Community Perspective: Icebergs and Lifeboats: How do we relate to our neighborhood schools? 

A contributed perspectives piece by Melissa Weaver

The community garden at Spotswood elementary school. File photo.

I had the privilege recently of helping at Spotswood Elementary School’s “Winter Knights Bucks” store. Kids can “shop” with points earned throughout the year from tables full of items donated from the community. Volunteers help children pick out say, a mug with a Christmas tea towel, a book with a matching stuffed cat, glittery earrings for a mom, and then help kids wrap up their treasures.

The project itself is mammoth and beautiful, and the joy on the kids faces as they can “buy” gifts for their loved ones is priceless, however what I appreciate most about getting to help with days like these, at any of the schools (including the city school where my three children attend), is getting an immersion in what staff and kids are experiencing, both amazing and heartbreaking. 

So, on the walk back to my car yesterday, I tried to find a way to process everything that I saw yesterday and have seen in our groaning educational system. The image that came to mind was that of the Titanic. 

Do a quick search of any of the statistics of the disaster, and unsurprisingly, you’ll see a huge disparity in information access and survival rates among first-, second- and third-class passengers. Same disaster, widely different experiences. 

Not only that, the Titanic had only twenty life-boats, able to accommodate only half the ship’s passengers, because her creators felt that too many of them would affect the views of the first-class folks. 

Tales of survival have been romanticized, used to fit various narratives, dramatized and analyzed—much like the stories of what is happening in our schools. 

In my mind, the iceberg of which the pandemic is just the tip, is solid with years of racial inequity, unequal access to services and information, misunderstanding of what educators actually do, a groaning infrastructure, generational trauma, political firestorms, and cultural shifts.

It follows, absolutely, that after the collision of the past four years, our city’s most vulnerable kids and families and schools (and I’m sure in the county as well, I can only speak to those halls I’ve walked), have experienced a much higher level of disaster. Those who were doing alright before are doing just fine now, after a few stumbles. Those who struggled before are now facing Herculean efforts to regain ground. 

Just like in climate disasters (or the smoke we experienced in the Valley a few weeks ago), those with resources can insulate from the effects while those without are forced to grapple with the aftermath of the comfort of some. 

However, what has churned in me the last few days is not the more obvious parallels to disparity and survival, but the fact that we’re expecting educators and schools to function as lifeboats for hundreds of kids and families, while also being rigorous, creative, competitive, and safe. While also trying to keep their own families and neighbors afloat. 

I believe its unrealistic, unfair, and untenable. We have two guidance counselors for hundreds of kids, expected to teach social emotional skills, mediate between students, hold unspeakable stories, and navigate child welfare systems. We have one school nurse managing constantly changing guidelines and sick kids whose parents can’t afford to take any more time off of work. My children’s teachers spent hours compiling reading data because of policies made by those who are not in the daily trenches, data which even I as a former teacher couldn’t understand. 

One of them lamented spending hours on what most parents would toss in the trash—not because they didn’t care, but because they didn’t know how to use it. The amount of kids who in an ideal world would have a one-on-one support has surged. Teachers in a third school I’ve visited this year tell me they have eight kids in their kindergarten grade-level that aren’t potty trained. Staff are asking for paper on school wishlists, and care closets and food programs like the Backpack Coalition try to fill gaps. 

I don’t believe we can expect educators and staff to continue to prop up shuddering systems while they are demonized, glorified, or taken for granted. 

If you could only see what I’ve seen—staff kneeling in front of screaming kids and trying to help them return to class, staff stocking their classrooms with sensory input tools from their own budgets, staff consoling parents, staff physically hurt by students and yet also somehow expected to protect students if there’s violence. It’s arrestingly beautiful and valiant, and also so unrealistic and difficult. 

I’ll admit there are days when I get home from volunteering at one of our schools that I feel despair. The needs are so great and varied. Yet, there are small ways that we as a community could come around our neighborhood schools and help ensure more kids and teachers don’t “sink.” 

Here are ten: 

  1. Become a screened volunteer. In the city schools, you can visit to see the opportunities as well as the necessary steps to be approved. 
  2. Refrain from toxic comment wars or disparaging educators publicly without first spending time in a school. 
  3. Check with the school closest to you to see if there is a winter clothing or gift drive. Many schools, including my children’s, have supplemental programs this time of year that you can support with an Amazon wishlist purchase or donation to purchase clothes and toiletries for families of students. 
  4. Notice and celebrate the good happening in schools, and share a note of solidarity or thanks. 
  5. Partner with a group or a few friends and drop off snacks and drinks (fizzy waters are a common favorite) at a nearby school office to share with staff. 
  6. Venmo a teacher or staff friend money for dinner, send an electronic pizza gift certificate, buy a few five-dollar coffee gift cards the next time you enjoy, etc…
  7. Advocate for schools by learning what issues affect them by keeping up with what’s happening at local school boards and beyond. Virginia Education Association and the National Education Association have legislation pages with possible policies to support that would strengthen schools. 
  8. Find an overlooked helper. Drop off a card or small treat for school janitors, assistants, cafeteria workers, speech therapists, IT support professionals, etc… The school is a small city, and we can support all its providers. 
  9. If you have children in school, think small, low-cost, more frequent ways to improve morale. Slip packet of hot chocolate and note in a backpack, buy a new chapstick for dry winter classroom lips, pick up a favorite snack in the check-out line and hand it to the people doing drop-off line. 
  10. Ask those actually experiencing life in classrooms and halls what matters to them. All of us know at least one teacher or support staff member, I’d venture. Consider asking “What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve experienced at school lately? What’s the hardest thing? What do you need this week to keep going? 

In some ways, the neighborhood school is a wonderful concept. Services are provided to kids where they are and the community can step in and support. 

However, that means we need a community that actually engages (not just in comment sections) with needs next door, as well as champions who will try to dismantle the iceberg and/or reinforce the ship and safety measures. Let’s choose one of these positions this week, and see what could happen in these icy seas. 

Melissa Marquez Weaver is a former English/ESL teacher who lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where she cares for her husband and three young children, more pets than they planned on, unruly gardens, and her neighborhood.  She serves as co-coordinator of Christian formation with Immanuel Mennonite Church. As part of her position, she writes a blog called A Light So Lovely. Her first poetry chapbook, Welcome, Stranger: Poems of Making and Keeping Our Children, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2021, and her work has appeared in Ekstasis Magazine, The Christian Century, Bravery Magazine, Menno Snapshots, Mothers Always Write, Anabaptist Witness, The Anabaptist Journal of Australia and New Zealand and Transforming, a publication of Virginia Mennonite Missions.

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