Resilience Requires Rest

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As I write this, we are a week away from spring break for our students and staff. If you are anything like me, spring break provides an opportunity for a much-needed break, but it also offers a chance to catch up on a list of projects that I have been putting off for the last few months. If I’m not careful, I will look up and be ready to return to school after the break needing to get some rest after a grinding week of project after project. 

Unfortunately, we often glorify the idea of being constantly busy and productive. I certainly include myself in the portion of our population struggling to find time to rest. We wear our busyness like a badge of honor, measuring our worth by the number of tasks we can accomplish in a day or week. But what if this obsession with productivity is harming our ability to be resilient? What if one of the keys to building resilience is taking time to rest?

Rest is not laziness or weakness. It is a crucial component of building and maintaining our overall well-being. When we take time to rest, we allow our bodies and minds the opportunity to recharge and recover from the stress and demands of daily life. But rest is not just about taking a break from work. It’s about intentionally creating space for relaxation and rejuvenation. This could mean taking a nap, going for a walk in nature, meditating, or simply spending time with loved ones. Several years ago, Melissa and I began hiking in an effort to maintain our mental and physical well-being. It provided an opportunity for us to disconnect our minds from work while still staying active. While this isn’t a substitute for physical rest, it is one of the many ways we choose to recharge. After a particularly tough week at work, it isn’t unusual to find me in a stream with a fly rod in my hand. We also find rest in a camping trip or a Sunday afternoon drive. Whatever form it takes, rest should be a priority in our lives if we want to build resilience.

Why is rest essential for us?

  • Rest promotes better immunity and physical health. When we are stressed and overworked, our bodies are not able to operate at optimum levels. We heal slower and are more susceptible to getting sick. [1]
  • Rest promotes self-care, emotional regulation, and improved mental health. In a well-rested state, I am much more prepared to be the best possible version of myself. I handle difficult decisions and unwelcome news much better than when I haven’t taken the time to intentionally recharge. When our minds are at ease, we can better handle both challenges and setbacks. [2]
  • Rest improves cognitive function. Over the past twenty-five-plus years of working with students, I have discovered far fewer ways to improve a student’s ability to perform in class more than making sure they have a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, we regularly have students that arrive at school after having slept poorly, and they struggle academically because of the inability to get the rest they need. When we take time to rest, we give our minds the space to wander, make connections, and explore new ideas. We can focus and make much more effective use of our time when we are fully rested. [3]

Rest is a crucial component of building resilience, and it is just as important a fuel for our bodies as a proper diet. It’s important to prioritize rest in our lives if we want to continue to handle challenges and setbacks with grace and resilience. I hope those of you getting ready for spring break make plans that include a healthy amount of rest.

[1] Prather, A. A., Janicki-Deverts, D., Hall, M. H., & Cohen, S. (2015). Behaviorally assessed sleep and susceptibility to the common cold. Archives of Internal Medicine, 175(4), 463-469.

[2] Lovato, N., & Lack, L. (2010). The effects of napping on cognitive functioning. Progress in Brain Research, 185, 155-166. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-53702-7.00009-9.

[3] Sabia, S., Fayosse, A., Dumurgier, J., Dugravot, A., Akbaraly, T., Britton, A., … & Singh-Manoux, A. (2019). Association of sleep duration with cognitive change. JAMA Network Open, 2(4), e191459.

Better Together

Better Together

My mother was upset when she learned that I wanted to serve RC Colas and MoonPies at my wedding reception.  For some reason, she had a more traditional menu in mind for the event.  She eventually forgave me.   Some things just go better together, and for most of my childhood, RCs and Moon Pies were way up on the list.  I would also add Pepsi and Peanuts. I know many of you will argue that it should be Coke and Peanuts, but I’m from North Carolina, and here it’s Pepsi.  I would probably add Burgers and Fries to the list as well.  I am a real sucker for a great burger with fries.   I imagine we all have our own list of unusual combinations that we could also add to the list.  For me, I like the saltiness of potato chips with my ice cream, and I usually add a spoon full of my wife’s strawberry freezer jam to the top of gravy and biscuits.     Finding foods that go well together is a great reminder that togetherness is a critical component of our lives.   

