To My Students: ‘Hope’ is the Thing With Feathers
May 13, 2020
Joel Jacobson is a teacher at Nathan Hale High School who participates in our Writers in the Schools program—but not only does he work with WITS: he actually was a WITS student himself as a high schooler, at the very same school, with Writer-in-Residence Charles Mudede. He still can point to the pages in the chapbook where his class’s poetry was published.
Joel recently shared this beautiful blog post he wrote to his students about remote education and how to remain hopeful and develop healthy family habits during this time. The SAL staff found it vulnerable and honest and moving, and so we wanted share it with you.
By Joel Jacobson, WITS Teacher at Nathan Hale High School
The poet Emily Dickinson described hope as a feathered thing that sings even in the hardest of moments. As our lives get upturned and traditions cancelled, here are some thoughts on hope and loss.
By now you have probably heard that by order of Governor Inslee, all Washington state school buildings will remain closed for the rest of the academic school year to insure the safety of students and staff, and to help maintain the gains of containing the coronavirus pandemic through continued social distancing.
This means that continuous schooling will occur for the rest of the year, as we learn and explore together, as a community, but from a distance. We will still do the vital work of building our skills as readers, writers, speakers, listeners, and, above all, thinkers who work to act honorably and compassionately as global citizens.
I am feeling sad that I won’t get the opportunity to see you all in person for the rest of the year. I already miss our time together. I love teaching because of you all, and so, although I was pretty certain that we would need to remain apart to help stop the spread of the virus, it is hard to hear it officially confirmed.
I am also struggling with finding the right balance and rhythms for continuing to do school, as I am sure all of you are as well. There is not much privacy to get work done in our little house. And, as many of you are probably finding, we may love our families, but we also sometimes love the space of being on our own as well.
I am working hard with my family to develop healthy habits now that our old routines are gone. Here are some things I have found that help me:
I. I have found designated time for work and play.
I have set aside some uninterrupted time to focus on work. Interruptions can be great, but they can also create feelings of frustration and futility. When I am half-working and distractedly attending to other things, then I spend way more time on my work than necessary and end up feeling unhappy about the quality of the work and unsatisfied with my engagement in the other things I would rather be doing.
And I make sure I have real time to play. I have built cardboard box rockets and taken make-believe train rides with Ansel and had dance parties and peek-a-boo games with Zoe. We read together, bake together, and create art together. And as a family we try to get outside in the sunshine to hear the birds and breathe the fresh air and run around as much as is safely possible. We are planting seeds in the garden to work on patiently nurturing something that will bring us happiness at a future time, knowing that the seeds are doing their work even when we can’t see them and summer seems a long way away.
II. I expect things will be different, and that this might be good.
This may sound obvious, but I have to assume things won’t go like I planned, and that that’s okay. And not only that, but that when things don’t happen the way I would have liked or planned, I can still find unexpected joy and beauty.
This has, of course, meant doing school in a very different way. I am changing my expectations about what a school day looks like, what my lessons should focus on, how much I can reasonably expect students to do. This has been challenging, and I am still figuring it out, just like you. But I hope that the work I do during this time will make me a better teacher and you a better student in ways we wouldn’t have expected.
It also meant Zoe celebrated her first birthday without the traditional party. No guests at our home, no big meal, not many gifts. But we had saved a box of funfetti cake mix, her Papa and Yaya showed up at the window to sing happy birthday and hang paper balloons, and her grandparents and aunties in Bellingham joined us for some cake over Facetime. Not what we had planned, but still good.
III. I expect some sacrifices and losses from this moment will just be sad.
My grandpa died the weekend before schools shut down. Even though the governor had not yet ordered widespread closures, I had to tell my grandma, that for her health and for my kids’ health, I couldn’t attend his funeral. Not being able to say goodbye to my grandpa was just a loss, and I am letting myself feel sad about it without trying to artificially find a positive spin.
I know some of you are facing those losses, too. Lost jobs, lost loved ones, lost opportunities, lost resources, lost relationships, lost traditions, lost feelings of safety. All I can say is, I am really sorry. I wish things were different for you, and I hope you have the support of a community to stand by you while you grieve those things. If you don’t, please reach out to me. I can help find supports.
To my seniors, in particular, I know this is hard. You will not have the opportunity to participate in the usual milestones and traditional celebrations associated with honoring your work and accomplishments. We will find alternate ways to celebrate you and all you have done to get to this important moment in your life, but it will not look or feel the same. It’s not fair, it’s not your fault, and it’s okay, even appropriate, to feel sad and angry. We, your teachers, your families, your friends, all wanted something better for you this year, and I’m sorry you had to give this up. I know you recognize that you are protecting people’s lives, and I know you will move past this and show the same perseverance and creativity and compassion and ingenuity that got you to your senior year to begin with. Just don’t let the opportunity to still learn and prepare for your future, and the excitement for the life you hope to make when this is all over, be one more thing the pandemic steals from you.
IV. Finally, as a family we intentionally look for things to be thankful for and practice pointing them out to each other.
We get to have all our meals together as a family now. Even though we can’t see each other in person, we can still connect with friends and relatives online through video chats. Ansel wrote thank you signs to the garbage truck drivers and the mailman because they still continue to help us with maintaining some normality.
Even when the world feels frightening, there is plenty worth feeling thankful for, and it helps to recognize that.
One more thought: I hope that we can use this specific moment as a time to reflect on what we truly value and hope to reclaim after the pandemic is over, and what we have been doing simply out of habit, inertia, or lack of imaginative courage. There will be many forces trying to return us back to the way things were, and many others prepared to break with the past and try something new. We are at a threshold moment in history, and I hope we, as a learning community, can work together to prepare for the world we want when we can be together in person again.