Below is the weekly note I write to the school community:
We want to thank you for your patience, forbearance, support, encouragement, and humor as we try to shift NBS to on-line and keep up with some meaningful school and connections between us all. Our goal is to try to replicate the NBS experience as much as humanly and technologically possible. After one week we feel that, while imperfect and limited at best, we nevertheless created a more than a passable version of an online school.
We do not know how long we will need to do this. As I mentioned before, we are preparing for the worst, hoping for the best, and have a reasonable belief that we will find ourselves somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.
(some of Jacques’paintings)
To be sure, we are aware that the nature of the North Branch School has built-in advantages that other school systems do not have given the circumstances. First of all, we are small, not a system, but a community. This has made for relatively speedy and easy communication and has allowed us to move about like a little water strider racing gracefully over the waters relative to other schools. As important, our students are in safe homes, have food, support, and have the necessary technological means to do what we are trying to do. We also have a small and closely-knit community. Parents, teachers, and kids are uniformly motivated, committed, and giving best effort. When these factors are all in place, the chance for success is high.
(Iris working in her field journal)
(Oscar skinning up Mad River)
I was saying to Rose that had we had to do this in September it would have been much more difficult, if not impossible. Had it happened then, we would not have had time to build the necessary connections between us and the kids and the families, and the kids would not have already built their connections to each other. We would have been split asunder before we had created the lines of understanding and affection that are necessary for any learning community.
As it is we were just coming into that place where all our year’s work as a school was going to bear fruit. I have to believe that all the work we did through the longs months of fall and winter made it so that we were, in all the essential ways, ready for this. I have full belief that we will stay together and keep going together. I have full belief that when we get together again, we and the school will be whole and intact.
During the last eight or so days, we teachers have watched and listened to the kids processing events. From despair and disappointment over losing “their year” and their work to various intensities of frustration, anger, irritation, disorientation, grouchiness, confusion, worry, resignation, disillusionment, loss and grieving—all of these feelings and states of mind have been transmitted clearly and openly in their morning meeting comments.
At the same time, the meeting comments have been filled with jewels. Humor, comedy, hope, ambition, solidarity, support, continuity, life advice, empathy, responsiveness, care, responsibility, timeliness, delight, encouragement, cooperation, teamwork, unity, patience, determination—all of these have poured forth to and from the kids each morning and afternoon, with side commentary in the column to the right of the regular meeting comments, and an on-going Monty Python-esque dialogue of pith and insane silliness extending into the All-School Google chat. (Sam’s two-pound loaf)
Essentially, what we have seen is that the kids learned—a LOT—over the course of the year, and what they learned is, to the degree possible, carrying us through.
As Geeta wrote on Friday: “We can do it, this week really showed that we can get through it. Like I’ve been saying every single day. I have to come up with ways to get through it. But I will. I always think of the saying my grandma used to say to me when I was little that her mother used to say to her. “It’s not the end of the world” (just imagine that in a Jewish accent) so I keep telling myself that.
Some silver-linings. We all get to see each other in new ways. The very first morning, we saw Grey on his black couch, chasing his sister’s bird, which had escaped its cage. We heard Maggie slurping on her seltzer. We saw Sam’s Nerf Gun collection on his pegboard. We saw Nate’s Liverpool flag and Axel’s Dutch flag. Celeste with her head-set and microphone, looking like the DJ of Bristol. We saw Dinara in the basement with her dad’s amplifier and Sasha’s drums. We saw Isabelle with her zodiac tapestry on her wall behind her and Jholai at her kitchen table. We saw Eli in his parachute fort and Nate on his trampoline and Giles loading logs into his stove and we saw Finley in his mudroom. We saw Finn’s pet rabbit, Axel’s magnetic stress beads and Anika’s desk calendar, and Finley’s rupee collection. We saw Iris and Maggie’s brother Toby saying “hi” and Declan’s dog Soso.