When our school leadership team met this summer, we discussed what we would like our theme to be for this school year. After a lengthy debate, we settled on Better Together, Climbing to the Top. Little did I realize how critical the idea of “Better Together” would be to the start of this school year.   Because I love to spend my free time hiking with my wife, I love the visual image.  After a busy, stressful week, one of our favorite things to do is to find a mountain with a great view at the top and climb it.  Even though I tried not to steer the team in any particular direction, the theme fits me perfectly. 

Over the past two weeks, we have witnessed both extremes of togetherness. We watched a mask debate unfold within our school district.  We have seen passionate, well-meaning people on both sides of the argument get caught up in this debate.  Unfortunately, unnecessary jabs have been hurled by community members that happen to see the world differently. We have also watched a flood devastate our community, and those same individuals work together to help their community recover.  If the last two weeks have helped us see anything more clearly, I hope that it is the simple fact that we are better when we are together.    Togetherness asks us to step away from our own wants and desires to selflessly carry another’s burdens. 

Pulling together is natural for communities when they face the devastation we have witnessed over the last week.  Unfortunately, within a few weeks, as the trauma we have experienced begins to fade, we will be tempted to return to the same behaviors we witnessed before the storm.   We will be tempted to start hurling insults about political views and mask requirements on social media. We will be tempted to turn back to ourselves and our own wants and desires.  If we are not careful, we will become inwardly focused once again.  

Togetherness is powerful because it requires us to acknowledge that others matter.  It requires us to do the hard work of finding common ground, realizing that most of the time, we are not as far apart in our views as we might imagine.  It asks us to keep an empathetic point of view and see the world through the eyes of others that might have a different vantage point than us.  

Years ago,  I watched a kid put grape jelly on his sausage biscuit.  I had never thought of trying the two together.  After he walked away, I tried the same combination, and it worked.  So now, nearly twenty years later, I ask for a grape jelly packet when I order a sausage biscuit.  I watched it being modeled by someone else, I tried it, and it stuck.  Our students must see us model togetherness.  They must see us finding common ground and working together to find a solution.  It can’t just happen after a crisis. It has to be a part of what they see us do on a regular basis.   Suppose the only actions regularly modeled for them are anger, decisiveness, and division. In that case, it will be difficult for us to expect the next generation to pull together, keep together, and work together.  We must continue to model for them how togetherness works.  

Coming together is a beginning; 
keeping together is progress; 
working together is success.

Edward Everett Hale

The Power of Positivity

When I first walked through the doors at Hazelwood Elementary after being selected as the new principal in June, I was greeted by a blue sign with the school’s five core values: Positivity, Respect, Integrity, Determination, and Effort. This week, I want to focus on the first of those values. While we all know a positive attitude matters, we have all struggled with it at some point. I will be the first to admit that sometimes I  struggle with remaining positive.  When things are going good, I fight the voices in my head telling me that this is too good to be true and something bad must be about to happen. If things aren’t going well, the voice reminds me that I got myself here, and now I will have to get used to it. It will never be any better. Being positive isn’t always easy. 

Our students must understand the power of positivity. They must be reminded that their attitude matters. Positive schools can become a powerful force in their communities. It requires principals, teachers, support staff, students, and parents to unite behind an attitude and belief that we can make it better. Positivity keeps us from settling where we are and helps us see and understand that we have the power to make it better.

In the last ten months, I have learned the importance of positivity in keeping students in school and keeping our doors open. While teachers did a fantastic job of maintaining a learning environment that worked while students were at home, most teachers will tell you that the difference in student growth between a virtual environment and a school environment is significant. Not only is it in the best interest of our local economy to keep our school open, but it is also in the best interest of our students. Their future depends on our ability to keep them safe and keep our doors open.  

