In the year before the COVID-19 pandemic, two of my grandparents died, both of whom were pillars in different branches of my family. On the fourth yahrzeit of my grandfather’s death a couple of months ago, my stepmom shared Maya Angelou’s poem, When Great Trees Fall, in his memory. I had never heard of the poem before but have returned to it many times in the weeks since as I reflect on the losses, silences, and birth in myself, in our educational systems, and in our society over the past few years. These reflections are made more poignant to me as my partner and I welcomed our first child into the world this spring, an absurd embodiment of joy, hope, and love in the midst of what one of our school partners called the “steady drip of trauma of the past two years.”
We have experienced a great many trees falling in our world in the recent past. These trees have been our loved ones, many of whom we lost with the compounded pain of not having the opportunity to grieve together in the ways we need and they deserve. These trees have been jobs and careers, support services, businesses, homes, life milestones, opportunities, and relationships. These losses live also in the widespread banning of books and ideas, of addressing anything race-related in schools; in the litigating against trans lives and identities, reproductive rights and justice; in desperate attacks on people’s humanity.
When trees fall it is a uniquely personal, and also communal event. Each holds special importance to those whom it nurtures, and each is also part of a larger history. All trees are nurtured and tended to by the energies and life left behind by the falling of trees, plants, animals who came before. When a great tree falls it is welcomed into the forest floor, its nutrients passed to the places where they are most needed. When great trees fall, it is a personal event; and also trees are constantly falling, and over generations being absorbed back into the earth and begetting new life. We are all born out of the soil of all of our past.
But there is a limit to this transmission, and I am particularly conscious of the insidious aracial implications of using the interconnected natural world as allegory for our socio-historical context. Our natural, social, and inner worlds are not untouched. They are deeply rent, maimed, and divided. We have excavated and clearcut, erected walls, checkpoints, identity papers, dams, ghettos, and borders as natural and social dividers both externally and within ourselves. And yet, at our core we are all interconnected. If we pay attention, the natural world reminds us of this unassailable truth. The paradox we face then lies in being aware of our fundamental interconnected humanities alongside the racism, bigotry, and myopia that continue to define and animate our realities. Understanding the losses of our world requires an expansive capacity for compassion and holding multiple truths.
For children, the narrative of their losses centers around learning, but leaving aside the well trod criticism around that narrative for now, that focus also belies the numerous losses that children have endured. They have lost family members, homes, teachers, graduations, proms, relationships, friendships, school plays, and sports teams; they have started and left new schools without having ever met their classmates or teachers in person; they have lost birthday parties, playing in streets and parks, and class trips; they have lost years of the wondrous minutiae of childhood, and in its place they have experienced huge amounts of worry, loss, and grief.
An educator of multiple decades reflected in a recent session, “We’re in this time in the pandemic when people are so heavily depressed. I’ve never seen a time when everybody has lost somebody within this short of a time, and some have lost several people… a time will come when we will laugh again and dance again but right now we are so hit heavy.” In every exchange that we have with partners at TransformEd those losses are present.
At TransformEd we partner with districts, state organizations, and other educational non-profits to support the integration of antiracism, social emotional learning (SEL), and whole child approaches within educational systems. In a field increasingly populated by new terms and initiatives, our work often begins with supporting adults in building understanding around these focus areas. Often SEL is understood primarily as curriculum, as an additional subject to be taught by overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated educators. Antiracism and equity are often limited to addressing disparities in discipline, reading, and math outcomes.
There are some truths here: direct instruction is a part of a holistic SEL approach, and reducing disparate discipline outcomes and supporting learning in reading and math is an important part of educational equity. But limiting ourselves to only those truths misrepresents this work. Antiracism, SEL, and whole child/whole adult praxis should also be understood not as directives but as questions, not as curriculum but as connection, not as product but as process. These are humanizing orientations that are stripped of their humanity when they are reduced to single truths. Our work with our partners involves making space for human connection, and helping them see where opportunities for humanism exist within the work they do within their professional relationships and with the young people in their care.
As a society over the past few years we have struggled to bear witness and tend to the silences and mourning that falling trees demand. The most beautiful book I’ve read over the past few years was On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. In it he writes, “I believe the wound is also the place where the skin reencounters itself, asking of each end, where have you been?” We are coming to a time in the COVID-19 pandemic in education and in our broader society where we are re-encountering one another across our wounds, when we have opportunities to honor and grieve our fallen trees. In that re-encountering we have choices about how we approach each other. Too rarely have we led with curiosity and compassion. How are you? Where have you been? Are you hurt?
Many of these reflections are deeply connected to the questions that we are asking ourselves at Transforming Education. Questions like, how can we make meaning of our organizational present by exploring and better understanding our organization’s past? In an educational system that prizes measurable, standardized, quantitative metrics above all other indicators of impact, how can we learn from, and show evidence of, the relational, human-centered work that is at the center of our approach? In the midst of the grief, hurt, and overwhelm surrounding school systems, how, as my colleague Sarah Stone puts it, can we balance tending and attending to one another in the midst of the pressures to move forward and demonstrate performance and achievement? Or better yet, how can we find ways to see those goals as complementary rather than as competing? For as another colleague, dr. alicia nance, reminds us, these crises are not new. To understand our current challenges within a historical analysis does not make the losses any less real, but may provide insight into how we repair and regrow.
I tested positive for COVID-19 the day before my partner went into labor. We weren’t able to be together as she labored and I did not meet our son for the first days of his life. Our hearts ached at the loss. And in that moment we were reminded of innumerable others who have lost shared experiences, who have not been able to be physically present with their loved ones in precious moments of sickness and health.
Our son carries the name of my Papa Ed, a man who lost his own father early in life, and who still somehow modeled fatherhood for my entire family. His birthday was on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year and a fitting birthday for a man who brought so much light into the world. As our child grows each day, as he makes his first eye contact and smiles for the first time at the many people who love him, as he discovers the world bit by bit, meets those in our family who are here, and carries forward the legacy of those he will never meet, I think of the cycles of loss and birth, and hope that I and we can be more fully present for one another in the coming years. For as Angelou writes, They existed. They existed. We can be. Be and be better. For they existed.