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. 

Appreciation

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.

Making Mistakes!

Every child should learn to ride a bike.  It is one of the rights of passage for a child to eventually take the training wheels off and ride without an anxious father running along behind.  For my son, this happened when he was three years old. He had a bit of a stubborn streak, and we were camping in a remote campground in the national park.  All the other boys camping with us that week had bikes without training wheels, and he felt a bit slighted having to tag along behind with his “Baby Bike.”  Since bikes designed for three-year-olds don’t usually come with removable training wheels, we spent the better part of the first day walking through the campground looking for someone with the tools necessary to remove them.  He was insistent; he would not ride the bike with the training wheels.  After an hour of looking for tools, we used the only tool that might work to remove the wheels. A hack saw.  The move would be permanent, and we would not be able to put them back on after they were removed.  So I sawed off the training wheels from a brand new bike we had purchased the week before for the camping trip.  I had a bit of a lump in my throat because if this didn’t work, it would be a very long week!   

The wheels came off, and within the day, he was riding without me running along beside him.  By the end of the week, he was doing laps around the campground.  Yes, he went home with scabs on both knees and elbows, but he was riding his bike like the big boys.  It is still one of the best family vacation memories we have.  Those are great memories of sitting by the campfire watching as our three-year-old does laps around the campsite on a tiny bike without training wheels.   

While I am not a psychologist, nearly thirty years of working with young people have taught me the importance of letting students make their own mistakes.  Falling is an essential part of both our and their growth.   Students who build a degree of resiliency are far better prepared for an uncertain future than those who have not had these experiences.  Please don’t think I am advocating letting students get hurt or injured, but I encourage you to let them figure it out for themselves. If I’m honest, I was the parent that wanted to run along behind my son for much longer than necessary.  It was his mother that finally looked at me and said, “He has to learn to fall.”   These small falls are essential to what they become.

As we continue this experiment in remote learning, teachers are noticing that it is difficult for parents not to help students with assignments.  The student that is struggling to comprehend a reading passage suddenly answers every question correctly. The student that doesn’t know their multiplication tables is suddenly doing multiplication with larger numbers. The struggling writer is now writing like a published author. I know the temptation to help make sure an assignment is perfect is tempting, but it may not help our children as much as you might think.  

One of the core questions our teachers ask each day is, “Are our students learning the material that we are covering today?”  This may be the most challenging question that we ask during every remote lesson.  Teachers use the answer to this question to decide the direction they go for individual students during a lesson.  They must have useful data, and this data comes from the assignments students are doing at home.  When you help your child with this work, it gives the teacher an inaccurate picture of the student’s ability and makes it difficult for us to customize the instructional level that they receive.  These mistakes can lead to both growth and academic success.

In last week’s edition of the Principal’s Pen, I made a grammar mistake.  Some of you may have caught it.  I was horrified and angry with myself when I noticed it.  I changed the published copies that I could, but I realize there are still a few copies floating around with the mistake.  After I got over my initial anger with myself about the oversight, I realized it was the product of a late revision and an author that was in a hurry!  The mistake helped remind me that as adults, one of the ways we naturally handle our mistakes is to reflect on our actions so we can prevent the same error from occurring in the future.  This is precisely what we want to teach our children to do, and we rob them of the ability to figure it out if we fix it for them.  When my son fell off his bike, he had only one choice if he wanted to learn.  He had to get over the fall, get back on the bike and start peddling!

Gifted Grace

A few years ago, while attending a conference near the middle of the state, I received an email that would change the trajectory of the next few weeks of my life.  I was waiting for the keynote speaker to take the stage, and while I waited, I decided to check my email. I hoped to possibly start to get caught up on a days worth of missed emails that would need replies.   I didn’t want to spend the evening in my hotel room, returning emails.  When I opened my email, I immediately noticed an official email from a federal auditor that had been working with our district.   It seems I had made a small but incredibly significant typo in a request for a federal reimbursement, and now a large sum of our district’s federal funds was in jeopardy. Let me explain that I have struggled most of my life with reversing letters and swapping numbers when my stress levels increase.   I am usually pretty good about being self-aware of my errors and correcting them before submitting final copies of work.  Unfortunately, on this day, I missed one. Instead of dating one of the forms the 21st, I dated the paperwork the 12th.  This put most of my paperwork out of order and had the possibility of resulting in the denial of our reimbursement funds.  For the next three weeks, I worried and waited as my fate, and perhaps my career, sat in the hands of a federal auditor.  If you have ever work with a federal auditor, they are known for being by the book and not always being open to giving individuals very much grace when honest mistakes were made.   Fortunately for me, three weeks after the event began and with lots of explaining, agonizing, and apologizing, our reimbursement funds were granted. My mistake was forgiven.  I was the benefactor of the gift of grace.

As we hopefully return to school next week, we have talked about making sure we are giving students grace where we can.  We understand that every home situation is different, but most students will struggle somehow with the grind of doing school from somewhere other than the classroom.   As educators, we must remind ourselves of what life must be like for our students.   The standards still need to be high, but grace can’t be left out of the equation.