Because the kids are at home, other possibilities opened up: Jholai took a long walk with her sister. Oscar skinned up Mad River. Sam baked bread and built a Salmon Ladder. Vivian took a walk and found a wood frog in the leaf litter that was bright orange. Maggie sat by a stream lost in thought. Declan took a ride on his four-wheeler and saw the mother deer and her yearling that he had seen last spring. While walking Declan found a perfect owl pellet, which he later dissected. Iris sat and drew in her field journal. Finley made paintings with Una and his little sister. Jacques painted three watercolor portraits. Eli played Taboo with his family. The Howell and Mayer families set up inter-family competitions, including who could dress up their dogs in the best St. Patrick’s Day costume. Axel explored up in “the forbidden forest,” the hill behind his house. Finn went for a run with mom and visited an old fort he built which he discovered was still standing two years later. Giles took his (and honorary NBS) dog Blue on a walk and studied Blue’s movements and behavior. Anika talked to an old friend. Jonah said he had more in-depth conversations with his family and Nate and Jonah went on a muddy mountain bike ride on the trails and roads of Lincoln. Vivian baked a birthday cake for her mom and then her family shot of “legal” fireworks into the dark night. Declan hiked into the woods where he used to walk with his dad in the fields behind his house and listened to the quietness. Sam made soda bread for St. Patrick’s Day and painted the downstairs room with his mom. Steve, or “Professor Holmes,” took his brood on a long PE hike to Silver Lake and then made a website called “Quarantine University–QU.” Jholai played Snakes and Ladders with her family and found herself laughing uncontrollably. “All this laughing felt good.” Celeste worked on improving her crystal storage system because she has “been a very bad crystal mama.” Iris went running. Rose got out her art supplies and made a quarantine bedroom for her son Jared in our shop. Eli went on long walks with his family. Elise wove a trivet out of grape-vines. She went for a long walk with Anika and took approximately 17,000 photos of spring returning and the small pebbles she collected. Geeta made tea with her grandmothers while using her Aroosh Indian accent and made them fall over laughing. Then she remembered an old recipe for cleaning pots (lime and salt) and cleaned two old pots. Tal saw a robin.
There is so much still going on that is life. There’s a chainsaw buzzing in the woods as I write this. The sun is out, the daffodils are just breaking through.
During the week we wrote and read our feelings. We made jokes. We did Scratch, made graphs, wrote in Field Journals, learned about bone health, muscle growth and atrophy (very important now), learned about the Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963 and watched a documentary about it. We had lit class, we experimented with meeting technology, we posted pictures, we wrote scenes, we laughed into the computer screen, there were math classes and we drew apples and eggs. As much as possible, it felt like we are still going.
In the documentary of the Children’s Crusade, we saw pictures of the children being carted away in paddy wagons. We saw footage of them singing in the streets, dancing with each other under the firehoses, arms linked, laughing and shouting from behind the bars of Birmingham’s jails. If there was ever an inspirational message for us this was it. The irrepressible, indestructive human spirit. Persevering in spite of circumstance.
But there is no doubt the kids are missing that animal closeness they need and crave. They have a ceaseless, indefatigable hunger for human connection. They want to play, run, wrestle, and hug each other. They want to see and find themselves among a community of others who love, understand and accept them and where they can learn to love, understand, and accept others. This enforced isolation is making us more aware than ever that our school is built around these ideas of human community and bringing kids into it and sending them out to do big things.
On the last day of school, I told the kids about Henri Matisse, the great French painter. When Matisse was nineteen, he was unhappily training to become a lawyer. Then he was struck down by sickness and was bed-ridden for a year. While laid up, someone gave him a box of paints and he began painting as he lay in his bed. By the time he was well, he had decided that he wanted to be a painter and to this task, he devoted his entire life. When he was aged, he was again bed-ridden, but he kept on painting. He had assistants pin large sheets on his walls and attach ink brushes or charcoal to a long bamboo limb. He then lay in his bed and continued to draw, and he drew magnificent line drawings of fish and other animals and water and swimmers and dancers. The life in him never left, but kept on coming out.
It’s also instructive that the window played a huge part in his work throughout his life. When could not go out, he painted both what was inside his room as well as what he could see out of it. He might be looking at the Notre-Dame or the boats in the harbor of Coulloires or palm trees of Tangiers, but he cast his view outwards and brought the outside in. He was not limited by enclosure. His view was broad, brilliant, and expansive.
I am hoping we can keep this kind of mindset for these coming weeks. Keep looking for color and life all around. Be active, even if you are laid up. We’ll stride forward this week and see what else we can create.
Tal, Rose, and Steve