I have been reading about teachers and students suffering from anxiety and stress during this time. It has taken me back to the beginning of the 2016 school year and the re-opening of Herbert Hoover High School after the flood.
It has taken me back to the pressure of preparing for students and the uncertainty of half-days at Elkview Middle School with students on a rotating schedule. It has taken me back to the warehouses full of donations and choosing carefully what I thought I would need.
It has taken me back to the absolute panic I felt, frozen in fear and indecision, as I tried to digest the daunting task before me — how did I best prepare? What did I need? I needed everything, but when everything is on the list, where do you start? That year, I battled through night sweats and anxiety. I fought panic attacks and insecurity. I was shattered.
But after every sleepless night, I rose to meet the day and went to school to teach my ninth grade class, determined to see the year through. After all, if we could ask children and staff who had lost not only their school, but their homes, their jobs, and, for some, even family, to carry on, then so could I.
And now, those students are graduating. Who knew they would see so much in the intervening years? They were promised a new high school, but their dreams of commencing from a beautiful new building were lost in red tape. They can pass the construction for that building off of Frame Road, but they’ll never know the satisfaction of walking down those halls.
Instead, they had to re-imagine their high school experience. They have walked covered outdoor hallways that bring pleasant breezes in the spring but act like wind tunnels in the winter, leaving behind their footprints in the blowing snow.
They have been disrupted by two teacher strikes, watching with uncertainty as their instructors have fought on a national scale, and as West Virginia legislators have held the balance of our students’ futures in their hands. And now, after all this — their ultimate year — the celebration of their graduation has been sidelined by a global health crisis.
The events of the last four years have rocked my world and changed me irrevocably. It has changed the way I teach, and it has changed the fundamental philosophies I hold about education. I believe wholeheartedly that relationships are the bedrock to success, and that academics must take a backseat to the care of the whole child. I believe that you cannot divorce the success of the most disenfranchised student from the success of students with a multitude of opportunities.
The pursuit of equity is essential to our democracy, and it begins with the opportunities and support we can provide our children. And if these events have changed the way that I see the world — a fully formed adult, entrenched in my beliefs — how have these events shaped the worldview of children in their formative years?
Our students have been directly impacted by world events. The effects of climate change are real to them. The effects of labor disputes are real to them. The effects of opioids are real to them. The effects of global disease and infection are real to them. We have asked them to cope and to carry on through the unimaginable.
This isn’t just grit. This is tenacity and perseverance at their finest. They are grinning and bearing the effects of our upended world. And with their graduation, they are taking their place in it.
We have asked our students to work through extraordinary circumstances as if they were everyday occurrences. They have carried on, completing classes and entering colleges and continuing career programs. This is why we should honor every single one of them and recognize them for the remarkable task they have achieved.
It doesn’t matter if they have straight “A’s” in their academics or if they took another route; it doesn’t matter if they are going to graduate “on time” or at the end of the summer. It just matters that they have done it.
They have worked through all these challenges in their young lives and achieved this incredible mark of their success. These young people are examples of what we all should be. We shouldn’t just be celebrating them. We should be shouting their accomplishments from the rooftops — their hard work, their determination, their grit.
I never expected to be in the midst of something like this. I never thought that a natural disaster would help prepare me for a pandemic, but here we are. I left a piece of my heart at Hoover. I left it with Tyler, who fixed my wobbly stool, and with Sydney, who read all the books on my bookshelf her freshman year. I left it with Kiah, who selfie bombed my cell phone whenever I left it unattended on my desk. I left it with Cierra, who still looks after my children for me.
What do students need to further prove that they are willing to put it in no matter what life brings? The students of the Elk River Valley have been visited by both hell and high water, and stared them down. As our seniors graduate this year, let’s respect the challenges they have overcome and let’s respect the contributions to our communities that they have made. The path to graduation has been full of obstacles for them, but they have kicked them aside as if it were child’s play.