Amidst the sea of emotions pandemic teaching brings, I find myself often thinking of Tony Stark’s character arc through Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. So the other day, to explore these thoughts (and avoid thinking only of school once I was home), I decided to rewatch both films back to back. I realized two things. First, I was very critical of Avengers: Infinity War when it first came out and, while I stand by my critiques of the glaring plot holes throughout, I grant the film works much better when watched with Avengers: Endgame. On its own, it’s disappointing. But as the first half of a six hour movie, it’s far more enjoyable. Second, Tony Stark’s journey is a surprisingly solid metaphorical stand-in for what teaching feels like right now. Or, so as to not universalize my feelings for every teacher everywhere, Tony Stark’s journey serves as a surprisingly solid metaphorical stand-in for what teaching feels like right now for me. Would you like to know what pandemic teaching is like? Well, if you’ve seen Infinity War and Endgame it turns out you already kinda know.
The analogy first came to me last week. Hannah and I were talking about life and work and just all that’s weighing on us right now. As I was discussing some of the ways pandemic teaching triggers my anxiety disorder specifically, Hannah reaffirmed our being together in this in just the most nerd-tastic way. She said, “I am your rock. The Bucky to your Cap.” This is one of so many reasons why we’re friends :). I told Hannah, “I appreciate the Bucky/Cap analogy but, given the way the school year has been, let’s go with Carol pulling Tony in from outer space moments before he dies XD. I think that’s where I’m at emotionally/the way I’m leaning on you now.” And we went on to talk about holding each other and helping each other in all this and how, while it seems impossible now, its easier to try and stand in all the craziness knowing we have each other and we’re not going through it alone.
But that analogy stuck. I kept thinking of that scene – how hopeless and near death Tony was at the beginning of Endgame when Captain Marvel arrives, radiating light, like an angelic vision of salvation. And I kept thinking of how run down, frightened, defeated, and frayed Tony was at their li’l Avengers round-table planning meeting shortly after Carol brings him back to Earth. And I kept thinking, “YEP, that’s kinda what I feel like every day now.”
I’ve written before of how, for better or worse, I see a lot of myself in Tony Stark at certain points in the MCU (you can read about it here, if you’d like!). As I sat down to rewatch the films, I realized there was so much more that resonated than just that one scene. And, all of a sudden, I was feeling connected to Tony in a brand new way. I saw how his journey through Infinity War and into Endgame captures not just how I’m feeling now but what life was like last spring when lockdown first hit and pandemic teaching began in its initial remote phase.
I like to look at last spring as the moment when Ebony Maw and Cull Obsidian – two members of the Mad Titan’s infamous Black Order – first invade Earth, landing on Bleecker Street to procure the Time Stone. In the chaos and carnage raining down, Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Doctor Strange, and Wong come to meet them. Tony’s scared. He’s never faced anything like this. And as he freely admits to Doctor Strange, Thanos has been in his head for six years. He’s been dreading this moment. He’s been imagining it. He’s been trying to prepare for it…but how can you prepare for something like this? Loki, Ultron, and even a superhero Civil War are one thing. The planet massacring terror of Thanos and his Black Order on a quest for the absolute power of divine transcendence is something else.
Still, as Ebony Maw and Cull Obsidian speak with the menace and certainty they’ve becoming used to by having the power of Thanos on their side, Tony greets them with the same sort of snark and confidence he always brings to the table. And when they refuse to leave, he suits up and starts hitting them with the wide weapons array his new nanotech Iron Man armor has to offer. He’s never fought this sort of battle before and he’s certainly never faced this sort of an enemy before but he’s not backing down. He’s Iron Man after all and he’s going to do what Iron Man does.
That was those first few weeks of lockdown teaching last spring. I was doing something I’d never done before and trying to figure out how to be an effective online teacher with absolutely zero preparation. In addition to trying to figure out how to convey content, I was also trying to figure out how to meet my students in their needs and anxieties (not to mention managing all my own feelings of anxiety, isolation, and fear that came with the pandemic lockdown). The sort of “fun” of waking up and working from home soon wore off and the pressures began to mount. Tony’s frustration at being unable to protect Peter no matter what he does is something I was feeling in my own way. How do I meet my students in this? How do I begin to protect them and help them manage their anxieties and fears when I’m a pipin’ hot mess? How do I help them when I’m struggling to hold it together myself and feeling largely cut off from all that makes teaching familiar and all that makes teaching feel like home? How do we handle shared global trauma?? But, like Tony, I suited up and tried my best all the same.
