Each year since my first year of teaching, now 24 years ago, I lose sleep leading up to the opening days of school. I want to prepare and plan so I can make a good first impression and start the year off right. That torturous, exhausting ritual has followed me through my 13 years at the elementary school and has since become my middle school principal routine for the last 11 years.
This year is different. I’ve lost sleep for the last six months. I’ve struggled to find the words to capture the energy and the magic of the first day of school in 2020.
This has had me worried.
Then yesterday I got a text message. My uncle, my mother’s youngest brother, sent me a text message and some photos.
They were photos of my first best friend, and one of my first teachers, my grandfather. James Tuohy, or Bumpa, as we’ve known him. 23 years ago, in my first year of teaching, I learned that he died unexpectedly after a long and happy life. Hopefully by now we’ve all had this person in our lives.
From the day I was born, Bumpa was by my side. He was there when I was a sick kid in and out of the hospital. He was there when I graduated high school and when I wanted to attend the college of my dreams, he helped to finance that. This made my dream, to become a teacher, possible.
Then later, when I became a teacher, he would brag to everyone willing to listen that I, his “Bupsa Boy ” was a schoolteacher. It’s funny now I think back and remember with a smile the times that he even referred to me as “the Principal Teacher”. Sometimes I wonder what he knew or could see, back in 1997.
But I digress.
I’d like to read you the text from my uncle.
“September 2, 2020 [yesterday] marked the 75 Year Anniversary of the Japanese Signing of the Declaration of Surrender on the USS Missouri docked in Tokyo Bay. This marked the end of WWII.
These photos are from Bumpa’s WWII scrapbook of that day. He served in the South Pacific from 1943-1945 on the USS Benevolence and was on board the Missouri with other sailors and Marines to take witness.
Just to put things into perspective, He was only 19 years old when this photo was taken and had already fought in a war. Makes me so proud to know where we come from !!!! We come from good stock.
He was part of history, and he hardly ever talked about it. Only once in a while.”
Why do I share this with you all? And now?
Because on Tuesday, we will have the opportunity to learn people’s stories, the stories of 9 ½ to 13 ½ year-olds. So much of the work we do, the real work, once people’s basic human needs are met, is learning the stories of our students. When we learn their stories, we begin to understand the world through their eyes.
So, together, let’s devote 2020-21 to learning the stories of others. Our students. Our parents and guardians. Our community members. Our colleagues. One another. Ourselves.
Since March 13, I’ve learned so much about all of you and about our story.
I learned the value of communication.
I learned the role of trust and listening. And how all the qualities, how they all contribute to a school culture that supports adolescents. Each and every one of them.
I learned everyone has a story. Because our students need us, and they need us to know and understand and appreciate and value their stories. Where they come from. Where they’ve been. And where they are going. Some students missed school and their friends. Some students experienced hardship and personal tragedy. And others, who we’ve seen struggle in school, thrived while learning from home. Let’s think about the mindsets of each of our 660 returning students on the first day of school.
Now more than ever, they need us. They need to know we care, to see we care, and to feel and appreciate that we will always be by their side, and in their corner.
Now here’s the catch. if you spoke to my grandfather at any point in his adult life, you’d likely never know what he experienced, the history he experienced..
His generation – the Greatest Generation – went on after experiencing the fear and uncertainty of war – to carve out new jobs and careers, neighborhoods where they started their adult lives and had families. Lives in which there was a deep meaning and purpose in their everyday life and work.
Humble, unassuming. Hardworking and kind. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Kind of reminds me of our students and so many families here in HB.
That’s the potential we all have starting right now, starting on September 8. To be someone’s favorite teacher. Their go-to person. Their reason for coming to school.
We have an rare and special opportunity to teach and influence the next Greatest Generation. Like the country looked to kids like the teenage Jimmy Tuohy in the 1940s, we are going to be among adolescents who will inherit the 2020s. Pre-teens, and teens, who will look to us, their teachers. They are going to need us and not know how to ask for help. They are going to come to us with stories some we know, some we think we know. And others, we haven’t learned yet.
When our first class, post closure, comes through our school doors on Tuesday, we will be challenged in new and unimaginable ways that our education courses and our decades of our teaching careers haven’t yet prepared us to face.
We also, if we open ourselves to the possibility, will have opportunities to learn like we have never learned before. If we approach this school year with patience and humility, and extending and modeling grace towards one another, our students and families, and even to ourselves, we will grow, we will progress, and we will succeed, together.
This will require and demand patience, courage, willingness and ability to learn from those we are used to “teaching” first. We will need to lean on and help one another. And we will need to listen and learn from each other, and of greater importance, from our students.
Like when I was 23, this new school year, my 11th as your principal will be “first year”.
Stories of overcoming adversity, of making progress in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, they’re all around us.
And we have a choice. We can choose to live and to teach like we did in the 1990s, the 2000s, or even February 2020.
Each of us, in our own way, has experienced the last half year. Some hardships, some personal loss and tragedy, some celebrations. That’s us. Now let’s think of our students.
So this is our challenge: Let’s commit and recommit to resisting the urge to teach “on the surface”. Instead, let’s admit to ourselves and our students that we are learning right alongside one another. Let’s make it our first priority, while we establish and build new habits and routines – whether it’s how we enter and exit the school building, how, when, and where to use the restroom, proper hand washing, social distancing, or face coverings. Let’s keep the focus on that which matters most – the idea that all kids need and deserve our attention towards meeting their basic human needs – in classrooms that are safe and healthy, with nourishment, and opportunities to learn with one another and with you.
In closing, I will leave you with this thought. On March 13, we bravely faced a setback that we did not see on the horizon. And at the end of June, we celebrated our 8th graders together. In July and August, we regrouped, and we learned that we can take a lot more than we sometimes give ourselves credit for being able to take. But there’s something else, there’s the comeback.
And the comeback is ALWAYS stronger than the setback.
Thank you for all you do for our students and our middle school community. Together, we will make this a memorable year of learning and growth for our students and for one another.