Our school year started in person on August 19th, with safety protocols in place for those on campus and a virtual option for students unable to return physically. I’m loving the conversations I’m part of in the library and the hallways. Even though those interactions are much more limited than previous years, they were largely non-existent this spring. I’ve also noticed that masks seem to operate for many like a costume, something that frees people to speak more openly, to move quickly towards deeper and more personal conversations. Or maybe after 6 months interacting mainly with those in our households, we’ve simply lost the habit of small talk? I’ve always joked that there’s no routine to a library day, but last spring made it obvious that there’s a routine to a library year, and certain “interruptions” are actually “expectations” built into my understanding of what days are like for librarians. I’m surprised at how much I like being back; I was pretty trepidatious in early August. That said, I feel like I can’t turn off the fog and fragmentation that entered my mind while working from home. Much of the joy and exploration that bring meaning to my work feel muted. I can’t focus enough to trim the number of open tabs (or should I just call them uncompleted tasks?) in Chrome, clean out my inbox, or even respond to messages in the AISL listserv. (As they build, know many of you may be getting out-of-date responses soon, to the queries that intrigued me most, when I reach that Neverland state of “back to normal” or “caught up.”) Even choosing a topic to write about today felt overwhelming, rather than invigorating. But, like all independent school librarians and their clichéd many hats, my school knows me not only in the library, but also as Academic Team coach, lead advisor, Honor Council faculty rep, and relevant here, Sunshine Committee Co-chair.
Most of your schools probably have something similar, but our short tagline for new faculty is “Sunshine is celebration in good times and comfort when times are tough.” We send cards for events like weddings and condolences, plan Secret Santa, organize potlucks, and, well, pretty much everything else that comes to mind also involves camaraderie through food. Who doesn’t like food? COVID. Or to be more accurate, it doesn’t like people sharing tables unmasked. So we’ve been trying to think creatively about how to make people feel valued authentically during a period when we’re all feeling overwhelmed, a period when even if there was more time in our schedules, we’re discouraged from most social interactions.
Cue Disney – Disney has some enticing offers for Florida residents to buy seasonal memberships, something my family has done in past years. As a northern transplant, I still haven’t lost the thrill that I can leave work late on a Friday afternoon and be standing in the World Showcase of Epcot before dinner that night. Of the many websites I regularly visit is one that posts Disney updates, historical trivia, and stories of interest to the bloggers on the site. Chris Barry’s Top Five Cast Member Moments post stuck in my head because of 3 and 4 specifically. People non-ironically use the term “Disney magic” to describe vacationing there. In the article, Chris describes five moments where cast members exceeded his expectations and delighted him. The five share some characteristics. They’re surprising, not something he had been anticipating. They’re personal, related to his family and the effects on them. They’re detail oriented, noticing and responding to the moment.
Per Chris, “Not only do they (cast members) make us feel special, they go above and beyond to do so and they make it look easy. They’re probably underpaid and overworked but I like to think that the ones that really turn on the Disney magic do so because they believe in what the place stands for; that you should feel different when you pass through those arches and it’s their job to facilitate that.” Per me: Why is this exclusive to Disney? How can we bring this magic to our own schools, whether in the library, as a sponsor of a club, or through something like Sunshine?
I reached out to some teachers who I trusted to think seriously and creatively about what would make their days brighter. We’re a small faculty, one that really does enjoy each other’s company. Even with how busy people are, especially with virtual learning and a new block schedule, every teacher I asked took the time to respond. I laughed at answers that ranged from hosting after-hours Zoom happy hours to banning after-hours Zoom happy hours, from posting inspirational teacher posters to placing sarcastic teacher memes in mailboxes. But one, from a Classicist who’s brilliant and purposeful in all his actions, stood out. If I were to describe a colleague as having gravitas, it would be him.
“Some time ago you asked me what might be something that Sunshine Committee could do to brighten up people’s day. Of course I ruminated on it for some time. My answer is flowers. Flowers are a thing of beauty that can lift spirits in an inexpressible way. Maybe if they were out here and there in the school (in the commons for chapel, in the Library for faculty meetings, etc?) on occasion it may make some difference. Or even a random teacher. Random chance can raise spirits in a strange way.”
What a final line. This is not a teacher I would have thought would have noticed flowers in the library. Random chance can raise spirits in a strange way. But how true. How lovely. When I was in high school, after reading The Catcher in the Rye for English class, I sought out and devoured the rest of his oeuvre on my lifeguarding breaks. In Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenter, Seymour claims, “I’m a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.” I wrote this quotation in notebooks and pinned it to my bedroom wall. If there’s a value underpinning my work, I want to be the person plotting others’ happiness.
But this isn’t just true for faculty. We might currently be stressed, unhappy, and critical of our own performance, but we’ve done this before. Except for those retiring in 2021, we’ll do it again. Career trajectories have peaks and valleys, and most of us are in a valley. Random chance in the form of a chocolate bar, a thoughtful note, or taking the time to listen to someone vent might brighten a day, might make it easier to get to the weekend and hit reset for another week of simultaneous instruction, mask fatigue, and worry about testing results. This is an anomaly. This better be an anomaly. But given the growth that happens each year for students, they’re experiencing this once. Student’s peaks and valleys are on a yearly cycle. A terrible 5th grade year isn’t buoyed by an amazing 7th grade experience. New 9th graders who don’t get to meet and bond with their classmates at an orientation retreat can’t recreate that experience as 10th graders who’ve known each other for twelve months. The experience of last year’s 12th graders, who lived seven months of senior year normally, leaving campus for lunch, having spectators at sports games, and building a Spirit Week float, is in no way analogous to this year’s 12th graders, who may end up with a graduation ceremony, but who are currently living a Spartan senior fall.
Without candies, without puzzles, without after school hours, how can the library bring Sunshine to their days? My baseline is not letting the library be sidelined in this crisis, but I want the library to be something that actively makes their day better. This list is incomplete and almost embarrassingly small, but it’s not for lack of thought. I try to stand in the hall outside the library and say hello between passing periods. When I see students printing annotated bibliographies, I offer to review on the spot for simple fixes like double spacing and alphabetical order. I write to the advisor when I oversee someone doing something nice like helping with recycling. I listen to students complain about the year when they’re standing at the copier, and I empathize with their sense of loss. I never end classes with the make sure to push in your chairs lecture but thank them for using the library. I meet with seniors about their common app essays and talk about what they want to convey. I think endlessly about my senior advisory and new privileges we could design for them. Yesterday, they all received a prepackaged cookie on the 21st to celebrate the Class of 21. It’s insufficient, but it’s something. As someone who doesn’t grade them, as one of the few faculty members who has worked with them since 7th grade, I can give them my time, I can give them my attention. Because this year doesn’t look the same for them and it’s the only time they’re experiencing what it’s like to be a 7th grader, a 10th grader, a 12th grader. Even if I only hold steady this year with our research curriculum, I can build on any missing academic pieces next year when it’s the same me with a new grade of them. Which is all to say that I’m trying and it has to be enough and it doesn’t feel like enough.