And yeah, sure, there’s Zoom and Schoology and modified assignments and assessments and grading and all of that. But no matter how intuitive and amazing the Iron Spider armor Tony made for Peter was, it couldn’t keep him from ending up in the middle of a fight he had no place being in. Tony did everything he could to protect Peter, yet he still had to deal with “failing” him (or at least feeling like he failed him (as Peter obviously made his own choices (and there were many things happening in Thanos’ invasion that were beyond Tony’s control (but anxiety is often triggered by a sense of lack or loss of control (even if it’s irrational))))). And yes, not being able to teach as much as I usually do is hard but that’s not where the sense of struggle comes in. When the pandemic hit last spring, my main goal was trying to give my students something to do so they weren’t sitting in their anxiety but I strived to make it contemplative or introspective work, more meditation-oriented than assessment-based. But no matter how I tweaked my class I couldn’t “fix” not being with my seniors during their last days in high school. I couldn’t have that sense of closure of watching my sophomores move into becoming upperclassmen. I wasn’t there with my homeroom every day, kids I’d had for three years and now (as we don’t have homerooms this year because it’d be just one more time we have to sanitize the classrooms during the day) I don’t get to see those kids – kids I’ve seen every morning of ever day of their high school career until the plague came – each morning of their senior year. And yes, I can’t control any of that. But it doesn’t mean it’s not hard nor that those feelings don’t weigh on me.
Onboard Thanos’ Q Ship, Tony does battle with Ebony Maw and, while he was in over his head and it was certainly scary, he manages to figure it out. He protected Peter. He saves Doctor Strange. It was scary as hell but he does it. That was last spring. But the movie doesn’t end there nor is the story over for those of us teaching in this.
Despite all the new technology and the allies beside him and all his badass-confidence-broadcast-over-fear-and-anxiety-in-an-attempt-to-hide-it, Tony still ends up floating in deep space in a ship he doesn’t understand on his way to a planet he’s never seen to do battle with a monster who is all but a god. Tony is sooooooooo far outside his comfort zone. He’s facing something he’s never seen before and he’s 1,000,000% unprepared for it. Again, that’s sort of where I was at the end of the last school year. I was empty. I was run down. I was never happier to see summer vacation in my life. The previous three months felt like years and in many moments I was struggling to keep my head above water. But the battle wasn’t over. Far from it. The pandemic wasn’t going anywhere (in large part because people in this country refuse to wear masks and socially distance) and neither was Thanos. So summer vacation ended up being reminiscent of Tony’s flight towards Titan with Peter and Doctor Strange. And, as I’ve written before, much of my summer was spent with Grandma as she died and then mourning her loss. It was far from a restful summer. No recharging happened. In fact, I was more empty when the school year began than I was when the previous one ended. And THAT is saying something.
So…this school year. What’s it like? What am I feeling? How’s life?
There. That’s it. That’s what my life feels like now. Thanos hits Tony with a fucking moon. Tony’s battle with Thanos – especially once the Guardians, Spider-Man, and Doctor Strange are sidelined – is particularly vicious (by MCU standards). Tony’s armor keeps trying to rebuild itself and protect him but Thanos just keeps coming and keeps smashing it to pieces. Thanos is unrelenting. He keeps hitting Tony again and again and again. Tony can barely stand and, no matter what he does, his armor keeps getting peeled away piece by piece. Ultimately, Thanos breaks off a piece of that armor – that which not only protects Tony but gives him a sense and source of his identity – and stabs him mercilessly through the gut with it. And I…yeah, I get it. Right now, I do.
School has always been home. And I’m not using that in a generic, cliché sort of way. It’s always felt like home to me and the friends I’ve found there have become sisters and brothers to me in the fullest sense of the word. I love what I do and where I do it. Teaching my students, year after year, brings me not only a sense of identity but some of the purest experiences of joy I’ve ever known. I love what I do. But now? To be honest, I’ve been back teaching for three weeks and I’ve cried almost every single morning on my way to work. I’m not talking a few tears rolling down my face either. I’m talking heavy sobbing that I need to try and get under control by the time I’m in the parking lot so I can go in and do what I have to do. It’s all too much.
