They Need Our Faces

The title of a C.S. Lewis book—Till We Have Faces—seems to me a haunting image appropriate for our time. Lewis suggests that it is only when we know ourselves that we are able to receive unconditional love. As a veteran teacher, I believe that to deny our faces to anyone, but particularly to children, is to deny them knowing themselves by denying them us. It is emotional child abuse; it is unconscionable; and it is right in front of us, literally and figuratively in our faces. 

Before the Covid lockdowns and mandates, we saw faces everywhere, all over our lives. Faces are a significant part of our spoken language and are part of our literature, our poetry, and our entertainment...for a reason. We use idioms about faces to impart all kinds of imagery: We “fall on our faces;” we “spit in faces;” we “save face;” we “get a slap in the face;” If we are unlucky in poker, it is likely our thoughts are “written all over our face.” In his prescient book 1984, George Orwell says “if you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” 

Faces are everything. 

When we interact with other people, we rely almost totally on watching—and then reading—their faces. We know instinctively that children’s development depends almost entirely on their learning to read the faces in front of them. This is why, whenever we interact with children, we make sure they can see our entire face and we are more animated than we might otherwise be.

Although the American Academy of Pediatrics recently removed from its website all information about the importance to infant development of seeing facial expressions and the CDC has doubled down on masking in schools, no sane person can that face-to-face interaction is important to children’s social and emotional development. (The AAP claims the information’s disappearance resulted from moving content to a new platform and that the information, once reviewed will be back, maybe, before year’s end. The timing is interesting.) And while there are still sites like this and this to go to for evidence of what our instincts tell us, we don’t really need proof. 

We know that kids need faces. We know they need our faces. We. Just. Know. 

Thus, it is as curious as it is appalling that whenever we discuss how lockdowns affect society at large and children, in particular, children’s most basic need has been relegated to the bottom of our priorities, even though there are already signs these effects could be tragic.  It is especially frustrating that most teachers continue almost robotically to follow the teachers’ unions diktats regarding masking in the schools, rather than strongly advocate for the “least of these” in their care every day. 

Remarkably, when it came to children’s need for socialization, we acknowledged it. We recognized that virtual-only schooling caused many kids to feel isolated, in some cases causing them severe emotional trauma. We admitted that by implementing virtual-only schooling, we had—albeit unintentionally—denied children something they needed in order to be whole, healthy, and happy. 

But we haven’t treated the need for children to see faces with the same urgency or fervor. We haven’t asked ourselves what blanking out part of our faces—blanking out part of us—is denying our children. We haven’t asked this will cause long-term or, worse, permanent damage to our children, effects that may in the end be far worse than their contracting an infection with a very high recovery rate in their demographic. 

Notably, the only people who seem to be rebelling against school mask mandates have been parents, but their pushback has been limited, with parents complaining about masking children, while ignoring masked teachers. Generally, school-wide face mask requirements are just accepted; the possibility that faceless children spending eight hours a day with faceless teachers might—just might—be a terrible idea has disappeared from our discussions as effectively as have the lower halves of our own faces.  

Having said that, just because we haven’t yet acknowledged these effects doesn’t mean the effects aren’t there. They are particularly significant in the classroom, where, by masking everyone, we changed, fundamentally and quite dramatically, the relationship between teacher and student—and not in a good way. Understanding that relationship is key to understanding both how it was changed and why we need to change it back. 

Author Gail Godwin once observed that “good teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths theater.” She was right. Just as the relationship between the actor performing on a physical stage with a physical audience is a symbiotic one, so too is the one between a teacher and his students; one cannot function without the other. 

When we mask students, we effectively blind the teacher, removing the “audience” from the “actors.” Without access to student reactions, the teacher can have no accurate and real-time idea how students are receiving a lesson. Thus, he can’t—in real-time—adjust his presentation accordingly. Worse, the nuances of his students’ facial expressions remain invisible.

In a classroom full of masked students, how could he possibly see the trembling lip of a shy or embarrassed seven-year-old, or understand a mumbled reply from an awkward high school freshman (both reactions that reveal so much more about these kids than seeing only the student’s eyes can)? The answer is he can’t. (Duh.) 

Masking the teachers—covering up the faces of the “actors”—is as damaging and destructive to the teacher/student relationship as is masking students. Let me repeat: Masking teachers is as damaging and destructive to the teacher/student relationship as is masking students.

The feedback that students get from their teachers in the form of facial expressions is a vital component of both the learning dynamic and the relationships they have with their teachers. For preschoolers and all hearing-impaired students, who are learning how to form words, watching their teachers’ mouths to lip-read is even more critical.  

I believe adults continue to wear masks for a variety of reasons, perhaps because they are still deeply frightened of contracting the virus, or because they believe they must “virtue-signal” to avoid the Wrath of Mask-Karens. I also believe that, if parents truly understood how damaging are the effects of school mask mandates on their children, they would not hesitate to wear transparent masks or shields instead of opaque ones or even use the results of Sweden’s non-masking approach as their defense to go mask-less and risk bringing Karen Wrath down upon themselves. 

Before we allow masking to continue, we must first admit that, when we allowed students to come back to school but required everyone to be masked, we sabotaged the advantages of the physical school experience over the virtual-only school. In effect, we traded one bad idea for an even worse one. 

Then we must have an honest discussion about what we are actually doing to our children when we mask them and their teachers, all in the name of “protecting” them. 

I don’t think we are protecting them at all. I think they are suffering.  Quietly. Behind their masks. 

And I believe they will continue to suffer until (to paraphrase Lewis) we all have faces again. 

Our children need our faces. 

They need us. 

We should give them our faces back. 

Petra North is the pseudonym for a retired high school teacher. She may be reached at Petra.North@livingingrownupland.com.

Image: Masked in the class by HaticeEROL. Pixabay license.

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