On Teaching and Administrating and Grieving and Celebrating

I started this post nearly six weeks ago, and couldn’t finish it.  I’ve thought about it a number of times since then.  But as we reach the night before what would have been UMW’s commencement ceremony, I find myself returning to it and to the sentiments it started with and that have continued to resonate with me since then.

I know that none of us in education were ready for what the last two weeks months have been, nor are we prepared for the days and weeks (and hopefully not months) to come. Maybe we should have been, maybe we could have seen the slow yet practically inexorable movement of the COVID-19 virus from other parts of the world to the United States and eventually to our own locales. But in the end it came and we are dealing with the consequences for our work and our lives, and they are not insignificant. Fighting this virus requires remarkable disruption in the daily activities, the gatherings, the human interaction, that are part of our schools, our social life, our culture. Even in this age of digital-mediated work and leisure, we still live in work and school settings that are inherently about being with and near other people.

In the ten days before Mary Washington made the decision to move to remote learning and send our students home, I spent an immense amount of time with other people. [More time spent than I did in most weeks, let alone one that encompassed UMW’s Spring Break.] And after we moved to our homes and away from campus, I continued to be part of teams working to figure out how my school could deal with the impact of the most serious disease outbreakswe have seen in the world in our lifetime.  Initially, it was about deciding to close out the in-person aspects of what we offered, then it was dealing with the fallout of that move (such that our students and faculty and staff were not overly impacted), then it was what would the summer look like if students (and others) were not on campus, and now it is how can we, as a school that prioritizes the residential, face-to-face educational experience, imagine a fall semester that may or may not include students on campus, that may or may not include the revenues that residential campuses depend on to pay their employees and support their mission, that will somehow include social distancing and the latest thinking on public health, testing, contact-tracing, and hygienic practices.

I am blessed to be working with a dedicated, hyper-competent, thoughtful group of staff and faculty and Cabinet members, who believe in our mission, who are smart and dedicated to their students and their colleagues, and it is an honor to Zoom with so many of them each week as we work to build a future for our school and our community in the months and years to come.

I am fortunate to work with a President and a Board of Visitors who ask, over and over again, “what is best for the students?” no matter how difficult or complicated the answers to that seemingly simple question might be.

I am privileged to be able to continue to teach and work with the amazing students that make up the Mary Washington community, as they completed powerful senior theses on Women in Computing and the impact of race in historical portrayals of the Civil Rights Movement, as they built digital public history projects on James Farmer, UMW’s academic buildings, hundreds of letters from a Union soldier, and an array of scrapbooks from generations of Fredericksburg women.

I am lucky to have a home and a family who believe in the mission of education, a family who has supported all of its members during this stay-at-home order, family members who make each other laugh as we make each other meals and make each other at home in our house.

I am grateful that I am in a position to both teach and learn from our students AND to shape the direction of our institution at a time when nothing is normal.  I am constantly aware of the responsibility that is involved in being both a teacher and an administrator at this time and place, and I am glad that most days I believe I am making a difference.

And then today, the day before commencement was supposed to happen, I got to preview the video that will be shared tomorrow with graduating seniors, their families, their faculty, and the Mary Washington community.  And it broke me, at least a little. Don’t get me wrong.  It’s funny, and heartfelt, and full of terrifically caring alumni, our president, my colleagues, and lovely sentiments.   [I’ll link to it here once it is released.]

Maybe I should point out here that commencement is one of my favorite times of the year.  It is unalloyed joy.  It is a chance to meet students at their happiest, parents at their most proud, the community at its most relaxed.  It is a payoff for all of us after the always-stressful spring semester (or even the whole academic year).  It is goodbye, good luck, thank-you, and hell, yeah all at once.

And watching that video, knowing that we won’t be donning our regalia tomorrow, marching to the bagpipes, congratulating graduates as they walk the Campus Walk gauntlet of proud professors on their way to Ball Circle tomorrow, well, it broke me. Or at least it broke the dam of emotion that I’ve been holding back these months as we have all worked (students, faculty, staff, family) to get through, to survive (literally) to the end of the semester and school year.  And I grieved for what we have lost as a community of learners.  And I celebrated with happy tears what we have done together and apart.  We are capable of both being sad and grateful, regretful of what is lost and thankful for what has been preserved, sorrowful at what was missed and yet celebratory about the amazing things that have been accomplished.  

So, hear the bagpipes, sing the alma mater, hug your loved ones (be they near or far), and grieve what was lost and be grateful for what has been accomplished and what is still to come.  And know that all of that is okay.