Grieving Our Schools: A Love Letter

I was the kind of kid who loved school.  I loved the structure of the days, the nurturing energy of many of my teachers, the intellectual stimulation of academics, the artistic outlets of Specials, the various social joys and complexities that helped me grow in my empathy and sense of self.  Even with a learning disability that made traditional learning challenging, I felt at home in the public school environment.  Even on challenging days, even as a child, I always saw the value of the education and social experiences it provided me with.

My children are similar in this regard.  They adore school.  Their classes, their schedule, their teachers and friends.  The large chunk of day that allows them space from each other to learn and grow and expand as individuals.  It is an environment in which they have thrived and flourished as the unique little beings they are, independent of me, independent of one another, their own oasis of learning and camaraderie.

Of all the things we have lost in this societal response to COVID-19, school has been the hardest loss to process.

I bought a house less than a mile from the Elementary school my children attend.  If I walk to the end of the the neighboring street, I can see the 1960s era building sitting squat in the middle of a corn field.  I work at the school my children attend, my office just two doors down from my son’s Kindergarten classroom.  I transitioned into School Counseling as a career path in order to work on my children’s schedule.  We drive to school together, music blasting in our car, armfuls of bags and jackets hauled into the early morning hum of the building, down the hall to my office for a few short moments before the children say their so-longs and transition into their school days.

For me, my office is a sanctuary.  A small but serene environment where I am able to work in peace, away from the bickering and wrestling matches my kids engage in at home.  I am respected there, a foundational element of the structure of our school, working closely with colleagues to create an emotionally healthy environment for our 500 students.  My opinion matters when I am at work.  My intellect, education, and experience are appreciated.  I am energized by the work I do with my students, by the privilege of supporting children through the complexities of the full spectrum human experiences they live.  At school, I can provide a safe space, nurturing the emotional needs of children so that they can grow with a holistic sense of health and wellbeing.  I am not there to save anyone.  I am not there to fix everything.  But everyday, I can help.  I can do something for the betterment of my community and world.  And that brings me great joy and fulfillment.

For my children, I could not have handpicked a better pair of teachers.  Claira is in a classroom environment where she is loved.  Her wild, creative, powerful energy nurtured and embraced in its comforting structure and routine.  Jack Byron is full of confidence when he walks into his classroom, fully engaged in the learning process, proud of the exponential progress he has shown in reading, writing, and developing his mathematical and scientific mind.  Their teachers are loving, warm, patient, kind, intelligent.  They just *get* children, and I have been filled with satisfaction knowing my children spend their days with women I hold in such high respect and esteem.  This school year felt like a dream.

Yesterday Jack Byron had a breakdown.  He had wanted to do a front-flip from his bed to the tumbling mat below.  I had dissuaded him, and gasped loudly when he attempted with his arms at his sides, almost landing head first, mercifully braced by his knees.  He immediately started crying when he landed.  He was angry at me for setting a rule, a limit.  He retreated to his cozy corner, his closet floor on which he had laid out a soft faux-fur rug and some fuzzy throw pillows. (His space he goes to for a quality cry.). I sat near him, a witness to whatever he needed to express in the moment.  He yelled his frustration over rules, over being told “no” over and over, over not being able to do what he wanted to do.  He wanted to see his friends.  He wanted to be able to leave the house and do fun things.  He wanted what we used to have, a month ago, before all of this began.

In that moment, I felt his pain so intensely.  Because I am suffering the same grief.  By losing our schools, we lost out community, our structure, our daily routine, our social and intellectual outlets.  Our little family of three, once cradled in the comfortable predictability of the school day, now left to our own devices in an unknown world and future.

We are privileged, of course.  I still have a steady income and benefits.  My kids have a highly educated parent, crates full of art supplies, musical instruments, paper and crayons for writing and drawing, books for reading, STEM toys and puzzles.  My kids have more than most.

But we still struggle.  The balance of work and parenthood is impossible as a solo mother, and I’m unable to give my children the attention and patience they need in their early development.  They get too much screen time.  They eat too much frozen pizza.  I yell far more than I would like.  We are all barely holding it together (none of us are really holding it together).  And this is in our home, with all our privileges and all our comforts and our massive picture widows flooding our space with natural light and neighborhood views.

My heart breaks for my students.  For the little girls who would come into my office every single day for a hug, without fail.  For the kids who have disclosed their challenging home lives and the traumas they endure daily.  For the kids who’s parents are struggling to make ends meet, homes filled with very valid stress and discourse and uncertainty.  The kids who, like me, like my children, thrive in the stimulation and structure of public schools.  We teachers, administrators, school counselors work constantly to improve our schools, to make them an equitable and welcoming environment for all.  For many (not all, but many), school is a safe space, a place to grow and learn and express.  A place to fully be yourself.

But, for now, school is closed.

And we are all hurting.

I have never felt more passionate about the importance of public schools in American society.  I have never felt more motivation and purpose in my professional path and role.

Schools will re-open eventually, and we will slowly adjust to whatever our new normal looks like months down this road.  We, as educators, as parents, as therapists, will reenter those halls with a renewed sense of purpose and agency and drive.  We will welcome our students wherever they are in their process.  We will hold space for them as they share their stories of quarantine and isolation.  We will understand when they act out and express their inner sadness and abandonment and fear.  We will provide the nurturing, stimulating, dynamic education environment we always have.

And we will love them.

Because that’s what we do.

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