Homestead teacher, parent, and award winning author Kelly Adams (pen name K.L. Going) captures what many are feeling after Governor Cuomo announced that schools will remain closed for the duration of the 2019-2020 school year.
Great artists know that life is defined as much by the negative space as the positive; as much by what is absent as what is present. These days I feel that tension as I move in and out of my empty middle school classroom, as I walk by playgrounds that ought to have children on them, and as I struggle to reconcile my immense blessings with my tremendous grief for what’s been lost.
How do we exist in the midst of such sharp contrasts? How do we resist the temptation to seek a resolution that would align us with only one reality?
Gifted or grieving? Blessed or bereaved?
# # #
It’s evening and I’m tired. The heaviness of my eyes invites impatience with a chatty ten-year old who can’t settle down to sleep. Even after the light has been turned out Ashton wants to talk.
I want to sleep. He wins.
“Mom, did you ever go to the stream at school?”
I’m momentarily perplexed. Of course I’ve been to the stream. As a teacher and a mom, I’ve had double the reasons to watch our students at play.
“Sure I have.”
“Really? What did you do there?”
“Well, the middle school students go to a different part of the stream, so when I go with them, I watch out for them, but when I visit the part of the stream where you play, then I go to see you.”
I don’t tell him that I sneak out there, trying to stay hidden so I won’t break the spell of his afternoon. I don’t tell him how I pause before approaching so that I can spy on this golden moment of childhood — catch a glimpse of my child, incandescently happy.
Ashton keeps pressing me for answers.
“What did you see me doing there?”
I’m not quite sure where this is going.
“Well, sometimes you were wading,” I say. “Other times you were looking at something, crouched down, observing what was in the water.”
He pauses, considers.
“When I was little,” he says at last, “I mostly liked to splash, but when I got older, I liked searching for crayfish. I still like that, but it’s strange because now, I mostly like to find a piece of wood and strip away its layers until I get to the center part that’s really smooth. I don’t know why I like doing this so much.”
Ahh. Finally, I begin to understand. He’s missing something he can’t quite express. Aching for the return of moments where time escapes and you’re simply present. Breathing. Being. Absorbed in the natural world and all of its wonders. He’s missing those moments that Homestead is so good at allowing, but home learning can’t always give him.
Suddenly I’m wide awake, breath taken away by the sharp edge where gift and grief collide.
“You’ll miss the stream this year, won’t you?” I say at last.
My chest feels tight and I close my eyes.
I want to resolve this for him, but I can’t.
Right now, we’re both understanding how incredibly lucky we’ve been, and that precious realization has redefined what it means to feel grief.
# # #
“Please help me. I’m desperate.”
One of my closest friends lives in Virginia and our experiences of educating our children during this pandemic couldn’t be more different.
“I have no idea what a fourth grader should be studying and all I receive from my child’s school are packets of worksheets. Ashton’s in fourth grade. What is he doing?”
When I think about the answer to that question, a phrase comes to mind, unbidden.
Joy to the World.
I don’t tell her that Ashton’s teachers have made music videos for the students, because really … wouldn’t that be rubbing it in?
Julie explains that for weeks she received nothing from her daughter’s school. No work sent home, no on-line chats, no creative assignments helping their family to figure out how to stay healthy and sane. About three weeks into the stay-at-home order, she was finally invited to the school to pick up worksheets. Her daughter is a typical ten-year old, full of energy, and she’s bored and antsy. Julie wants to devise something else for her daughter to do – an actual curriculum – but she doesn’t know where to begin.
As we talk, I feel almost guilty when I relate Ashton’s experience as a student and my own experience as a teacher because, honestly, we really didn’t miss a beat. My middle schoolers had only one day off as we transitioned into on-line learning. They have a regular daily schedule, and they’ll be as prepared for their next year of learning as if they were physically present in class.
I can’t speak for Ashton’s 4th grade curriculum goals, but I can say that he’s seen his teachers and peers on-line, whether through videos or Zoom meetings, every day. He has lessons that are in-depth and advance his knowledge, and he’s been given assignments that are challenging and creative. My father has been guiding Ashton’s on-line learning and he can’t stop talking about how much he loves Jim’s geometry lessons, how complex Joel’s grammar lessons are, and how much Ashton lights up when he sees his friends on screen. As with our middle school students, Ashton’s assignments often encourage him to get outside, to relate to friends, and to reach out to others even while we’re stuck at home.
As a middle school teaching team, Jack and Nisha and I have had numerous discussions about how to uphold the core Homestead values of high-level academics, experiencing nature, one-on-one access to teachers, nurturing creativity, and community service. We’ve had to use our imaginations, and we’ve invited the students to use their imaginations right along with us. The results have been letter writing campaigns, neighborhood clean-ups, photography lessons, Zoom recess, daily one-on-one check-ins with teachers, small group meetings, balance trackers, creative days, Read Outs … the list could go on and on.
I’ve never been so proud as when I’ve watched us work in partnership with the kids to do exactly what we’ve always taught them to do – use their intellects and creativity to devise solutions where others might see only obstacles. Throughout this time, I’ve seen our students rise to the challenge of being home learners and it makes me teary because I know that when they leave Homestead, they’ll be equipped with everything they need to succeed in life.
More importantly, they’ll possess the wisdom to define that success on their own terms.
If this pandemic has highlighted one thing, it’s how much we need to nurture these values in our children. The skills of survival are so much different from what we once thought that they were. Reading, writing, and arithmetic will always be important, but complex thinking, resilience, and caring for each other are now giving those traditional values a run for their money.
It’s ironic that I’ve never understood the unique benefits of a Homestead Education more fully than I do right now … exactly when my life and my student’s lives are being defined by its absence.
But it isn’t absent, is it?
The importance of what we’ve created – as a community of teachers, parents, and students — can be seen so clearly even in the midst of what’s been taken away.
# # #
We can’t get everything we want.
That’s the harsh reality I can’t bring myself to accept because I’m used to getting my way. In this modern world where so much of what we desire exists on demand, I’m ashamed to admit how much I’m struggling with not getting what I covet.
My mind twists and tangles trying to invent loopholes where they don’t exist.
I want my middle school students to end the year with the camp out. I want Ashton to run free, playing in the field. I want to do our annual Shakespeare play in the barn. I want to eat ice cream as our family explores Open House. I want to hug my students when it’s time to say goodbye. I want us all – every single one of us – to run down Big V, laughing, giving in to gravity with reckless abandon.
I want Ashton to lose himself in the minutia of the stream.
“Mom, I used to run around so much,” he tells me. “First, I’d run the whole time at recess, and then at the end of the day we’d play Chaos, and then I’d go to Running Club. Now we go out for short periods of time, but I don’t get all sweaty like I used to.”
I want my child to sweat again. God, how I want that.
I want him to play with peers his own age – in a surge of constant motion.
# # #
Negative space, positive space.
What is absent, what is present.
These are the juxtapositions that will define the end of the 2020 school year, for me and for my child. I imagine that someday in the future, people will want to know … what was it like to live through this pandemic. It will be tempting to define this reality by painting a picture of what was happening each day – the facts, figures, and statistics – but as an artist, I know that the truth lies as much in what is undefined as in what is present.
Those invisible emotions that exist as the undercurrent of each and every decision will define this time more accurately than any list or recitation.
Here is what the history books will forget to capture: the breath, held tight and then released. The love, binding us as a community, wrapping around our children. The ache, for what is and for what will not be.
The stream, ever present, waiting for your child … and for mine.