Tired. Depleted. Grumpy. The pandemic is wearing. We are long past novelty and the adrenalin that carried us through summer. In our community, numbers were down; then they soared. Now, they appear to be dropping again. Our brilliant communications director offers us a summary of cases in the county and the state, hospitalizations, ICU admits and deaths. It is a sobering email to read each afternoon. Teasingly, I named her “the Angel of Death,” but that’s a terrible moniker for anyone at any time. What gets me through is gallows humor and being with girls.
This year, naively expecting the pandemic to have been tidily consigned to history by September, I chose not to teach. For most of my tenure, I have taught ninth-grade English, but my travel schedule until last March was intense — almost a trip a week to raise money for an ambitious campaign — so I worried I would be gone too much, and that the girls would suffer. What a mistake. I have been in school every day. I go nowhere.
Dissolving Worries Day by Day
The obstacles we anticipated last summer were not the challenges we faced in the fall. Even our littlest learners cheerfully don masks, squirt “germ juice” on their hands, and do what they can to maintain “airplane arms” between themselves. The teachers’ ability to navigate the intense difficulty of teaching in person and to include the children who are Zooming in is exceptional. This is not for the faint of heart. Late August found us all outside as much as we could be, under shade canopies our remarkable facilities team constructed over the summer. We moved three grades to our beautiful outdoor campus; they went to school outside and in yurts.
The months slipped past. Before Thanksgiving, we were all remote, Pre-Primary-Twelfth Grade until after the New Year. During those odd weeks between holidays, the third-grade team asked if I could design a drama unit to do online. With pleasure. The girls and I made up two-finger plays; learned about conflict and character, employed kitchen implements as characters. We practiced diction with Smuppet, the Diction Puppet. I laughed more easily, slept better.
In January, they asked me back in person, this time as the dance teacher. I loved cavorting with the girls, teaching them how to mirror one another, talking with them about the way snow falls and how our bodies can reflect what they observe. They are full of energy and wonder — they inspire me. They lighten my spirits.
A few weeks into the second half of the year, despite my reassurances to the contrary, parents began to worry that we would still be remote next year. Some long-serving faculty decided to retire — I empathized. Gifts to our annual fund were delayed by weeks. We are all weary of this pale version of school where hugs are forbidden and where we must smile extra hard with our eyes to be understood in our masked faces. When a teacher needed to take a leave of several weeks, I stepped in to cover one section of seventh-grade English and Social Studies. Teaching Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca helped me manage all the hard work we do each day in school. There is always a lot of work to do in schools in mid-winter, but this year, without a real break since last March, the list of tasks feels daunting.
What I’ve Learned
What I realized helps me the most is teaching; it reminds me why I wanted to lead a school in the first place. I am the headmistress, the lead teacher. And all of it — the frustration, the tension, the new hiring processes that make use of Anti-Racist primes, the capital campaign — all of it is manageable when I spend an hour a day with students. They astonish me with their good questions, their repeated observations that Max DeWinter is creepy — he is — their joy when given a Hershey Kiss after their vocabulary quiz, the perceptive comments they wrote yesterday in neon marker on the window panes. The girls loved being asked to write on window panes with neon markers in every color!
I’ve learned, too, over the past three weeks that seventh-graders find me amusing — a hard teacher, to be sure, but funny. One night this week, my 16-year-old son and not a student at my all-girls school, conferred a compliment on me:
“It’s good they like you, Mom. Sometimes seventh-graders hate their teachers, but I’m not surprised.”
“Why?” I asked.
“You never talk down to them, Mom. It doesn’t matter how old they are — you talk to all kids like they are people. And sometimes you are sort of funny.” High praise.
The girls, I realize, make me a better leader. I am so grateful to them. The rest of it? It will all be here tomorrow. But soon, we will get vaccinated. We will all be back together after spring break. We will still wear masks, but we will move forward.
In late August, we will start again. Next year, I think I will teach ninth-grade again, but teaching eighth-grade or seventh-grade would be good, too. And third-grade drama/dance. I know what I need. If the girls help me to stay calm and optimistic, I must teach. Because, by teaching, I better serve this school I love.