As March pokes its windy head just over the horizon of February, I am reminded that something funny happened about a year ago. It wasn’t just the pandemic. It wasn’t just the closing of schools. It was that when schools closed, I experienced some of the most stressful times of my career.
This seemed counterintuitive at the time. After all, when I call a snow day, the stress is over. The anxiety occurs when I’m trying to figure out whether we can have school or not. It builds as the meteorologists equivocate about the forecast. It reaches its zenith as the point of no return approaches, the time by which I must make a decision. Then I call school off and, like a balloon with a hole in it, the tension releases in an instant. Right or wrong, there will be no school that day — students will stay home, buses remain in their garages, phone calls will cease, and a calm work day will extend its legs before me. The initial angst over losing the day of school will be placed in the “there’s nothing you can do about it now” file and I move on to more productive pursuits. I’m not happy, but I can still find something good in the day.
Not so last March. As the first few cancelled days stretched into weeks, then months, tension bubbled into a devil’s cocktail of discouragement, anxiety, and disgust, bordering on professional despair. Yet my work went on. Challenges were faced. Planning conducted. So why did it all feel so terrible? Why were all the days of spring an unchanging, steely gray? Why was I taking calls from colleagues near and far who seemed at the end of their professional rope?
It took me a while to figure that out. And even after I logically figured it out, it wasn’t until much later that I spiritually figured it out. Here’s why.
Two weekends ago, my son-in-law (an exemplary fellow) and I were visiting a local hardware store in search of some equipment. We failed in that mission but he purchased an 8-foot two-by-four that he needed for some repairs. As he slid the wood into his pickup, one end sticking out beyond the tailgate, I returned the shopping cart to its corral.
As it was cold, I hurried back to the vehicle. As I needed to get back into the car with him (gotta protect the grandkids), I was fussing with my facemask. This was a recipe for face meeting board. The board won. I wasn’t knocked off my feet but only barely so and as I climbed into the pickup, I swear I glanced around the vehicle to see if Hal Roach was anywhere nearby filming the slapstick. I think I spotted Stan Laurel peeking from behind an SUV nearby but I couldn’t be sure.
The small but bracing collision left me with just a few scrapes, barely noticeable. Two days later, however, the whole mess scabbed over, offering a tapestry of blacks, blues, and reds. Over the next days, out of gracious etiquette, hardly a single adult among the hundreds I encountered, said a word. (In case they did, I was ready with the mandatory response of all former boys, “You oughta see the other guy.”)
But when I visited our elementary schools, dozens of children marveled at the sight. The one I won’t forget is a small wisp of a boy who over his breakfast, pointed at my forehead and said, “You have an owie.”
“Yes, I guess I do,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” he offered. “Are you OK?”
It was in that “I’m sorry” that I was reminded of how much I love working in schools. He didn’t tell me that out of good manners, though it was certainly mannerly of him. He told me that because, well, he was sorry that I had been hurt.
I love my job because I get to be around kids every professional day of my life. And without them, education loses its essence. It’s like a marriage without love, a library without books, a Three Stooges short without a two-by-four to the old bean.