Thriving Through Interdependence: Grace Episcopal Day School Finds Hope and Resilience Amidst the Pandemic
After we closed our school in March 2020, I did not return to my office in person until late April. After weeks of reinventing school as we know it and bringing a virtual platform to life from my kitchen, I was ready to go to my office to see if my plants were still alive and check in on our building. It was strange and sad to walk through the halls with no children and faculty in place. When in session, our school is normally bubbling with the sounds of joyful students from ages 3 to 11. The now eerie quiet added to my growing melancholy and malaise, feelings that were defining my early days and weeks of the Covid pandemic. After all, children are central to the work we do in leading our schools; in this new context, I was leading our community without their presence to guide me, and it left me hollow and searching.
I noticed the blinking signal on my landline phone soon after entering my office and upon opening my messages for the first time, I was greeted by a parent in my school who wanted me to know she was thinking of me and praying for my safety and strength as I was leading us through the crisis. I listened to her loving and soothing voice and pressed 7 which would allow me to save her words for a day when I might need the pep talk again. And then I found a string of these messages from her, one after the other. They were like small presents I was opening on Christmas morning, deeply aware of the abundance before me. She had been attending my parent Zoom calls, but I had no idea she was feeding and caring for me with these nourishing recordings.
As we open another school year at Grace, I am abiding in a kind of hope and exuberance that I was not sure I would be able to find again. The “old” me is feeling restored. I am filled with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude each day when I enter this student and faculty filled school. There is a new purpose and joy that is palpable and real. As recent as last year is, the early challenges we faced are beginning to become more distant and in the past. We are turning back to the rewarding work of being in a school community in person again.
Our schoolwide intention this year is one of belonging and to help align our thinking, we are using a mantra, “Grace belongs to you.” By setting this intention in front of us each day, we are striving to advance our belief that all of God’s creatures are afforded grace and belonging no matter their identity, background, talent, or contribution. Our offering of “Grace belongs to you” signifies that this belonging is unequivocal and honors the individuals that dwell and learn here together. More fully, this belonging is a never-ending journey and an essential pillar in our work to advance diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in our community. We have chosen to focus this energy towards the sense of community that is central to our ethos. Amidst a global pandemic and a national reckoning around racial and social justice, it has never felt more relevant or urgent to point towards this north star.
This morning at chapel, our chaplain, Nana Susan, told us about the story of creation. After singing All Things Bright and Beautiful, we heard of the days that God filled the world with incremental additions of light and life. When she arrived at the part of the story where Adam and Eve were created, she recalled how God created Adam from dust—from the earth—and how this reminds us that we belong to the earth. In fact, “Adama” is the Hebrew word for soil and is said to be the root of the name Adam. The creation of Eve also signifies our belonging to each other as humans. Indeed, our belonging to the human family and our earth is the most foundational notion of our need to belong. Chapel came after an early morning email from one of our academic leads who quoted Teacher Tom’s Blog. He writes: “In the end, it is belonging that survives through time and space. It is belonging that heals. It is belonging to family, to community, to Mother Nature, that ultimately makes us who we are, not just from birth to death, but for as long as there is time.”
This quote made me recall a recent On Being interview between host Krista Tippett and scientist Suzanne Simard. Suzanne has received attention for her ground-breaking discovery that trees are engaged in interconnected webs of communication, mutual aid, and survival. Her research has upended earlier notions that trees were competing for light and survival in the journey of forest growth and ecology. Through underground webs of interconnection, some healthy trees even send nutrients and nourishment to stumps after trees have been cut down. Simard writes: “I discovered that they are in a web of interdependence, linked by a system of underground channels, where they perceive and connect and relate with an ancient intricacy and wisdom that can no longer be denied.”
As we end another week of being together at school Covid free, I am inspired by the trees I see outside my window that ring our big and beautiful campus. One tree in particular has been on this land well before the building of our school. I know it holds the ancient wisdom Simard has revealed. I like to imagine it is propping up the smaller and less developed trees that are nearby. And I realize now—almost two years into leading a community through a pandemic—that this particular tree on our campus stands as a reminder of the power that comes from leaning into interdependence.
Grace has thrived and succeeded in this pandemic through an interdependent relationship amongst our entire community. Because we belong to each other, we have been reaching out as we can to offer support and connection to one another from day one. From leaving loving voicemail messages for one another, to designing a schedule that maximizes collaboration and well-being, to limiting exposure beyond the school day for our children, we are able to be safe—and more importantly, we are accessing and centering joy after so many months of isolation and struggle. Our commitment to protocols at school and at home reminds us that we belong to each other and we must care for one another every minute of a day in person. Each member of our school community is aware of how their actions can support or threaten our ability to thrive in this moment.
As an Episcopal school, we are called to see our connectedness to one another and our faith in God. As our new rector Sarah Odderstol said recently, “We are not the Kings of Creation.” Instead, we are one small part of our wide creation, and this time of uncertainty, volatility, and change has allowed us to come closer to our human need for helping others as a way to heal ourselves.
Jennifer Danish is Head of School at Grace Episcopal Day School in Kensington, MD.