There are just too many balls in the air at once. We are allowing students to choose to be face-to-face, remote, or hybrid so they are in school some days and at home others. We’re letting the students change what they want to do whenever they want to change it, too. This means I am teaching a full course load in person and over Zoom simultaneously with a constantly shifting in-class and online roster. All the students are learning synchronously…except for the ones who are asynchronous. So far we’ve had over a dozen student mode changes each week. Because of social distancing I don’t have a classroom so each new mod brings with it setting up all the computer and camera equipment again and WiFi glitches (though thankfully those have been few and far between) bring a complete halt to class because now I can’t record my lesson nor can my remote kids access it. The end of each mod brings with it disconnecting everything as well as sanitizing everything in the room – all the student desks and chairs as well as anything I touched before the next teacher and students come in. All day I’ve got to be mindful of correcting any incorrect mask wearing (I’m very thankful I’ve not personally experienced any resistance to this and I’ve only had to correct a few students) and the end of each class, once the desks are all sanitized, means I have to try and police social distancing with my students. And no one is trying to be “bad” or disregard the policy! But we are social creatures by nature. It is wired into our biology and psychology. We are meant to be together and to socialize. So the idea of my students staying six feet apart from friends they’ve known for years all the time is literally unnatural yet it is something we need to do to survive. And how do you carry that sort of pressure – trying to keep them alive – when looking at your students? With all the extra things I have to do with my class time, the only way I can handle it is by teaching less than I normally do. When I’m going to fit everything in isn’t even something I’m worrying about now. I don’t have the mental energy.
This is every day. And it hangs over me many nights and weekends, too. When Tony tells Thanos, “You throw another moon at me, and I’m gonna lose it” I’m actually a little bit jealous. Because he only gets hit with one moon. I feel like I’m getting hit with a moon every single day. I’m not used to this. Teaching is hard, but I’ve always loved my job. It’s the best thing in the world! I couldn’t imagine doing anything else! But now I dread going to work most days. I see the pain and exhaustion on my face mirrored on the faces of my friends and loved ones who I see at work every day and that breaks my heart, too. So when Tony tells Thanos, “My only curse is you,” I get it. Pandemic teaching is just one big, fucking curse hanging over a job I’ve always loved. This situation has taken something that was so intrinsically tied to who I am and something I love so very deeply at a place I love so very much and left it fractured. I don’t need to love my job; I don’t have to be gluttonous…I just wish I liked it. I’ve struggled to find any moments of sincere joy since we’ve been back. I often feel like I’m wearing a (second) mask, playing a part in front of the room, as the rest of me is just trying to figure out a way to stay standing.
So yeah, when Endgame begins we find Tony trying to find little moments of fun and normalcy with Nebula onboard the Milano even though they know, logically, there’s no way out of this, I get it. I look for those little moments, too, with all this weighing down on me. In his recorded goodbye to Pepper, Tony says, “You know, if it wasn’t for the existential terror of staring into the literal void of space, I’d say I’m feeling a little better today.” I mean, I don’t have the “literal” part in front of me (thankfully) but…YEP. That about captures my mood as I cry on my way into work every day. Then, moments before death, Carol Danvers shows up and brings Tony, Nebula, and the Milano to Earth just as all hope was about to be lost. But the threat of Thanos and the reality of Thanos’ victory are still there.
This idea of salvation in those around you while still facing an overwhelmingly oppressive existential threat feels very familiar right now, too. I mentioned Hannah and I talking about this very thing above but I’m also blessed to have Theresa, Ashley, Matthew, and Sarah beside me at work. I don’t know that we’ve ever drawn daily strength so regularly from each other. Outside of work I have so many beautiful natural supports I can turn to as well, to be heard, to seek advice, to discuss things that aren’t work and manage to bring all sorts of smiles (the fact that Jeff has finally started watching Doctor Who is SO AMAZING that even the anxiety of pandemic teaching and the stressors of living within this global trauma get lost in our bantering about all the layers of the Doctor, their companions, and all the show offers). I’m also in therapy 2-3 times a week now just to try and survive and thank God for my therapist because, if it wasn’t for Katherine, I’d’ve quit already. She is a miracle worker. I wouldn’t be functioning right now if it wasn’t for the work we do.
