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No more school daze

No more school daze

By Tracy Salcedo

Looking out the windows of Dunbar School’s library, I watched Ms. Edwards’ class line up in the covered walkway, each student standing on a colored dot six feet distant from their neighbor, each holding a hula hoop. Ms. Edwards and Ms. Jeanine-ny stood at the front of the two lines, giving instructions. The first graders did their best not to fidget, but they couldn’t help themselves. They were in school. They had hula hoops. They were on their way to the playground. They were going to learn something new, in person.

It was magical.

There’s been a lot of magic at Dunbar these last few weeks as the children have come back and settled in. On the first day, waiting for the first bus and the first drop-offs in more than a year, my colleagues — teachers, office staff, even the principal — did stellar imitations of first graders, fidgeting with anticipation (and to fend off the morning cold), painting welcome messages on the walkways with sidewalk chalk, hanging balloons in front of classroom doors, stringing up welcome banners. One was a huge banner Ms. Jeanine-ny painted back in October 2017, to welcome students back after the Nuns Fire blew across Dunbar Road and torched the school’s kinder yard, stage, and garden.

“We Missed All of Your Beautiful Faces,” it reads, the words surrounded by yellow smiley faces.

After the fire, the poster found a home in the library, where I had started working just a week before the wildfire exodus. The library was a healing place in those first few post-evacuation weeks, transformed by educators who’d never done fire before but who stepped up and did what was right, taking their lead from the children and each other. In the library, in the classrooms, in those days, Dunbar came together, and we not only carried on, we elevated.

I hung onto the poster because, even as the faces on Dunbar’s campus have changed over the last few years, they have remained beautiful. I folded the top over—the “We missed” part— because the children weren’t missed; they were present. No one ever imagined the “We missed” part would be relevant again.

Yet here we are, trickling back to campus after a pandemic hiatus, and the “We missed” part matters. The poster, fragile with time, came down off the wall, and I strengthened its fraying edges with book tape. Ms. Jeanine-ny and I hung it on the bell tower in front of school on those unimagined, mid-school-year first days, to greet the ones we’d missed so badly for so long.

I feel it’s safe to say that transitioning to this brand-new thing called hybrid learning has been a delight, a challenge, and a revelation for everyone at Dunbar. We are in good company: Over these long months, educators worldwide have invented and reinvented, jiggered and rejiggered, thought it through and then thought it through again. Guidelines shifted, and educators shifted with them. We’ve created events I hope will endure, like drive-thru birthday parades. We’ve endured events I hope will fade away, like Zoom meetings. Nobody knew what to do, because nobody had done pandemic before. But everyone stepped up and did what they thought was right. That sign on the fire department signboard after the 2017 blaze? I can’t recall now exactly what it said, but it was something like that: Everyone did the best they could.

Of course, not everyone agrees. People have done a lot of complaining and judging and second-guessing as we’ve progressed through shutdown to distance learning to hybrid. Maybe things could have been done better, but unless you were on the ground doing those things, you should shut your trap. No one’s been left behind: We’ve all been on the same page through this thing; we’ve all been in a daze. When it’s all said and done, no matter this “lost year,” the children will read and write; they’ll grow up; they’ll be strong in ways we can’t imagine. From my perspective, it’s all working out just fine.

It’s working out beautifully, in fact. The school bell is ringing. There’s a tetherball on the chain that used to clang in the wind on the empty playground, like the playground was the Wild Wild West. Teachers are blowing whistles and giving one-minute warnings before the student cohort on the big toy gives way to the next student cohort. Backpacks decorate the hooks along the corridor walls. Voices, young and old, are raised in call-and-response. Smiles are everywhere behind the masks, because we can read that emotion in each other’s eyes; that’s our new superpower. Students line up on colored dots, six feet apart, holding hula hoops.

Dunbar’s scholars are ready to learn whatever Dunbar’s educators are ready to teach. It’s different, it’s the same, and it’s beautiful.

As we stretch into our third week of “real” school, Ms. Jeanine-ny’s poster has resumed its happy place, hanging over my desk in the library. Hopefully we’ll never have to use it again. But if it’s needed, it’s there. At the bottom, I’ve added a line. It’s a message for the children, but also a reminder for all of us. It reads: “Dunbar Scholars * Survivors! * 2017 Wildfire * 2020 Pandemic. You’ve GOT This!”

Tracy Salcedo is an award-winning author who lives and works in Glen Ellen. She is also Dunbar Elementary School’s library media specialist.

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