October 5, 2020
Southern live oaks welcome students to Middleton High School. Symbolic of the community, the oaks remind of the long history of the area and the school. (Photo Credit: MHS 2020 Yearbook Staff)
(TAMPA, Fla.) — The first time I saw historic Middleton High School before a global pandemic, I pulled into a visitor’s space and looked out at the land between the school and the small intersection in the East Tampa neighborhood. Fifteen Southern Live Oaks provide quite the canopy of shade. Outside the immediate area, gentrification looms. But like those tall, sprawling trees, this neighborhood school has deep roots, remaining the same regardless of the attempts to change.
Now, as a teacher, I pull into my assigned spot in the faculty lot. Those oak trees are steadfastly guarding the school grounds. The neighborhood remains, despite recent protests and riots over racial injustice this summer. But as the world outside has changed, its effects now encroach onto campus.
For years, nearly 1,600 neighborhood and magnet students filled the campus. They jammed hallways, crowded into the gym for raucous pep rallies, and the auditorium for special events like Black History Month. At lunch, cafeteria lines were long, students spilling into the courtyard to munch on hot chips and Gatorade. At home, games, family, friends, and alumni packed stands to cheer on their favorite Tiger.
But not this year, with nearly 1,000 students learning online. Masks cover half of every student’s face, the latest fashion accessory akin to a new bag or phone cover. Inside hallways flow one-way, with green circles pasted to the floor to guide students. Students stand on properly spaced maroon dots for the lunch line.
Teachers distance desks for the few students on campus and teach their online students through Zoom simultaneously. Last year, my favorite class had 38 students, with some students sitting on the floor. My largest class this year has 46, but only 19 in person. There are enough desks now.
The time between classes is the most unusual part of the day. Last year, it was wall-to-wall students, rushing to make the most of their allotted five minutes and avoid a tardy. Now, the few students trudge by. New traffic patterns reduce contact, and administration is lenient with tardies. The kids know this. They aren’t in a hurry anymore.
Despite these alterations at school, one thing remains the same – the students, 1,600 of them needing an education but missing how life used to work. It’s why we’re doing this in the first place. It reminds me of those big oak trees. Change is inevitable, but like those oaks, this school has deep roots in the community that isn’t easily shaken by the winds of change.