In the past few weeks, many of our teachers have faced a similar struggle. First, they have dealt with the necessity to learn an entirely new delivery system for instruction.   Then, after preparing for this possibility most of the summer, they have spent the last week waiting while our district deals with ransomware’s ripple effects on several district devices and servers.   In the end, the best we can do is to extend grace to each other and get through this difficult time the best we can.

Over the past week, I have heard both complaints and understanding about the weeklong closure of school.  It is very easy to catch ourselves doom scrolling through social media. Some find this as an appropriate avenue to voice both complaints and concerns.  I want to encourage you to look instead for opportunities to give others the gift of grace.   Each day, we find ourselves in multiple situations where we have the chance to give grace to those around us.  Not only is grace free, but it also benefits both the giver and the receiver.    With everything going on in the world around us, the gift of grace is just what many of us need.    

“The ideal man bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace, making the best of circumstances.” – Aristotle

Green, Yellow, Red

8/20/2020

“What’s that yellow band on your wrist for?”  This is what the six-year-old in the grocery store line asked me this evening.   Kids tend to cut through all the political correctness and get right to the point.  You may notice staff members at Hazelwood Elementary wearing colored bands on either their wrists or name tags.  These colored bands help identify staff members’ comfort level with proximity to others during the pandemic.  We certainly still recognize that the current orders from the Governor require both social distancing and masks for everyone that enters the building.  As we progress through the year, we are hopeful that students can return and that some of the safeguards that are currently in place can be relaxed.  As that happens, this is how our staff will communicate their comfort level with others that enter the building.  I want to be clear that this isn’t a license for our team to act outside of the current set of expectations for schools.  We just want to make sure that our staff members clearly communicate their comfort level and where their personal space should begin.

The green band is worn by staff that have the highest level of comfort interacting with others.  They have evaluated the risks associated with the disease and decided which precautions are necessary for them and their family.  The yellow band is worn by staff who are still a bit hesitant and want to continue maintaining their physical distance in most cases.   The red band is the most restrictive. It is worn by staff that wish to keep their distance from others with very few exceptions. So, Green means “Go,” Red means “No,” and Yellow is somewhere in the middle.   If you are on campus, you will see a variety of colored bands.  In some cases, we have teachers and teacher assistants working in the same rooms that have different levels of comfort with physical proximity.  We believe that you can have different opinions about the pandemic and still respect others and work together to educate students.  

These bands came in midweek, and I walked around the school, handing out bands to members of our school community.  As I did, I was surprised by some of our staff’s choices, some that I thought would be one color chose another.  I was surprised by some of the team members that requested a red band. We all work around individuals that may put on a good act, but underneath there is still a significant amount of anxiety working in close proximity to other individuals.  It has been a healthy exercise for our staff to see and understand how to best interact with their colleagues and respect their boundaries.

On day two, a staff member came into the office and asked if it was Ok to take a red band.  She had chosen a yellow one the day before and explained that she was yellow on most days, but today she needed a red one.  For many of us, our comfort level with the pandemic changes from day to day.  So, several staff members have multiple colors in their desks for this exact reason.  Some days we just need to be yellow or red when most days we might be green.  Whether it is wearing red every day or only on some days, we had to establish that it is ok to not be ok.  It is also a great reminder that these same emotions, thoughts, and ever-changing comfort levels are just as present for students as for staff.  If we have adult staff that have a heightened level of anxiety with social distancing due to the pandemic, then is it fair to expect that our students will experience these same emotions.

You might ask if we are going to provide bands for students when they return.  The answer is, “No for Now.” Here is why. We feel it is both our responsibility and our charge to do everything possible to protect our students from exposure.  With that in mind, we are treating all students as though they are wearing a red wrist band.  This is the safest option we have right now.  

I could not ask for a better group of people to serve with than the staff at Hazelwood Elementary.  As I said, we have staff choosing to wear a variety of colored bracelets.  Some red. Some green. Some yellow.  Most days I choose to wear a yellow band.  However, if I am honest, there are days I find myself wanting a red band.  Staff have started to recognize the comfort level of others and even ask questions like, “Am I too close? Do I need to move back?”  I have had staff walk into my office and walk up to my desk only to apologize and step back.   We want to do a great job of focusing on others’ comfort level as much our own.  I love our willingness to focus on others, especially our students.  We are just as ready to have students back in the building as many of you are.  We want to do it safely, and we want to make sure that we can sustain having them in the building without increasing the number of community exposures.  When the time comes, know that Hazelwood is a judgment-free zone, just as we have agreed that it is ok to be comfortable or uncomfortable with this pandemic, it is also ok to want your child to be in school or to wish to keep them home for remote instruction.  We recognize that some of our parents have a comfort level of green right now. For others, the comfort level is yellow.  For others, it is red.  It is our responsibility to build your trust so that you can have your students back in the building when you are ready. Regardless of your choice as a parent, know that we will do everything we can to help your child continue to grow into a responsible, respectful lifelong learner.  We look forward to working with you to make that happen!

In Our Togetherness, Castles Are Built!

Irish Proverb