Don’t pass it by –the immediate, the real, the only, the yours.

—Henry James, in a letter to Edith Wharton

Amy the Amaryllis. Photos courtesy of Jill Donovan.

Several years back I was given an amaryllis bulb by a seventh-grade parent as a Christmas gift. The bulb came packaged in a lovely red and gold box complete with a starter vase, planting instructions, and a tiny packet of plant food. I was delighted to receive this gift, but because I was coming out of an incredibly busy fall semester (our sons both in high school, my husband and I juggling demanding teaching schedules, both guys running cross-country, our evenings and weekends taxed and overloaded), once the vacation arrived, I basically collapsed: the box never made it out of my school bag. 

Nearly two weeks passed before I noticed my mistake and retrieved the bulb, fully expecting it to be petrified. Instead, it had bloomed. With no attention whatsoever — no water, sun, soil, or food — this stubborn little bulb had bloomed. And despite my somewhat inconsistent care in the years since, “Amy the Amaryllis” has continued to flourish, reminding me season by season of the beauty and magic of resilience.

New in 2022

Having come through an arduous couple of years, I think educators are collectively longing for a fresh start — for newness and rebirth. At every level, from nursery school through graduate school, we are either witnessing or reading about teachers leaving the profession, schools scrambling to fill vacancies, and students struggling with curricular gaps and compromised mental health. As nurturers, teachers routinely shoulder the weight of our students’ anxieties, our colleagues’ edginess, the turbulent news feed, and the relentlessly uncertain political and environmental landscapes — all while navigating whatever life challenges we ourselves are experiencing. So how can we tap a fresh influx of creativity, energy, and joy? How can we refill our heads, hearts, and learning spaces with the effervescent spirit that drew us to teaching in the first place? How can we mimic Amy, who continues to flourish and flower whether the growing conditions are ideal or not? Ironically, the crazy demands of last year’s “emergency room” pedagogical scenarios kept such philosophical questions at bay. This year, they are surfacing.

This Healing Journey

First, the numbers: I’m 54, I’ve worked full-time in independent schools for 27 years, I’ve taught in one form or fashion for 33 years, and I’ve learned alongside close to 2,500 students. I still love what I do with a genuine passion, but this year I have found myself wanting and needing to tap a new well. Writing the paragraphs below is part of my effort to do just that.

If I’ve absorbed anything from the hundreds of mentors I’ve encountered through the years (both human and story-based) it is this: renewal starts at home. Whenever I string together too many angst-filled nights, I know it’s time to stop, look, and listen to this body, mind, and soul, because, as poet Galway Kinnell reminds us in his poem “St Francis and the Sow,” everything flowers from within, of self-blessing. An almost daily runner for 30 years, listening to my 54-year-old body now means incorporating newkinds of workouts. An exuberantly hands-on mom for 22 years, honoring my adult sons now means trusting their own case-proven abilities to manage everyday life. A chronic worrier for more years than I care to record, finding wisdom now means letting go of that entire internal purgatory, particularly the nightmarish what-ifs, and the grinding cycle of remorse and regret. The healing journey of the past few months, while still very much a work-in-progress, has already freed up enough emotional and intellectual bandwidth to help me refocus on those Jamesian qualities (the immediate, the real, the only, the mine) that have always been at the heart of my best teaching and living.

In the fall, I kept score at eight JV girls’ volleyball games. Unlike the demanding accounting performed by the scoresheet and libero trackers, my task was almost embarrassingly easy: I basically pushed a plus sign whenever one of the teams scored a point and reset the digital clock for time-outs and half time. Discounting the one ridiculously misguided season of volleyball I coached at a start-up school during my first year of teaching, I have zero experience with volleyball. So why did these late afternoon score-keeping gigs bring me so much joy? Why have I thought of them so fondly afterwards and longed for more experiences just like that? I think the rush came with having a front-row seat onto the immediate and the real. The games were competitive and high-spirited; the girls were exuberant and collaborative; the fans were friendly and supportive: I loved all of it. Perched at the score table between student managers and after-school coaches, I felt purposeful, playful, and plugged in.

Parent Visiting Day at John Burroughs School, October 2021. Photo Credit: Andrew Newman.

I taught Thi Bui’s illustrated memoir The Best We Could Do in my 12th-grade English class again this year and we just spent a full week watching my students’ end-of-unit Family Interview Projects. Seeing Ella’s grandparents sitting side-by-side in their photo-bedecked living room, listening to John’s parents detail their interwoven career trajectories, hearing Sara’s sister chart her first-generation epiphanies, reading about how completing this project made so many of my students more appreciative of their unique family histories — these moments reminded me to keep training my gaze on these very students — not on their older counterparts whom I taught four or fourteen or twenty-four years ago — and not on some romanticized version of them either. Instead of finding fault with my students, I want to celebrate their incredible goodness: to note Sydney’s decency and Josie’s spirit and Charles’s compassion and Teresa’s creativity. I want my students to sense that they have my full faith and attention — when their insights are stunning and when they miss the mark, when our discussions are incredible and when they fall flat, when we are vigorously alert and when we are sleepy. I want my students to know that I see and hear them, in all their glorious and dynamic complexity.

A Call to Pause

On the home front, I’ve been trying to slow down enough to focus on Henry James’s other two verities — the only and the mine. On Ric, my darling husband of 29 plus years, who knows me inside and out, and still treasures the real me. On our weekend Zoom calls with our grown sons and my deepening ability to trust that these incredible young men are completely fine on the days in between. I’m noticing more skies and birds, I’m spending more time listening to music, I’m even learning to silence my inner critic and celebrate the quirks and surprises of aging — the silver strands threading through my hair, the creases appearing on my neck, and the wrinkling skin on my hands, which now look so much like my mom’s hands that I feel a glow of pleasure whenever I glimpse them. Although I still wade occasionally into shallow ponds of anxiety, they are no longer sinkholes, and when I do, I’m discovering that the rafts that have held me for years (prayer, stories, and writing; the natural world, friendship, and community; music, art, and beauty) are more sea-worthy than ever.

Poetry calls us to pause. There is so much we overlook, while the abundance around us continues to shimmer, on its own. —Naomi Shihab Nye

Waffle Pattern on the Donovans’ back deck in Kirkwood, Missouri.

There are tiny yellow flowers blooming all over the tropical plant sitting on my classroom windowsill. A few weeks ago, we had a seven-inch snowfall here in St. Louis that, as it melted, created the most amazing waffle pattern on our back deck. On my walk into Kirkwood Park this morning, the sky was so unbelievably cloudless and blue that I lifted my hands and spun. A beloved student climbed the bleachers to give me a hug at the basketball game two Fridays ago. Another student perched on the table instead of sitting in a chair during our Family Stories Senior Honors Seminar last week, reminding me why I love these ungraded sessions and the delightful warmth they foster. My four sisters and I, long connected via a continuous text thread, have started a weekly prayer chain. This coming summer, Ric and I plan to spend real time with all our extended family members and many old friends as well.

Next week, as I do every week, I will stand in the hallway outside my classroom between periods to greet and chat with kids. And then, while teaching, when I kneel across from a student and really look him or her in the face, I will be reminded that despite the masks and the bizarre last couple of years and the tension between my shoulder blades and the disheartening weekly news feed and the inevitable daily struggles, the shimmer and grace of learning together is always immediate and new. The least any of us can do, as Annie Dillard says, “is try to be there.”