We have been very fortunate that our schools have not been the epicenter of cluster events. Our teachers and support staff have worked incredibly hard to keep rooms clean and sanitized. Our students have done a great job of keeping masks on and maintaining appropriate distancing throughout the day. This couldn’t have happened without the hardworking of everyone involved.

As we returned from break and began assessing student reading levels, we realized that our students are making positive, meaningful growth. Some of our students that had fallen below grade level while being out of school during the spring and summer are now reading on grade level and are back on track.  

The next three months will be critical to helping all of our students get back on track. Most experienced educators will tell you that the period between the return from Christmas Break and Spring Break is the most important 12-14 weeks of the school year.  This is the time when students make the most growth.  

We want to encourage our students each and every day to make tomorrow just a little bit better than today. This habit of constant ongoing positive improvement will make a difference. Showing up each day with a better attitude and a willingness to work harder and grow more will help shape your child into the adult they become. As a young boy, I watched my dad get up every morning, pack his lunch and leave before the sun came up for a blue-collar job. He never complained about hard work, and he set the expectation that tomorrow would be better than today. Watching him shaped my work ethic and my attitude. I encourage you to help us shape the next generation, one day and one student at a time.

Moments and Memories

Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.

Dr. Seuss

This Christmas far exceeded my expectations. I must admit, after an exhausting year, I set the bar kinda low. I just planned that this Christmas would be no different than any other day since mid-March when the world shut down and life as we knew it changed forever. Then it started to snow.  I think someone was confused, “We can’t end a year like this with a white Christmas,” we need it to be seventy and sunny, the exact opposite of what might be on most of our Christmas cards.  Snow at Christmas would be too perfect for a year like we have all had.  Then I woke up to four inches of snow.  

Our Christmas began this year at my mom and dad’s house on Christmas Eve. For the first time in my memory, my mom had names on her presents. I wasn’t sure if we should celebrate or worry about her. At any rate, none of the kids opened crockpots this year, and that was a small victory. I could tell more stories than you are willing to sit through about what happens when mom forgets what she has wrapped and has to guess which gift is yours.  We all got the right gifts the first time, no one had to swap.  It was perfect.

However, she did continue her tradition of telling my little brother what dad “wanted” for Christmas.  She does this from time to time with my little brother because he continues to fall for it. This year dad “wanted” a set of sawhorses. Evidently, this lack of sawhorses prevented dad from completing many of the items on Mom’s retirement “to do” list. It’s an ongoing list with no real hope of an end.  He will put the sawhorses in the basement with the stapler he “wanted” a few years ago. Bro, next time buy the gift dad “wants” and wrap it but put mom’s name on it. On second thought, don’t; it has become a fun part of our family story.  

My nephew nearly scared us all to death at Christmas this year because he had decided he was old enough to carry a pocket knife. He said he would need it to open his presents, but thankfully, we could get them opened before he took matters into his own hands. I showed him the scar from the year I got a pocket knife for Christmas and decided to teach myself to whittle. We spent that Christmas in the ER while dinner was getting cold. It didn’t seem to phase him; he thought the scar looked cool. He did leave with all of his fingers and toes, so we can count that as a win. Sometimes the memories you don’t make are just as important as those that you do.

In the past few years, our Christmas gifts have become much more focused on memories. My mother has always been a bit sentimental. This year mom glued one of my matchboxes to a piece of wood and made a Christmas scene with it. She has always been crafty, and I am sure she saw it in Southern Living or one of her craft magazines. It was a neat gift, and my mind immediately went back to the five-year-old version of myself. Each Saturday, my grandfather would take me to the five and dime on Main Street. There was a massive selection of matchbox cars on the back wall in the basement corner, and we would pick out one. I would take it back to his house and add it to my collection. It’s funny how a memory will return. For just a few minutes, I was standing next to him again.

