued iPad) and the other does homework on his computer. I recognize that many kids here in the Bronx, with New York City public schools now closed, will miss not only class but also breakfast and lunch, and they likely won’t have a well-funded one-to-one iPad program to fall back on, complete with four full-time technology staffers to troubleshoot throughout the long days.

But if they did have that, what a wonderful world it would be. Technology can separate us, distract us and instill fear in us; teachers know well that it sometimes does all three. It can feel like its own prison. But it can bring us together too. Schools and businesses that can do what SAR has done prove that no one has to be alone. We’ve seen from the It Gets Better Project what technology can do for LGBTQ+ kids who would have been isolated in another age. The students in my school who would have been stranded through these weeks by swirling reports of symptomatic and asymptomatic, of secondary or tertiary contact, of news conferences and contact rules and misinformation, don’t feel abandoned. They’re in class. We’re together. They comfort me and, I hope, I comfort them.

Denmark may have been a prison, but that was Hamlet’s perception only because he was quarantined, in his own way, and made to question his sanity and his place in the world: His friends were turned against him by their proximity to his powerful uncle, and eventually he was sent away, left to navigate a terrifying reality on his own. In the end, he chose poorly. But unlike Hamlet, we’re not alone. We will probably never be alone again. That may be a chilling thought much of the time, but this month, separated physically but completely plugged in to a network of inspiring school leaders, colleagues, students and friends, I feel blessed by the promises of technology and of community. We’re in this, as we’re in everything, together. As Hamlet says to his last friend, Horatio, “If it be not now, yet it will come; the readiness is all.”

Gillian Steinberg is an English teacher at SAR High School in the Bronx.

Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Design by Michael Johnson.

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