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.

Shelter-in-Place, the Good Stuff

kid drawing chalk art on sidewalkIt’s a learning experience.

When my oldest was asked, as a kindergartener, “What’s something your mom always says?” that was his response. He could’ve said any number of things:

What’s that smell?

Why is this wet?

I JUST cleaned this.

Not ’til I finish my coffee.

Get down. That wasn’t meant to hold your weight.

Or the ubiquitous, Why is there always crap all over the living room?

But my lovely firstborn chose something that makes me sound insightful. I would deliver this “learning experience” adage when he was down on himself for making a mistake, trying to point out that mistakes are how we learn to do something different the next time. I was not born with this wisdom. I, just like my kid, expected perfection of myself the first and every time. It was only later in life I began to tell myself to learn from my screwups and move on.

While all of this sheltering in place isn’t a mistake I’ve made, instead of lamenting what we can’t do, what’s not available, I can look at what I’ve learned from it. 

  1. We do not actually need all the activities we had previously scheduled into our lives.
  2. We are all pretty good at entertaining ourselves (even the oldest, extrovert child) when we have ample opportunity.
  3. While I am fond of baking, given enough free time, I still don’t like to cook.
  4. The people in my neighborhood are awesomely supportive of each other in good times and bad.
  5. Having only each other to play with for quite some time, our kids are now emotionally closer to each other.
  6. I hadn’t lost interest in my hobbies before the pandemic; I’d just lost time and energy enough to want to pursue them.
  7. Jason and I can still do projects together, and even if they are a pain in the ass, we don’t take it out on each other.
  8. Trading books, puzzles and plant cuttings with friends may not be the same as dishing in a bar together, but it’s fun and bonding in a whole different way.

These are the things I want to hang onto longterm. Most of them have to do with protecting free time so that everyone in our family has the opportunity to get bored and think, “what next?”

Some people take “what next?” time and invent things to solve the world’s problems or start new, innovative companies or side hustles. That’s not what I’m after here. I want to maintain the leisure we’ve found during this time of everything shut down — books, movies, gardening, playing. That, to me, is the stuff that makes life worth living. And coronavirus has made me realize, I missed it. What have you learned from the pandemic fallout that you’d like to keep, longterm?

Pandemic Thoughts: If You’re Not Okay, That’s Okay

Businesswoman hiding behind plant wearing disguise
Copyright: Shannon Fagan

Idea Overload

I quit social media again today. Okay, so “quit” may be a strong word since I’m posting this, but I am definitely dialing back. I do this periodically when it starts making me feel like a failure in my own life. And since the response to Covid-19 has ramped up, I definitely feel like I’m falling short.

The internet is saturated with ideas for those of us fortunate enough to be healthy but also stuck at home.

  • Make a schedule!
  • Go for a walk!
  • Have a family game night!
  • Read these 18 self-care tips to stay happy and healthy at home!
  • Do these 47 education crafts!
  • Here are some video links to free yoga! Free online classes! Free footage of California Condors doing the congo!

Here’s what happens to me as I scroll through all of those helpful posts (sooo much help): I start to feel pressured. I begin to feel like I am falling short, like I am not enough. I haven’t hand-sewn any face masks for healthcare workers, I haven’t made my kids do any school work yet, I have availed myself of zero free YouTube workout videos. We are basically acting like it’s summer vacation around here, sans day camps.

The Good

We’ve been on some hikes and some walks. We are making the kids do housework, and we are discovering some new shows to watch. I am enjoying our lax schedule and the idea of distance learning as a fun social experiment. It will be interesting to see what we learn as a society from all this, what will change permanently. <— See! Positive attitude!

I have also learned that even when you do chores, go running, read a book, play a board game and make everyone rake leaves, there is still a LOT of time left in the day to binge-play video games.

The Not So Great

Here’s what else has happened in our house since social distancing began: Jason yelled and threw things because (not really because) he lost at a video game. The kids have gotten in fights. I have cried in my morning coffee because I don’t have a job. Ou dog is driving us all nuts with her constant scratching because her foot thumps on the floor, and when she does it upstairs, it’s like a seventy-pound Thumper from Bambi is sounding the alarm for approaching doom. Our very own pandemic herald.

It’s Okay if You’re Not Okay

You can do all the “right” things. You can meditate, make schedules and mentally list everything you have to be grateful for, and still have a hard time. This IS a hard time. Whether your stress is derived from health issues, financial worries, being cooped up in the house with your family or a combination thereof, it is okay if you’re not totally okay.

We all feel better when we take good care of ourselves and our families. I’m not suggesting everyone spend the next several weeks wallowing alone in dark bedrooms with nothing but Netflix for company. Not the entirety of it, anyway. But there’s nothing wrong with you if all those helpful suggestions don’t make the anger, worry or fear disappear.

The big stressors are there in the background, so if you still grind your teeth, get irritable and yell at someone or close your bedroom door and cry, congratulations! You’re having a normal human reaction to things that are stressing out the entire damned globe. No amount of family game night is going to fix the downward-sliding economy, make a sick loved one well or get us back to our normal lives any faster. It just might make it a bit more tolerable, that’s all. Those big things will take time; we can’t repair them with essential oils or apple cider vinegar.

“These Uncertain Times”

I have a hard time answering when people ask me how we’re doing in these “uncertain times” as the media like to put it. We’re doing pretty good. We’re not too stir crazy or bored, and we all still like each other. With more free time, we’ve been getting outside a lot and spending some actual quality family time together. And also, Jason and I are worried about our finances and the medical vulnerability of some of our relatives. Sometimes that leaks out as irritation and anger. But at least we’re talking about it.

I’ve only got one suggestion to go with the mountains of advice you’ve read lately: If you are scrolling through your newsfeed, and you start to feel bad about the way you’re handling the Covid-19 crisis, close the app and social distance yourself from social media, just a little. Hell, you don’t even have to put your phone down; go play Words with Friends or something. Call a real-live friend and vent to them everything that’s pissing you off lately.

Bottom line, at our house, we’re okay, but we’re not totally okay, and as I remind myself daily, eventually, all of this will be okay. If you’re not totally okay, either, that’s okay. Don’t make not being okay even less okay by feeling not okay about feeling not okay. Okay?