Mom followed it up with another gift from our family history, a framed 5×7 black and white photo of my grandfather’s Gulf station on Main Street from back in the sixties. It must have been Christmas because the lights are hung across Mainstreet.  After Christmas, I will find the perfect spot for it in my office. It’s good to have reminders of how much time and energy has been invested in getting us to where we are today.

I was blessed with two amazing sets of grandparents. It was kinda like the city mouse and the country mouse. My mom’s parents lived in Hazelwood, just a block away from the old school site. My dad’s parents lived more than twenty miles outside of town in the country, well past where the paved roads had turned to gravel and far enough out that you only went to town once a week.  I affectionately called my dads dad Papaw, a title my dad took when his first grandchild was born. Many of those trips out into the country to see my Papaw began at the drug store to pick up pipe tobacco. He didn’t like filters and rolled his own cigarettes. Over the years, Papaw had become proficient at rolling a cigarette with one hand while driving with the other.  He taught me how to do it, but we decided it best not to tell my dad. This year for Christmas, my brother gave me a candle that smells just like his pipe tobacco and a box of butterscotch candy just like Papaw kept in a small glass container on the nightstand next to his recliner. After getting home, I lit the candle, sat back in my rocker, and had a piece of butterscotch. For just a moment, I was back in his house, hearing his bigger than life stories again.  

It’s the pictures of forgotten times, the smell of pipe tobacco, and the taste of butterscotch that I will remember from Christmas this year. Those perfect memories that you savor like a fine meal. On Christmas morning, my wife gave me a framed quote for my office that summed up the last few days. The great philosopher Dr. Seuss once said, “Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.” It’s really up to us what we make of our moments and which ones we allow to become our memories.

Jimmy’s Gift

It is a simple plastic ball the size of a small apple, round and wrapped with a plastic decorative image. It has a single wire attached at the top, and it has yellowed a bit over the years with age. More than twenty years ago, during my second Christmas in the classroom, I asked each of our students to bring an ornament for our Classroom Christmas Tree. The tree stayed up for the entire month of December, and on the last day, before we went home for Christmas break, the students would take their ornaments back home with them.  

That Christmas was especially memorable for me. My son was born in November and was only a few weeks old as we approached his first Christmas. There was a different level of excitement in the air. I was teaching second grade at the time. The last day before Christmas break was an early dismissal, and most classes returned to their room after lunch for a Christmas party. During the party, there were cupcakes and individually wrapped gifts for each of my students. Several students had also brought gifts for me, and the students asked that I open them before the end of the day. You could sense their excitement as I opened each of their gifts. I am sure there were coffee mugs and gift certificates. I can’t remember each one. As I finished up with what I thought was the last gift, Jimmy came up and handed me a hastily wrapped gift. He had taken some of the discarded wrapping paper and a box from the Christmas party and used it to wrap his gift for me. You could tell he was proud to be able to give me something. I remember him telling me that he was so happy that I was his teacher.

I knew Jimmy’s family from the community. His parents were separated, and his mother worked hard to provide for herself and her only son. They didn’t have much, but Jimmy was clean every day when he came to school, and she tried to make sure he did his homework and had what he needed for the day. Jimmy’s dad wasn’t in the picture, but his mom loved him and did her best to provide for him.

When I opened the small box, I found the white ornament that he had brought to place on our classroom tree. He said he wanted me to have it to remember him. And remember him, I do.  

Each year, just after Thanksgiving, we put up our family Christmas tree. In the ornament box, there are dozens of typical ornaments that we pick between to place on the tree. We have accumulated more ornaments than one tree can hold. There are also about six unique ornaments that we use each year. Most are valuable to our family for a variety of reasons, and they have their own boxes. They spend their lives from late December through Thanksgiving wrapped carefully in tissue paper and stored in their own box for safekeeping. Some are expensive ceramic and glass-blown ornaments that we select and use each year. Jimmy’s ornament also has its own box and is treated like the valuable ornament that it is. When my son was in second grade, we told him the story as a reminder that this season is about having an attitude of giving. It’s the only ornament that must go on the tree each and every year. It’s a reminder that giving matters. It is also my reminder that while we hope to have a lasting impact on our students’ lives, they will have just as much of an effect on us.

