We were three months into an online class and just past a spike of on-boarding new learners. At this point, and counting the newer learners, about half of the class relented to turning their cameras on. It was Monday and I had a new grey tie. I really wanted to show off my new necktie, so I wore – uncharacteristically – a black shirt.
Learners arrived and turned on their cameras, saying “Good morning. How was your weekend? Are you feeling any better?” and all that. One of the first was a lovely woman, a retired teacher and a dedicated student – one of those learners who is, besides punctual and respectful, eager to please and who quietly but assuredly defends the soundness of the instructor’s pedagogical choices. Let me call her Harmony.
Another learner, another camera: “Oh, teacher, we are both wearing black.” Another learner, another camera, a black blouse. Another camera, another black top: “We are all wearing black.” One student even turned her camera on, then off, then on again and this time she was wearing a striking black hijab. And so came Black Monday and every person on camera was wearing black, except Harmony, the retired teacher. During this camaraderie of black, Harmony did something she nearly never does: she turned off her camera. When I first noticed it, I didn’t think much of it. These momentary black-outs could be any number of things: a phone call, a tea, a bathroom break. Meanwhile, class continued – even as stragglers arrived and turned on their cameras wearing, yes, black. We elicited some language: coincidence, remarkable, “to get the memo”.
Harmony had not turned her camera back on. We checked in on her: yes, she was still there. She participated off-camera but was uncommonly quiet. Even sullen. During the morning lesson, I communicated with her privately via the chat box. She gave away nothing of what was wrong for most of the morning. Nearer to lunch, I checked in on her again. “Everything is just fine, don’t worry.” There were a handful of kind and empathetic learners in this class, and they could not help but ask if she was alright. She revealed, just before lunch, that she felt left out. She wasn’t wearing black.
Over lunch, I checked in on Harmony via email. She explained that she felt left out. Then she felt ridiculous that she had felt left out. I confess that my first instinct was to be defensive: It wasn’t on purpose. It was a coincidence. Nobody set out to make you feel excluded. But I squashed that instinct. I didn’t need to be defensive, and defensive wasn’t going to help me or the class and certainly not her.
It was a surprising moment for me. We all like to feel included. Nobody likes to feel excluded. How wonderful it is to feel included; and how horrible it feels – whether we are children or grown-ups, whether it’s on purpose or by accident – to be left out. Instead of my position of defense, I wrote her something more gentle and encouraging.
After lunch, when the class returned, her camera remained off. Meanwhile three of her classmates, more emotionally astute than I, turned their cameras on – they had changed their black clothes for something bright and colourful. They explained, “We wanted Harmony to feel included.” She turned on her camera, and she said, “thank you”, and she cried. And it was beautiful and lovely. And so we carried on with Harmony restored.
I would have been much smarter and much more efficient if, instead of chatting with her over lunch, I had simply changed my shirt.