Around this time last year, I had serious doubts about whether I would ever be able to visit another school or classroom again, either because the virus would take me down or because my presence would create an unsafe situation for me, for kids and for staff. The arrival of the vaccines has brightened that dire picture considerably so today another barrier fell. I made my first visit to a school since March 2020. It was graduation day at the Montessori School of Englewood where I’ve been a long-time board member and the conditions felt right for adding another post-pandemic first to my list. It’s embarrassing to confess that I had to prepare for the visit by checking the route from home to school on my GPS, despite the fact that I’ve driven that route at least fifty times. Count my uncertainty as another casualty of the pandemic year.
Truth to tell this item which would appear on the list as “visit a school” requires an asterisk. I didn’t enter a school building or classroom because the graduation ceremony took place outdoors on the vast asphalt-covered “playground” area surrounding the school. Some of that space is now occupied by handsome planting beds which have been a source of fresh produce for the school’s neighbors, but most of it remains unused, awaiting an infusion of cash to make of it a legitimate play area or an extension of the existing planting beds.
But today the space was perfect for housing the graduation. An elevated stage had been erected along one of the boundary fences, against the backdrop of an attractive tree standing outside the fence. There was ample room to scatter clusters of folding chairs for use by family pods while board members and other outside visitors arrayed ourselves behind the families. I’ve been to so many graduations in the Black community in the last 25 years that I can’t remember anymore in what ways they differ from graduations elsewhere. I’m thinking particularly about the garish clusters of balloons (one of which is sure to escape into the ether during the ceremony) most families come armed with or the single rose each graduate receives after they cross the stage to be delivered to the parent who is responsible for getting them this far. I’m a sucker for graduations and parades, so I’m usually moved by even the most routine ceremonies and the most predictable speeches, the kind that Garrison Keillor once described as “empty boxcars rolling by.”
One final detail impressed me in this breakthrough school visit. A good number of the graduates had the honor of wearing yellow chains that denoted ten years of attendance at the school – straight through from pre-school to eighth grade. This is close to miraculous in one of the most unstable communities in the city, plagued by poverty, disease, food insecurity and violence. Just two days before the graduation there was a mass killing of four people at a party not many blocks from the school. Those yellow chains remind us of the hidden strengths even in communities beset by so many obstacles. Those strengths don’t make it into the news stories about places like Englewood or in the grim statistics that are generated there. It’s an important reminder.
I want to shift venues completely. I apologize in advance for the abrupt change of tone and content. One of our dearest friends, Helen Featherstone, died in Gloucester, Massachusetts on Wednesday. This frail-looking, slightly bent over woman was actually a tower of strength. She had survived Hodgkin’s’ Lymphoma in her younger years, her husband Jay’s near-fatal battle with cancer, the death of a beloved son who was born with a ravaged nervous system, and several recent strokes, both her own and Jay’s. Despite all this, she remained a buoyant spirit, possessed of a wry sense of humor and an ability to wield language as a power for good. My wife says of Helen that she was the only person, perhaps with the exception of Barack Obama, who spoke in complete well-shaped paragraphs in which the placement of colons and semi-colons was audible. In past years she edited two small but powerful education journals – the Harvard Education Letter and Changing Times – that highlighted the most creative and humane developments in education.
I’m probably the only person in the world who had never watched the Jimmy Stewart classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It finally happened last weekend. You’ll remember the scene in which George Bailey’s guardian angel counteracts George’s anguished wish that he had never been born by taking him on a tour of what the lives of others around him would have looked like if, indeed, he had never been born. Hundreds of people responded to the news of Helen’s death with testimonials about the impact of Helen on their lives through her teaching at Michigan State and Brandeis Universities and her involvement in the North Dakota Study Group, an odd collection of progressive educators which batted far above its weight in the influence it had on its participants, which included me and Rosellen.
Before the news of Helen’s death, the blog post I was considering was about my failed efforts to write a Young Adult novel worthy of the genre. It turns out that Helen shared that same aspiration and sent me drafts of her own attempt, which, like mine, never found its way into the world. Perhaps I’ll pick up on that topic next week, but meanwhile, I’m looking with bewilderment and sorrow at the huge empty space in my life and in the lives of so many other educators where Helen once stood.