Please know that I changed the name and circumstances in the story slightly to protect the student’s identity. However, if he read the story and remembered the event, it is similar enough for him to realize it’s about him. I would also want him to know how much the simple gift meant to me!

Solving Puzzles

Being a child of the ’80s, I have some great memories.  Many of these were made wearing parachute pants or a Members Only Jacket.   I remember when Lady Diana became a princess. When  Chernobyl reminded us how fragile the world really was.  We tasted “New Coke” and didn’t like it!  We played with Cabbage Patch Kids and Glow Worms, GI Joes and Micromachines, roller skates and Big Wheels.   We rode in the back of trucks, didn’t wear seat belts, and somehow survived to adulthood.    One toy created in the ’70s didn’t hit the western market until the early 80s and had sold over 100 million before 1982.   We all had one, but most of us had no idea how it worked.

Erno Rubik was a Hungarian architecture teacher at a college in Budapest.  The cube that bears his name was first made of wood and used as a classroom teaching aid.  It took him a month to figure out how the thing worked after he created it.  Six years after it was created, it broke through the control of the communist bloc when it was introduced to the west.  The toy made Professor Rubrik the first self-made millionaire behind the iron curtain. Today, more than 45 years later,  it has an almost cult-like following.  

I received my first cube when I was in elementary school.  I spent about a month trying to figure the thing out before I gave up.  I could solve one side, but I would only make the other sides more mixed up in doing so. Finally, I did what all my friends were doing, I broke it apart and put it back together to solve all the sides.  Essentially, I cheated.  I became proficient in my technique and could “solve” the puzzle in under two minutes. 

I forgot about the cube for several years until I was given one as a gift in my first year as a school administrator. I was an assistant principal and figured out very quickly that being an administrator was a lot like solving the cube.  Each day I would face problems with complex solutions.  Trying to solve one side of the problem often only caused more significant issues with the other sides.  Eventually, I figured the cube out and realized that you couldn’t just see one side of the cube. You had to solve the cube as a whole.  Life has a lot more in common with this six-sided cube than we might realize.

I have kept a Rubik’s Cube on my desk or shelf for the last fifteen years.  The cube has more than 43 quintillion possible moves.   That is a forty-three with eighteen zeros behind it.  However, the cube can be solved with as few as twenty-seven moves.  The trick is to figure out the right twenty-seven moves. Today, with a youtube video and a few hours of work, you can teach yourself to solve the puzzle consistently.    I usually pick it up at least once a day.  Solving the cube reminds me that even the most challenging problems have a solution.  It reminds me that having the right strategy matters.  It also reminds me that I usually have two choices in handling the most complicated problems. I can put in the work to figure out the problem, or I can do what I did with my rubik’s cube when I was a kid.  I can pop all of the blocks apart and put them back together.  I can cheat.  While we can always trade putting in the work to do things right for what’s easy, it is usually a practice reserved for those not prepared to handle the bigger problems.  While it might work for a time, it will never prepare us for the larger issues that we will face.  It doesn’t make us better.  

