In my virtual third-grade classroom, we told jokes and wrote poems. I read picture books out loud, and when I arranged for a park ranger or museum docent to join us, I told my students we were going on a “field trip,” though I winced as I said the words.

And we made art. During our first watercolor session, a few kids sang quietly, while others murmured about feeling peaceful and relaxed. It felt healing, and I resolved to carve out plenty of time for painting and drawing, for applying vibrant color to blank sheets of paper.

Once each art project was completed, I posted their work on a virtual bulletin board. At first glance, those photos looked like displays from an actual classroom. But a closer inspection revealed more.

I took screenshots of their creations, then cropped out the edges, slicing away the evidence of school happening at home. Still, many pictures looked a little off. Lighting was often dim, so the images appeared cloudy and subdued, as if viewed through a veil. Papers tipped forward or slanted diagonally; their swirls and splashes within my crisply cut corners looked a little wonky.

Strangest of all were the fingers. The children had to hold up their work while a sibling used the Chromebook webcam. At the edges, fingers were usually visible—round knuckles and slender tips, gripping the page.

The first time I glimpsed fingers, I tried to crop them out. I thought it wouldn’t look normal, artwork with fingers in view. I clicked and dragged, and the selected rectangle grew smaller and smaller until the tiny hints of fingertips practically blended into the background.

But it made me cringe, my stomach tightening. It was that queasy feeling that made me realize that using the cropping tool felt visceral and violent, as if I were applying sharp blades to my young students.

The fingers didn’t detract from their art. They completed it, they marked it, they claimed it. Those disembodied fingers revealed children too young to truly understand that what they were living through was not typical. It wasn’t normal. Yet, the children created beauty.

After that day, whenever I pasted the off-kilter rectangles onto a virtual display, I needed to see their fingertips dancing along the edges. It was an intimate peek behind the laptop screen, the glimpse of a resilient child, trusting and defiant, daring to create beauty in the face of such despair. It was as if the children were crying out, “I’m here!”

I hear you, I’d think. I see you.

They held on tight, refusing to let go.

“I’ve got you,” I’d promise. “I won’t let go either.”