Giving Thanks: An Open Letter to the Community That Served as My Roots and Trunk
This is a guest blog post from an amazing veteran educator who is planting new roots in education and life. Read more about Stephanie at the end of her post.
It's fall in northern Maine and I am reminded of just how beautiful New England becomes this time of year. I am also thinking, perhaps for the first time ever, that this incredible beauty comes as the leaves are beginning the task of letting go. They are letting go of the tree that displayed their brilliant greens, nourished them from the inside out, and held them high all year. What beauty results from this certain death!
How easily we accept the circle of life when we are only aware of it as a gift rather than a loss. Until today, that is exactly how I have looked upon the mighty oaks and stately maples. It is how I have thought of the gnarled apple trees and the swaying birches. I have been looking at the vibrant colors that serve to decorate the landscape around me. I have marveled at the brilliant reds and yellows, the muted rusts and soft oranges that splash across the horizon and blanket the mountains. But, I have never really considered the loss until now.
You see, now I am here in the northern most county in Maine, mourning the separation from my figurative tree. In this case my tree was the learning community of Norwich, Vermont. I left my teaching position to follow my husband to his new job here. I imagined a grand adventure, a chance to see the more remote parts of New England, and the chance to teach in a whole new place. It wasn't until I realized teaching jobs are scarce here, family and friends are hours away, and my last days of summer weren't being spent shopping for and preparing my classroom for the year ahead, that I realized what a loss I was experiencing.
Like a spring and summer leaf, I had held tight to that little village in Vermont. I grew and tilted my head towards the sunlight that shone down, disguised as a collection of dedicated colleagues, students, and families. I had taken it for granted. In retrospect, I see clearly all the times I was nourished, held high, and encouraged to show my brilliant greens.
It began right away, when I accepted the last minute teaching position that had been made possible only by the late summer growing numbers of the 3rd grade classes. And it continued through my very last day, as I boxed up my classroom and closed the door behind me. The kindness and generosity of the community as a whole was remarkable.
In my first year teaching 3rd grade, so many colleagues supported me in so many ways. Some mentored me, some gently encouraged, some left healthy treats in my mailbox. The custodians went above and beyond the call of duty to furnish my classroom at the last minute, in spite of all the regular scheduled cleaning and maintenance that comes with getting an entire building ready for the first day of school.
That first autumn, my fellow 3rd grade teachers knew just when to do what was needed. For example, a longstanding tradition is for the entire 3rd grade class to climb Mt. Cube. The children were excited, as many of them could recall older siblings talking about their own climb. Parents were generous with their time and patience as they joined us for the day of hiking. And, my fellow teachers graciously joined together to gather my own class with theirs because my presence was required, one-on-one, with a student new to our school. He had never summited a mountain, had never even been hiking. His slow and careful climbing style made it necessary for me to hang back with him. You see, my colleagues instinctively knew it was so much more important for this little boy to feel the success of making his first summit, to go at his own pace and feel pleased with his accomplishment, than it was for me to rush him along and keep him at the same pace with his more experienced classmates.
When we finally reached the summit, the other students were packing their backpacks, ready to make the journey down. It might have taken him considerably longer, but he made it. He was able to stand on top of that mountain, gazing at the beauty of what lay out before him, and maybe most importantly, acknowledge the beauty of the courage and tenacity the lay within him. As I watched him gaze out over that mountaintop, my heart nearly burst with pride and gratitude. Knowing our pace on the way down would never match the rest of the group, my fellow teachers led the other students down the mountain, for the simple reason that it is what my student needed. Two of the parents who had joined us all that day offered to make the descent with us and give us a ride back to school. It was just one of a hundred days I would come to see a village truly raising a child. It came together to lift that child up high enough so that he could see his own potential, feel his own accomplishment, and believe in his own ability.
The years went on and I was fortunate enough to teach other grades, team with other teachers, serve on various committees, and benefit from the help and dedication of many families. I found myself, again and again, counting my lucky stars to be part of this amazing learning community.
When my father died, it was this job that saved me. My students deserved my full presence and attention when I was there. I could not allow myself to fall into a puddle of grief and detach from them. I, too, depended on my students, and their families, to keep me grounded in this profession I love so much. Their kind words, thoughtful cards, and simple presence truly made my classroom a place to heal. And, in a bittersweet twist, I remembered that it had been my dad who had handed me a check for one hundred dollars (for school supplies, he said) when I got that first teaching job. He had been making an investment in not only that first room, but in all of my future classrooms. I could not, in good conscience, let him down, waste the hard earned money that he had trusted would foster an environment of learning and support, creativity and discovery.
Losing a loved one can trick us into thinking that nothing beautiful and good will ever break the surface again. Grief can paralyze us in ways not fully understood until we experience it. But, beauty and hope can—and does—lift the veil of sadness and misery. Perhaps the most poignant moment came several months after losing my father. A former kindergarten student of mine played her violin during an all school assembly. That simple song played with reverence, by a little girl who was brave enough to stand in front of her entire school, made me believe that there was indeed beauty left in this world. In that moment, in that place, I began to heal.
Teaching at that little school was simply a collection of thousands of moments just like that. Outdoor learning, with second graders knee deep in the stream, making real discoveries, and then following that very same stream from its source on the mountaintop to the mouth of the Connecticut River. Time honored traditions like Mayfest, holiday concerts, and stone soup; author visits, community service, and open houses; visits to the State House, River Day, and magnificent student art work—these moments celebrate the students, show the strength and perseverance of both children and adults, showcase the kindness of my colleagues, reveal the investment of the parents, and make visible the genuine sense of community that can be found in that little Vermont town.
It is those moments I miss as I look out upon the mountains and hills here in northern Maine. I am reminded of the ways my dad provided me with roots, Marion Cross School gave me the sturdiness of a strong trunk, and a million moments in and out of the classroom became the bright green buds and leaves that clung tightly to the tree until they were ready to let go.
As I contemplate letting go, I am also counting my blessings. Thank you, Marion Cross School, and all of the branches of your magnificent tree. I have grown with my face toward the sunlight, rested in your shade, been nourished by your kindness, and supported by the limbs and twigs that continue to grow. May you never tire from this truly powerful and necessary work you do, giving so many a great start and helping them to let go when the time comes. It has truly been an honor to have been but a single leaf on your tree.
Stephanie Ferland is currently the GEAR UP Maine Scholar Coordinator. Stephanie grew up in a rural mill town in New Hampshire, the daughter of a logger dad who taught her love and respect for the natural world, and a stay-at-home mom, who taught her to read. She has been in love with school since her very first day of kindergarten. Her dream to spend the rest of her life in school, in some capacity or another, continues to be realized every day. She has a BA in Writing & Literature, Teacher Certification for K-8 regular classroom and middle school English, and is finishing her MATL at Mt. Holyoke College. She brings experience in both traditional and non-traditional classroom settings, ranging from kindergarten to high school, and believes everybody deserves a chance to learn as much as possible, for as long as possible. Stephanie lives in Portage and continues to marvel at the beauty of both nature and books. Follow Stephanie: @vtteachergirl
Photo courtesy of Reilly Butler, Paul VanDerWerf, and Nicholas Ritenour.