“Our whole life is solving puzzles.”
Erno Rubik

Pink Ice…

Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s meant many things.  It meant a properly roasted eighteen-pound turkey.  There would always be two pans of dressing, one with and one without onions.  Someone always hated onions, and Granny wanted to make sure everybody was happy.  There would be more vegetables than I can name. We would have cranberry sauce out of a can, evenly sliced, and placed in a serving tray. It meant authentic brown gravy. It also meant both pie and pound cake.   But mostly, for all six grandkids, it meant pink ice.  When I was very young, and some of my cousins were still waiting for their parents to meet, Granny decided to treat us with pink ice.  She would make several gallons of pink lemonade for Thanksgiving and then pour some of it into ice trays to make her famous pink ice.  Looking back, it wasn’t that hard to make, and it didn’t require any unique ingredients, but we only got it at Thanksgiving and Christmas, that’s what made it special.  The grandkids would also get in trouble at some point during the day for drawing out the word “ice” in our best southern slang and making the “i” in ice sound more like an “A.”  It changed the meaning entirely and was another one of those things my mother hated.  The question wasn’t if someone would get the eye from mom, just a question of if I would get it before or after my brother.  

I wouldn’t trade anything for the “pink ice” memories I have of those Thanksgivings.  As I look back at those years, I failed to appreciate at the time how special they were.   I am so thankful for the memories, but I miss the moments.  Family.  Togetherness.  Drawing names for Christmas then putting up the Christmas tree together. It’s those simple moments that we only get once that make these times so unique.   The pink ice that Granny made didn’t take a single extra ingredient.  She had already made the pink lemonade she would use, and she already had a dozen ice cube trays in the freezer.  What made it meaningful was the thoughtfulness and care she took to make Thanksgiving a little more special for her grandchildren.   So often, the most meaningful memories last a lifetime and cost very little.  

For many of us, we need Thanksgiving.  We need a short break from the day-to-day grind, and we need a moment to recenter ourselves.  The last nine months have been extended and unforgiving. This year, there seems to be enough anger and hurt to go around.  Anger and hurt because of the circumstances we all face with the dangers that surround family gatherings.  Anger from all the things we lost in the last year and all of the moments we have missed.   A wise man once reminded me that anger is rooted in the idea that we are hurt because something has been taken from us.  And we are somehow owed.  The only way to truly experience thankfulness is to let go of the hurt and appreciate what we have and what we have had. 

Dr. Seuss once said, “You ought to be thankful a whole heaping lot, for the places and people you’re lucky you’re not!”  We can always find someone who has it better than us, but we also find just as many that have it worse than us.  Beginning to play the comparison game is a dangerous decision that often leads to more heartache than healing.  We take transportation for granted until we have a hurricane and fuel supplies run low, we forget that we are blessed that we don’t have to walk to work.   We usually take the electricity in our homes for granted until a nasty storm leaves us without power or running water.  I don’t make it a habit of being thankful for that until the weatherman starts calling for snow. I haven’t ever appreciated the simple act of gathering for a holiday meal with our family like I do after being asked to be mindful of social gatherings. And, I never really appreciated having students in the school building until they had to stay home.   Now, I feel so much more blessed to stand out at the car line and welcome them into the building each morning.   If this season teaches us anything, I hope it is to be more thankful and less entitled.     

As we get ready to celebrate Thanksgiving, I will take a few minutes to appreciate all of the things we did get to do this year.    I am determined to be more appreciative than I have in the past.   I will do a better job of seeing blessings that I have missed and possibly even find a “pink ice memory” to pass on to the next generation. 


John Muir once said, “Going to the mountains is going home.”  It’s the slogan on the front of my favorite t-shirt. The t-shirt is beginning to show its age, but I still pack it in the bottom of my bag on every trip I take.  I will have it on for every return trip home.  My wife jokes that we will have to stop traveling when the t-shirt finally wears out.   While I love to travel, I love home even more.   The mountains of Western North Carolina are special.  The smell of the springtime bloom, or sticking your feet in a mountain stream after a long hike in the heat of summer.  The view from a mountaintop as the leaves change in October.  The stillness of a winter snowstorm.  I love home. There is nothing like it in the world!   

