It’s the 25th day of June, and nearly the end of 1 school year. The last 10 months have seen 190 days of school in the 60 different school districts, scattered across the regions of BC. Within these districts are 1,578 public schools at which 553,000 youth and children learn, grow, and play. These children are attended to by more than 2,624 Principals and Vice-Principals, as well as approximately 100,000 teachers, support staff, bus drivers, superintendents and assistants, carpenters, technicians, and groundskeepers.
The BCPVPA has issued 38 volumes of eNews to which I’ve contributed nearly 40,000 words in my attempt to capture the experience of this school year. I have sent 1,050 emails to Principals of the schools which reported a combined 11,251 days of potential exposure to COVID-19, the virus which has so far infected 147,271 people in British Columbia, and claimed 1,744 lives. In this week of June, 3,518,243 people have received their 1st dose of vaccination against this illness, and we all harbour a cautious hope that our 2nd dose will lead us out of this painful experience and expand our bubbles well beyond the ‘Safe 6’.
The story of our school year in a pandemic is more than simply the sum of its parts, an accounting by the numbers. The numbers are rather sterile, blankly serving as a tally. It is critical that we remember each sum is a compilation of stories. In one of his essays, George Orwell muses that one life is a world in itself. Numbers can then serve as a shorthand to express a veritable universe of experiences and lives. The tallies are invitations of a sort, drawing our eyes, our minds, and our hearts into the constellations of human experience found in numbers such as 9:29; 10,000; 94; 280; 3,600; or 215. It is only in looking past the numbers and deep inside them that can we begin to understand, engage, and bear witness.
This year’s winner of CBC Canada Reads is Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead. Joshua is an Oji-Cree/nehiyaw, Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer member of the Peguis First Nation (Treaty 1). Well into the book, Joshua writes about water and the rivers in his life. Joshua calls the water a “mentor”, a teacher. In the next lines, his metaphor extends, and the water becomes a road, a path… perhaps a journey or life itself. He writes, “The water is a furious road and the only words we can say to one another are simple: witness me.” To bear witness: “To show that something exists or is true.” This need for validation and confirmation is at the core of our existence. And here in June of 2021, we must witness a great deal.
In her book The Listening Leader, Shane Safir writes about fostering trust, relationships, and community. She writes about bids for a leader’s attention which come from all sides: students sharing successes, teachers unloading a difficult lesson, communities speaking their truth, colleagues seeking support, or parents searching for answers. Safir characterizes these bids as a call for care or attention, a call to be seen and validated. “Even those times that feel shrouded in criticism or negativity: Can you find a bid lurking there?... How [leaders] respond to these offers matters … a lot.” I would suggest that this is something well understood by the Principals and Vice-Principals in our schools, who have spent this last year acknowledging bids for attention that have come from every avenue in their communities. More than listening, our school leaders have heard; they have supported and sustained their communities through one of the most difficult years of the last century, for reasons well beyond the urgent health crisis. And in the concluding weeks of this school year – one that began with a reimagining of how ‘school’ will work and ended with envisioning a ‘near normal’ Autumn – our school leaders will take account of what was learned these past 10 months, and note what lessons have only just begun.
Before the moments of this June pass, we must bear witness to what our Principals and Vice-Principals have accomplished over the past year because their own bid will be quiet, if not silent. They will never say, “Look at me.” Over the past 12 months, I have endeavoured to bear witness to the dedication, competency, compassion, and excellence of our school leaders at every opportunity. I have seen you, and I have heard you.
I wish you a Summer filled with the people and the experiences which will restore you. Keep well and safe until we begin again.
And as I close the book on this school year and my weekly communication, let me end by saying with genuine awe, “Just look what you’ve done!”