In my high school, all seniors in High English (that was actually the given name of the course – insert your own joke here) had to write a term paper that had a minimum length of 25 pages. Looking back after a life in education, I cannot think of any pedagogically sound reason for this arbitrary requirement; it was just a dreaded rite of passage for anyone who wanted to graduate. Yet, I do remember a great deal of detail about the research process and the writing of this document (which had to be typed – on a typewriter no less), so clearly it has had a lasting impact on me.
I ran across my index cards in their now-rusted metal box a couple of years ago when cleaning my mom's house – the home I grew up in. That was a moment. My chosen topic was transcendentalism, so I wrote about Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. There is a great amount of irony in this choice of transcendentalism given my life's path in science and my dearth of quality time spent alone in the woods, but that is a topic for an entirely different blog. What I do remember is a quote by Thoreau (truth be told, I always have to look it up to get it right). Thoreau wrote, "You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment." At the age of 18, I thought this was more of a surfing metaphor, but as I have grown, I have found great solace and strength in these words. Aware of Thoreau's inspiration or not, our Upper School teachers have embodied these words and bravely shown up to school every day since the spring of 2020 to do... their... job.
Their efforts, like the much-celebrated work of our medical first responders, have been and still are truly heroic. While I doubt I need to explain why this is so – we are all still living in the torment of COVID – I feel compelled to. I believe it is important that we all get a sense of the waves our teachers have launched themselves upon every single day since the start of the pandemic.
· Masked, gloved, and sometimes even goggled, our teachers created lessons that needed to be equally inspiring to folks in their classroom and students tens to thousands of miles away appearing as half inch squares on their computer screen;
· Dedicated to mastering entirely new technologies and learning paradigms, teachers totally transformed themselves almost overnight;
· Through creativity and collaboration, our teachers worked through the endless technological glitches and unexpected, last-minute adjustments thrust upon them on an hourly basis;
· Displaced, but undaunted, our teachers even coped with the aftermath of a flood;
· Teachers comforted students who were frightened and shell-shocked, helping them learn how to balance the real with the surreal;
· From the depths of their own personal experiences, using skills not included in their formal training, teachers found the time and wherewithal to talk to or sit in silence with students who were struggling personally and emotionally;
· Teachers created ways to keep some sliver of social connection amongst our teenagers who began choosing isolation over involvement;
· Teachers provided perspective and hope by being a reliable, steady presence in the lives of their students;
· Through sheer will, teachers got students, many of whom were not participating in person, to complete their curriculum and to see the value of learning when everything around them seemed so hopeless;
· Recognizing how much we lost during these times, teachers continue the ongoing work to help students catch up both academically and emotionally;
· Teachers (and coaches) found a way to bring back some of the normalcy to high school through activities, sports, dances, music, plays, etc., even as our pandemic world continued to challenge us;
· Teachers did all of this while dealing with the same concerns, fears and hardships that everyone is experiencing during COVID, but they did it with a smile on their face and with their students’ best interests in their hearts;
· Our teachers saved our children and our school.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. I am unable to encapsulate in words the totality of the sacrifice endured and dedication displayed by our faculty, staff and coaches. I know they have likely become immune to the countless times I have apologized or thanked them for their Herculean efforts. Those acknowledgements and tributes likely felt pro forma and faded into the background noise of their daily lives. Teachers did what they did not for the praise, but because it is in their DNA. Their passion, their raison d'être, is to help students be their best selves in every way. Pandemic be damned!
So as our teachers go off to hopefully surf some actual ocean waves and take a break from dealing with the ever-present vicissitudes of COVID, I ponder how best to recognize their efforts on behalf of our most precious children. I return to my youth and the mantra of my mother: there is nothing more personal and meaningful than a handwritten note. So, if you are feeling inspired, I hope you will consider, or encourage your children to, send a note or email expressing gratitude to a teacher that made a difference in the madness of the last 2+ years. The eternity of the moment that note will provide will last a lifetime for our W+H heroes. And it only needs to be a few lines, not 25 pages.