There is a moment at the end of every trip.  It’s just north of Spartenburg if we are traveling home from the beaches south of us.  Coming from Raleigh, it’s just west of Morganton as you top a small hill.  Traveling east from Knoxville, it’s just after you turn west where I-40 and I-81 split near Dandridge, TN.  It’s the moment the mountains come back into view.  If I am traveling without my wife, it’s a reminder to call and let her know I am almost home.  I don’t have to tell her where I am, she knows.  She would say that she can hear it in my voice. There is something about that moment you get the first glimpse of home!

We take for granted so much of the world around us.  Living here day in and day out, we gradually lose our appreciation for what we get to live in each and every day.  Over the past few months, I have tried to pause each morning before I step off my front porch and appreciate the view. Sometimes we take what we have for granted.

That can’t be more true than with many of the common activities that have been limited over the past six months, and none have been as significant to many of us as the inability to have face-to-face instruction with our students.  I want to commend our teachers and students for doing their very best in a difficult situation.  While we will continue the remote instruction of some of our students, it is impossible to provide the same quality of education remotely as we can provide in person.   In a few days, we will have the opportunity to have many of our elementary students back in classrooms.   We are excited to welcome them back.

Appreciation has several definitions.  It is defined as the recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone or something.  It can also be defined in economic terms as the increase in the value of something.   The law of supply and demand dictates that it is natural for value to increase when an item is in limited supply.  In the past few months, the value of face to face education has certainly increased.  It has appreciated, and we appreciate it much more than we did before.

This pandemic has helped us get more comfortable with change.   When we return to school next week, we want to do it right.  We want to keep our students safe.  But, we are also reminded that we are not guaranteed that this will last.  We could be forced to send students back home at any point in the school year.   While we are planning for the worst, we hope that we will continue with having students in school for the rest of the year.   We must make every moment count. 

As I pulled onto campus this morning, I was reminded that we would have buses arriving the next time I go through this morning ritual.  This was the last morning of work without our students.  It was an “almost home” moment.  The same emotions I feel as I top the hill near the Burke County line and see the mountains in the distance after being gone for a while, I felt this morning.  There is an excitement in the air.  There is an anticipation for the days ahead.  Just like going home!

“The sun does not shine for a few trees and flowers, but for the wide world’s joy.”
Henry Ward Beecher

The Generous Harvest

I rushed home ahead of the rain.  I was on the clock.  We had a field full of potatoes, and the rain was coming in just a few hours.  The rain would make it impossible for us to get the harvest out of the ground this week and probably most of next week as well.  I changed clothes and headed to the barn.  I put the plow on the tractor and drove towards the garden.  Three hours and twelve boxes full of potatoes later, we have the harvest in the cellar as night fell on the farm.  I walked back home in the dark. 

On April 8th of this year, amid the COVID lockdown, we planted two rows of potatoes.  A single fifty-pound bag that I had acquired weeks before when the hardware store began stocking crops and seeds for the spring.  Over the summer, we would watch and wait.  Spraying for bugs.  Tilling the weeds and allowing the leaves to get as much sun and water as they needed to grow and thrive. On September 22, we harvested more than 200 pounds of potatoes.  Easily enough potatoes for us to make it through the winter and spring and into next summer.  We keep the large ones in the cellar while canning the small ones and those cut by the plow during the harvest.  Very little is wasted. 

Small family farmers in the country get very few promises.  They plant with the hope and belief that with the proper conditions and the right effort,  their small investment will yield a crop worth the time and energy they put into it.  Educators in this country make the same kind of investment every day, every week, and every year with our students.  Educators control a small number of variables in a student’s growth, yet, like the farmer, they bear the great responsibility for their success.  Like the farmer, they can’t control the weather, or in the case of 2020, COVID.  But they continue to sow seeds.  

What we do today matters.  And like the farmer that sees rain coming on the horizon at the end of a long dry spell, educators see the conditions changing.  Some students are starting to return to the building.  Other parents are watching anxiously to see if this will work.  They quietly ask themselves,  “Can safely have school amid the waning days of the pandemic?”  The answer will help them decide if they feel comfortable doing the same.  A successful harvest depends on the work we will do in the coming days and months.  I hope we can all agree after a six-month experiment with distance learning that the optimal place for student growth to occur is in the confines of the classroom, not the bedroom or the kitchen table. 