So I am blessed to not be alone in this. But a strong circle of natural supports, no matter how much love and comfort we can draw from each other, is far from having a clear plan let alone getting through this to the other side. When Carol brings Tony back to the Avengers HQ, she’s made sure he survived. But survival is far from being ok. Tony is broken, defeated, and – for once – has absolutely no way to fix any of this.
Looking for a strategy, Steve turns to Tony trying to get some measure of who Thanos is. He says, “Tony, you fought him.” Tony replies, “Who told you that? No, he wiped my face with a planet while the Bleecker Street magician gave away the store. That’s what happened. There was no fight ‘cause he’s…he’s unbeatable.” As Tony continues to vent his fear, frustration, and anger at Steve over everything that happened, Rhodey tries to deescalate the situation. Rhodey says, “Ok, you’ve made your point, now sit down.” Tony says, “Ok, no, no, here’s my point. [turning to Carol] She’s great by the way. We need you. You’re new blood not a buncha tired old mules. I got nothin’ for you Cap. I got no coordinates, no clues, no strategies, no options, zero, zip, nada, no trust. Liar. [giving Cap the housing unit for his nanotech armor] Here, take this. You find him, you put that on, you hide.”
Tony collapses soon after. But that – all those emotions – I get that. Being so run down, frightened, defeated, and frayed and feeling all the anger, frustration, and lack of control that comes with the knowledge that no matter how much you prepare you can’t win is unbearable…even for a superhero. The best you can hope for is survival. And even then, who knows what shape that will take or how long it will last? Despite my natural supports, despite my circle of loved ones, despite my beyond-brilliant therapist, I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this job in this environment and stay healthy. I’ve no plans to quit. I don’t want to quit. But I have given myself permission to do so if I realize I need to. Pandemic teaching very much feels unbeatable. I got nothin’. I’ve got no coordinates, no clues, no strategies, no options, zero, zip, nada. And I just wanna hide. I want to run away from all of it. I fantasize about working at Target where, given what Catholic school teachers make, I’d earn pretty much what I’m making now without this emotional maelstrom swirling around me.
These circumstances also breed tension between the faculty and the administration. I fully understand that trying to figure out how to run a school in the middle of a pandemic leaves you at the nexus of many impossible decisions. There is no good way to do this. The administration, naturally, has to figure out how to keep the school running. How do we keep the lights on? How do we give parents what they want? How do we give students what they want? The faculty then is left trying to carry out these decisions every day. The nature of our job as faculty being shaped by forces that we have no say in can be hard. We don’t have a seat at the decision-making table as it were. This brings with it all sorts of additional struggles. As Tony tells Steve once he finally decides to help with their Time Heist, “I just want peace. Turns out, resentment is corrosive and I hate it.” So, in addition to carrying all these unbearable burdens, all of us – administrators and teachers alike – are trying to navigate a way to be heard and valued by the other in the process. Because if we lose that, if we lose our sense of family or our knowledge of the love and respect we have for each other, then we’ve lost everything. Resentment is corrosive and I do hate it. No one wants to end up in that place with no way back. If we do, then we might as well close our doors.
If I were watching Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame JUST to see the parts of Tony’s journey that mirror my current emotional experience, I could pause after he collapses at that meeting. The quote about “resentment” is spot on and so important but, while I agree completely, I’ve not yet walked the path that lead him to it. I haven’t had my moment where I figure out time travel. I haven’t had that moment where I’ve found a way to save the day. I’m not there. I’m still struggling. I’m still broken, frayed, and hanging on by a thread.
Obviously, I don’t know how this will end. How can I? I’ve no idea what my remaining journey with pandemic teaching will look like. As Hannah and I discussed last week, we’ll help each other and keep ourselves together in this and then, hopefully, we’ll get to the point where we’re strong enough to go punch the Thanos that is the emotional shit storms of our lives right in the face. Or maybe paraphrasing what Tony tells Steve when he agrees to help with the Time Heist would be a better way to frame the ultimate goal here. We’ve got a shot at getting through this but I’ve gotta tell you my priorities. Bring back all we lost, I hope, yes. Keep my mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health along the way, have to, at all costs. And, maybe not die trying, would be nice.