A contributed perspectives piece by Melissa Weaver
Our family loves listening to the podcast Circle Round, a diverse collection of dramatized folktales. One of our favorite stories, told in East Africa, Brazil, and parts of the U.S., is called “The Tug of War.” In some versions, the hero is a hare and in others a turtle, but the contest is the same: the tiny protagonist humbles Hippo and Elephant, self-proclaimed royalty of their respective realms. After goading the two giants into a contest of strength, instead of holding onto the other side of the rope, the turtle gives them each an end, so they unwittingly strain against the other beast. Astonished by what they imagine is the little one’s power, they pull and pull until they destroy their homes and their strength.
I thought of this story when a friend who works in Rockingham County Public Schools lamented that the political battles that have embroiled the district have distracted people from asking larger questions about what families, staff, and students need and how they relate. She remarked how when each side of a divisive issue only tries to burn down the other, there’s no space left to admit that there are legitimate concerns to be heard and a lot of common ground. For example, she said, both sides of the debate on book bans can agree that books have power, and that there should be wise decisions about which books are engaged, how and when. In the most generous interpretation, both sides care deeply about kids and whether they are safe and prepared for the future.
However, when vitriol, fear and outrage are not just present but encouraged, constructive conversations cannot exist. Not only that, but the conversations and decisions that do happen often create more damage than meaningful changes.
In the folktale, Turtle checks on the two bullies and finds them in disarray: “In his struggle, Elephant had trampled so many bushes and toppled so many trees, Turtle noticed the place was a shambles of branches…In her struggle, Hippo had churned up so much mud and sludge from the bottom, Turtle noticed the water was a mess of brown…both creatures were tired… though they were too proud to admit it.” (The Tug of War, Circle Round Episode 42 by Rebecca Sheir). Finally, “much to their surprise… they came face to face… and collapsed… in a heap!”
Trampled. In shambles. Churned up. A sludgy mess. Without visibility or admission of total exhaustion. Poised to collapse. These words could describe what I’ve heard anecdotally from friends (or the spouses of friends) working at a variety of schools and positions within RCPS. As they process the environment born of political posturing and social media comment “threats,” I’ve heard words like “Orwellian,” “sickening,” “grief,” “heavy,” and “terrifying.”
I’ve heard folks say things like, “We’re just waiting to see who gets fired next,” “They will come for our department next,” “My students are on vastly different sides of these issues, and I’m trying to make my classroom a safe space for all of them,” “I’m afraid my former colleagues might lose their licenses if some of these policies go into effect,” “It’s so disappointing that nothing will be accomplished that improves schools because all the time and resources will be spent on high-profile conflicts,” “I’m afraid there will be a mass exodus of good teachers, and no good way to hire any new ones because of the contentious environment no one would willingly enter,” and “I get physically sick whenever I try and watch the board and the community engage in meetings or online. I want to know what’s going on but can’t stomach it.”
Teachers at one of the county high schools were recently given a survey that asked which students in their rooms went by other names. I wonder if the same time and energy have gone into surveys asking staff which issues affect their classrooms daily. Where is the survey that asks, “How well do you feel supported in working to close the achievement gap that yawned wider after the pandemic? Are there any students in your rooms who don’t have enough to eat on the weekends? What conditions are making longevity in your position harder or easier to imagine?”
Similarly, how many parents have been asked, “How do you feel about your relationship to the school system? What are your fears and hopes about your children, and how can we work together to seek what’s best for them?”
No, instead elected officials and community leaders engage in inflammatory, fear-driven rallying cries, preying on deep concerns and genuine hurts for their own victories over others—a tragic comedy tug of war.
Trampled. In shambles. Churned up. A sludgy mess. Without visibility or admission of total exhaustion.
The only thing left is collapse.
In a less embittered but still potentially contentious conversation, those of us with children in or who are working for the Harrisonburg City Public Schools are discussing proposed start and end times for next year, not without angst and frustration.
As in the county, emotions are high on multiple sides of the decisions. Sometimes, we feel those on the opposite end of our opinion are dead wrong. We fear the ripples of consequences from big changes in policies or schedules. We forget we share concern for our most vulnerable kids and families.
As members of the community, whether stakeholders in the county or city school districts, I think the best thing we can do right now is relax our holds on that which tempts us to topple those who don’t agree with us. We need to examine what collateral damage is occurring from the struggles and in what ways single-minded initiatives are causing exhaustion, confusion, and neglect of shared hopes for students.
One of my children was taught by an occupational therapist a method for regulating emotions called a “PASTA Emotions Check-In.” The steps are simple: Pause and breathe for a moment. Ask yourself how you feel. Say the emotion words out loud or write them down. Think about your feelings. Sit with them and let them be. Ask yourself what you need. Say or list what could help you move forward.
What would it look like for the adults making, cheering for, or roaring against hot-button- politicized or widely-affecting issues to do something similar? What would it look like to pause, to acknowledge our own emotions and needs and then turn that reflection outward to what those arguing another way may be feeling or needing beneath their protest signs and open mic tirades?
I admit that I sometimes want to be like the turtle in the story and go to sleep while the self-proclaimed champions wear themselves out in the mud. It seems at times that little will change the dehumanizing and dizzying debates raging in our community. However, I care deeply about the staff, families and children that are living in this Valley. I think most people would find they share that care, beneath the talking points, too. I stubbornly hold onto hope that we can turn from chaos to curiosity, compassion, and clarity, and somehow find a way to move forward, together.
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.