To do this well, we will need the help of parents.  I completely understand the temptation to send students to school when they don’t feel well.   We have dangled our feet in the grey space of “should we send them or not?” and decided that we need to work, and the only way to draw a paycheck is to send them to school.  This year, when placed in that situation again, we must choose carefully.  The decision could affect classrooms full of children, not just one.   Some of our ability to successfully grow students will depend on the decisions made at home. 

As I stood at the edge of the garden with the sun setting over the hill behind the barn, I thought of the last six months of work and was glad we had made the effort.   It will soon be time to plow up the ground and begin preparing for another harvest, but for now, I can take a minute to appreciate the benefit of months of hard work.  Eight months from now, we want to do this in our schools.  We look forward to being able to stand back and appreciate the fruits of our labor.  Tomorrow’s harvest depends on what we do today.

    We must give more in order to get more. It is the generous giving of 
ourselves that produces the generous harvest. 
Orison Swett Marden

What We’ve Lost

On Friday morning, a year ago, I was getting ready for school.  It was picture day, so I was wearing a suit and tie.  COVID had yet to strike the US, so my dad and I had a regularly scheduled breakfast in town at one of the few places that happened to be open before seven.   As I was leaving, I could hear the sirens from the local fire department responding to an accident a few miles from my home.  I thought about going to help, but I was in a suit and tie and wouldn’t be much use in an emergency.  My father-in-law, a volunteer with the department, drove out of our shared driveway in front of me headed to the station.  I thought about calling and checking in with him, but he had his hands full driving and listening to others responding, so I decided against it.  Twenty minutes later, I sat down for breakfast with my dad, having the normal Friday morning conversation about my week, politics, and sports when my phone rang.    It was my wife, and all that she said was, “Dad’s dead!”  

On September 20th of last year, at around 6:15 in the morning, my father-in-law was killed in a traffic accident while en route to help someone injured in another accident.  Needless to say, that phone call and the events of that morning have entirely changed the trajectory of the last year of my life.  There were people to care for in the immediate aftermath, a funeral to plan, and emotions to deal with.  But after the first few weeks, the hustle and hurry settled, and I was left to deal with my own emotions.

For me, the grief process was a lot like a washing machine.  For a while, I was flooded with one emotion and then with another.  I experienced several anxiety attacks in the months that followed, and I distanced myself from others.  At first, I was a bit embarrassed that I was a complete trainwreck on the inside.  I tried to fake it and make everyone around me believe I was ok.   The process of dealing with grief, trauma, and loss has not been easy.  I was blessed with family and friends that I could trust, which allowed me to have a place to open up when I was finally ready.  

I tell you all of this because there is still a significant stigma surrounding mental health in this country.  Sometimes, it keeps us from asking for the help we need, and we pass this perspective on to our children.  We are taught from an early age to keep these kinds of thoughts and emotions to ourselves.  

In a few weeks, we hope to begin to have a large number of students back in our buildings for the first time in six months.  Maybe their struggle isn’t exactly like mine, but they will bring six months of stress, loneliness, and worry with them when they arrive.   During this hiatus from onsite instruction, teachers, administrators, and other educational experts have had growing concerns about our students’ mental health.  For many students, school was a place where they could experience safe relationships and be provided with the mental health services they needed.  During our time apart, many of those supports have been missing.  

One of the essential parts of our responsibility to the next generation is to build trusting relationships.  I was fortunate to have people around me to talk with when I was struggling, and we need to see that every child has that same opportunity for connection.  That connection can be with a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, or someone else in the community.  Those relationships matter more now than ever.  Giving our children the opportunity to open up about their struggles might be the key to their overall health and success.  We must help them understand that we can’t control what has happened to us, but we can control how we carry it as we move forward.