A time to embrace

It was a weird year to join a school staff. With Covid, all of our back-to-school meetings were virtual. We could see one another’s faces and occasionally hear one another’s voices, but we did not share physical space for those two weeks. Instead, each of us was safely distant from the others, working from our homes.

I wasn’t the only new hire, but I couldn’t be sure, just from looking at my Zoom screen, which staff members were veterans and which ones were rookies. The situation was complicated by the fact that two school staffs had come together for the 2020-2021 school year after one had closed, so even the teachers who had been on staff for three or five or ten years, might have been looking at new faces and wondering where they fit in.

And maybe that dynamic, the fact that none of us felt terribly grounded, created a situation in which no one felt superior; no one felt “new”. Or perhaps we all felt “new” in a way, since we were all learning how to do school online — learning how to use digital platforms for instruction, for behavioral incentives, for managing student work. I can’t know how everyone else was feeling, but from the beginning, I had a sense that we were all in this together. We were all uniting to meet the needs of our students during a pandemic — one that had decimated the community of Detroit in which our school is situated and where all of our students live.

From the beginning of the school year, our focus was to provide high quality instruction in a manner that was safe for our students and for our staff. We took every measure — providing our students with chromebooks and hot spots so that they could safely learn from home, upping the requirements for our all-star custodial staff who sanitized bathrooms and doorknobs on the hour, and allowing staff with health concerns to work from home. If a positive case of Covid was detected, everyone was sent home for two weeks while the building went through a deep clean and while everyone who had even remotely close exposure could get tested and watch for symptoms.

We were so careful, in fact — wearing masks in the building, staying six feet apart, sanitizing surfaces, and holding all meetings via Zoom — that even when a positive case occurred within the building, it was not spread. We were even offered weekly Covid testing every Monday, so when asymptomatic cases were diagnosed, the whole building could go home before any spread could take place.

Our leadership took every precaution to make sure our students and staff remained safe and healthy.

So what a shock it was, as we were all enjoying our summer break, knowing that we finished the year with minimal Covid impact, to receive a message from our principal that one of our coworkers, a well-loved teacher, just forty-four years old, had died very shortly after a cancer diagnosis.

It felt like a punch to the gut. I was stunned. How could this woman, who had volunteered to plan all the senior events (during a pandemic!) so that “our babies” would have a senior pinning, a prom, and an in-person graduation, have died? I had just been on zoom with her a few weeks earlier, discussing teaching strategies and sharing resources. She’d asked early in the year if I would mind talking with her from time to time as she was striving to be the best she could be for our students.

In the group chat where the news of her death had been shared, my colleagues instantly began sharing with one another how they were shocked and devastated. None of us could believe that just as we were planning to be physically with one another in the fall, this woman who leaned into every Zoom room, face fully on the screen, smiling and attentive, would not be with us.

Shortly after we learned of her passing, our principal sent out another note. We would have a candlelight vigil and balloon launch the following week to allow students and staff to grieve. I had heard of this practice just earlier in the year. Two of my former students from St. Louis and one of this year’s seniors all were killed by gun violence within weeks of one another between Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Each of them had been remembered in this way.

Our principal’s note said to bring pink balloons (our colleague’s favorite color) and to come to the school. On that evening, my husband and I cut a family trip short so that we could be there. We pulled up to the building and found the principal and one of the custodians setting up. As we got closer, both of them moved toward us. After a whole school year of giving one another a wide berth, my principal and I instinctively hugged. I turned to the custodian, and we held one another.

It was no longer safe to remain distant.

As each staff member arrived, the hugging continued. Friends who had stepped around one another all year long, were offering comfort in the only way that would do — touch.

And tears.

Tears dripped from our eyes as forty-four candles were lit and balloons were shared. Markers were passed so that we could write tributes on the balloons. One teacher, who also happens to be a police chaplain, offered Scripture, emotional support, a space for sharing memories, and prayer. He told the dozen or more students who had gathered on a weeknight in the middle of summer that whatever they were feeling was ok, that the staff was grieving, too, that we were all shocked. None of us had known she was sick, he said; she hadn’t known long herself. He offered support through our social worker, our counseling resources, and himself. “We are a family,” he said, “and family supports one another through difficult times such as this.”

Our colleague’s mother moved to the middle of our circled bodies and shared that her daughter had loved our students, had talked about them all the time. Even from her hospital bed, she regretted that she was missing prom. We all nodded, knowing this was true, knowing that her heart had been fully with our kids.

As one, we counted to three and released our balloons into the sky. The cluster of bodies on the ground gazed upward, silently, for many long moments, watching the pink balloons lift into the clouds.

And then we lingered. Staff and students spoke to one another, shared memories, and stood closely in the silence. Gradually we began to chat: how is your summer? what have you been up to?

A baby was passed from his mother to students to staff. As though he knew our hearts were hurting, he lay his head our shoulders then lifted his gaze to smile us, instinctively bringing joy to the mourning.

One by one, the gathered began to dissipate, moving to cars, waving goodbyes, holding eye contact a little longer than we might’ve before, promising to see each other soon, knowing that we were connected a little more now than we had been a few hours earlier.

I don’t know how next year will play out. It holds promise for more proximity, more gathering, more sharing, and I hope we get that. It was appropriate to keep our distance for a while to protect one another, but it seems the best way to care for one another now is to come back together.

[There is] a time to refrain from embracing, and a time to embrace.

Ecclesiastes 3: 5 (Order reversed by me.)

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