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SOAPBOX: The chat

On KJZZ's SOAPBOX, The Show  turns over the the mic to listeners. For the spring 2022, writers tackled the theme LOST.

I sat waiting as four ASU students crossed Fillmore Street, in line, like the Beatles. They were nearly identical, down to three of them wearing white Dr. Martens lace-ups. I was dropping off my daily saliva sample after work. They were headed toward Roosevelt. I smiled at the effort they'd obviously put into everything about themselves. I smiled at their boots.

It wasn't until we returned to the classroom last spring that I realized I had missed kids' shoes. I had missed kids, of course, their faces. I knew them in different ways, like where to park in their apartment complexes when I delivered big envelopes of books and copies where fillable online forms wouldn't do. But I didn't know anything about their hair color or freckles or style.

I thought I was okay teaching to a screen of black boxes. We kept it lively in the chat. And in some ways, it was easier to track their work in real time, as they typed.

And that is what I was doing when my brother called one morning to tell me our grandmother had died. We hadn't seen her in person since her 99th birthday in March, when we shared pineapple upside down cake through the front window of her group home — no visitors allowed.

I burst into tears and consoled my brother, not realizing I wasn't muted. I fumbled to click the microphone icon, then gathered my wits and explained myself in the chat.

I teach high school English learners. One of my freshmen students typed back, "I wish I could give you a hug." I had never seen her face. She took care of her little brother Cyrus while she attended our class, and I could hear him making car noises in the background.

Another message popped up in the chat.

A student wrote, "It's sad, but in my religion nothing is permanent. Our bodies are just temporary." I had only seen the very edge of his face during a video call with his mom. He had a 4-year-old sister who wouldn't leave his stuff alone. And a brand-new baby, Henry, who he wasn't allowed to hold and who cried all the time.

That was early October, and almost six months later, I finally met these two students, and more who returned to campus, while others lingered in the safety of their homes and black boxes.

The girl who wished she could hug me was a startling beauty who wore no makeup, baggy ripped jeans and clunky, spotlessly white Nike Air Force 1s.

The boy who reminded me that nothing is permanent? His sneakers were likely a pair that his dad picked up in a big box store, and he wore them without thought, or even tying them. He had thick glasses that I nagged him to wear. He carried a small gold Buddhist book and forgot most everything else.

I had barely three months with their masked faces. And then I lost both.

He didn't show up for his final exam and moved to Texas for his dad's job without saying goodbye. She vaporized during the summer, as so many students do, and I have no idea where she went or why.

This year we’re back in person, and I see kids' shoes everywhere again. I admire the new and bold ones, express astonishment at the cost, and compliment a serious pair of combat boots paired with a pink fur-trimmed skirt. I think, "Oh, she would wear those," or "Oh, his too-long laces flopped around just like that."

I wonder where these two kids are, what they're doing, what shoes they’re wearing. I wonder what they learned, what they lost.

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