Ode to an Elementary School

Photo by note thanun on Unsplash

It was winter break 2013.

We were enjoying a relaxing time at the grandparents’ house with our kindergartener and 2-year-old when Jason’s phone rang. It was the school. We couldn’t fathom why they’d be calling over break when the faculty and staff, ostensibly, would be relaxing at home as we were.

It was the unthinkable. Jack’s teacher had been killed by a drunk driver in a tragic car accident. When we told Jack, who was a kid intensely attached to routines, his main concern was, “But I’m supposed to be Outrider when we go back.”

The Outrider brought in an “All About Me” poster and got various privileges. He was worried the substitute wouldn’t know this, that she wouldn’t know that lunch was at 11:15 or that the folders got passed out at 2:30. That 1:20 was storytime. His anxiety about the schedule added to my own anxiety and grief over the loss of a kind and knowledgeable kindergarten teacher.

The school stayed in close contact with us.

Almost as soon as I’d wonder something (Who would be the sub? Would they be permanent? What would the school do to ease the transition and help all those 5-year-old kids understand what had happened?), then I would get a message or phone call addressing that concern, before I even asked.

Parents were invited to walk their kids to class that first day after the break. As soon as we walked in the door, the sub, a seasoned teacher, greeted us. When I said, “This is Jack,” she said, “Oh hi, Jack! You’re Outrider this week, aren’t you?” I could feel his anxiety melt away. I felt relieved and so very grateful.

The school provided counseling for both the kids and the parents. We had extra parent meetings to allow us to discuss what had happened and what would happen next. It felt real — not like they were just checking a box. Everyone — the substitute, other teachers, school counselor, principal and assistant principal — cared, and they wanted these kids and these parents to be okay.

My youngest kiddo is in 5th grade, now.

The past nine years have held a lot of joy and fun, but the real test is always when the going gets tough. In our time at this elementary school, I have seen the staff handle many crises, big and small, with grace, humor, empathy and steadfastness. Whether it’s nefarious critters on the playground, a flooded first floor or a possible threat to safety in the immediate area, they always communicate with families in a thorough and timely manner. Even when the community could, at times, be less than supportive, I never saw bitterness or defensiveness, only a dedication to meeting the needs of their students the best they could.

The pandemic has challenged educators like never before.

This has not been an isolated incident in which they’ve had to fix things, manage fallout and pick up the pieces. It’s a large-scale crisis punctuated by smaller, related ones. In March of 2020, they scraped together online learning in a week and continued to improve it as it became clear video conference classes would be here a while. They managed the constant flux of in-person and virtual school while coping with their own pandemic stress. It had to be hard, but they never seemed defeated. The going did get tough, but they proved they were tough enough to keep going and to do so with care in their hearts.

The schools were a significant part of why we moved here ten years ago. I had taught in the district and knew our kids would get a quality academic education. But I underestimated the genuine attention to their social-emotional growth and the dedication to the community. It’s admirable to be the kind of teacher who constantly asks yourself, How can I do better? What do the kids in my class need? What can I do for their families? It’s impressive to be the principal who stays close to what’s happening in the classroom and the community. It is awe-inspiring to be the kind of educator who does that during the tragedy of a suddenly-lost kindergarten teacher or during the stress of a pandemic that is constantly morphing but refuses to go away.

I taught school for 10 years, and I’m not sure I could’ve done it.

I don’t know that I could have handled the fraught emotional landscape of death, the constant pressure from the community, the wearing down of a pandemic. So when I think about the people we’ve known who work there, when I contemplate the elementary school that’s felt like a second home for almost a decade, I feel the purest sense of gratitude.

You guys are not my family. You don’t live in my house. You didn’t have to care about my kids in the sea of hundreds that traverse the halls each day, but you always did. (And now I’m bawling, which is why I write these things instead of saying them in person.) From the bottom of my aching, swelling heart, thank you.

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