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Dr. Grauer's Column - A Hold-Down

A Hold-Down

There are a number of things I am certain good school leaders foster in all times:
mingling with our kids again without fear, courageous discussions about hard things even if they are outside our comfort zones, loving our children beyond words.

One morning recently in the surf, a wave lifted up on me suddenly and I tumbled down the face of it and was drawn deep below the turbulent foam. It was a small day and I had no expectations of being thrown—but you can never have enough respect for the power of an ocean wave. 

On bigger days, a hold-down like this in the surf sometimes feels endless and eerie. In those moments, you are not in control and are at the mercy of nature, and even spinning around down there in the dark what’s amazing is this: you are still 100% yourself. For me, these have become moments for calm, perseverance, and faith. But I understand they can be moments of terror if you try to control forces like these, even on a small day. 

When I surfaced, the thought of Covid was there. It has been a year-and-a-half “Covid-19 hold-down”—especially for parents, grasping for certainty. We all want to be in control of our lives. Of course, we’re not. Except that we can love our families and support our communities. Those we can control.

Last year at Grauer, to manage, we ran over 1000 Covid tests for students and staff. We formed many teams and task forces, including with some of you. We said we were managing health, but we were managing anxiety. Managing trust and safety. Managing uncertainty and risk. 

Managing trust is not easy in times of great uncertainty. While we managed, COVID-19 was killing 625,000 people in our country. Some older friends of mine, parents and grandparents, never came up from the hold-down. Somebody told me not to write about these personal losses publicly, that it would sound scary or threatening. But what about the trust of their children and grandchildren? 

At Grauer, we surfaced just two weeks ago into a new school year, optimistic again. Presently, things we once thought were day to day normalcies seem like miracles unfolding. Smiles and laughter are everywhere around—what could be more miraculous? Our campus seems magic.

We are not certain if those miracles are real for all of our families. Like the future, much of the past year or two are ripples on the surface, unspoken or unthought. Last year, hidden below the surface for many among us was exhaustion and stress, surrender of some freedoms, and the replacement of some wonders of nature with confining, artificial Zoom boxes. I barely saw student and parent smiles on campus all year. I tried to put up a good front. We saw a small fraction of one another.

We continue to spend caring nights and weekends studying graphs and epidemiological studies, knowing there is no certainty no matter how much we study, no matter how much we care. Some people demand certainty anyway, or claim to have it. There is much, much more hidden below the surface still, and the real theme is more like a question: How you are really feeling?

At our school, Grauer, we maintain control of uncertainty by refusing to allow many things that seem imminent: social isolation, learning loss, fear, disagreement about what to do about all this—but I can feel the misinformation and theorizing seeping through. “Beware of people with theories,” my greatest teacher once told me.

We maintain control by caring about you, believing in your kids, no matter what your background or belief system, whether you know it or not. In hundreds of meetings, policies, and second cups of coffee, with you in mind and heart, how you’re doing was and remains our theme. What’s your theme?

When will there ever be the certainty you need? We hear about a global threat way down there in some deep, but it is mostly invisible: a variant, around 1000 times as virulent as the original strain of the Sars-CoV-2 virus, replicating in tens of millions of people, mutating, hiding in our bodies, mystifying our need to control things.

To manage, we try to control what comes into our body, what comes into our minds, what comes into our feelings and our spirit. What comes on campus. 353 million people have taken a COVID vaccine in the US, 4.7 billion doses worldwide. An astonishing 3 deaths are linked to this vaccine, but when a vaccinated friend gets sick, it always feels bigger than the billions and rattles our certainty as a school community or as a family. 

In pursuit of certainty, are we looking for increased antibody protection, such as vaccines provide so well, or some larger sense of mandate? Suddenly, we are hearing this arcane word, mandate, every day. Here is what mandate means: control. And this is something we can neither have nor grasp. 

Then one day, I get this letter from Grauer parent Dr. Rob Afra, one of our area’s most trusted, brilliant physicians and a whole range of uncertainty emerges like a painting:

“Although Johanna and I vaccinated, we were hesitant to have our teens get covid vaccination. We were worried about the potential secondary side effects that I was reading about. However, when weighing the risks against the benefits and considering the potential risk of hospitalization, long term health consequences, and death with a covid infection, we as a family decided that we wanted our teens vaccinated. Long haulers, folks with lingering post infection symptoms suffer from chronic fatigue, lack of focus, shortness of breath, etc. The risk of infection was worse to us than the potential vaccine risk.”

I see the point. Maybe certainty is over-rated. Maybe embracing the uncertainty is the way to go, anyhow. Psychologists tell me that when we are too certain of our own moral righteousness, we make a lot of mistakes – which can end up harming our children.

I plumb my own depths. I wonder if I am worried primarily about viruses. Maybe I need a vaccine for the fear I hear some families express, or for the polarization I feel amongst America’s new factions.  I want to deal with:

1. Those who think we don’t love them for one reason or another,
2. All the anxiety we are supposed to manage that they didn’t tell us about in the graduate school of education,
3. Kids getting quarantined somewhere on an expedition,
4. The reality of a next variant, or the next one, spreading face to face in a music combo or football lineup, or in a group hug,
5. The relentlessness of not knowing how to reach everyone and pretending to.

I am searching for clarity and know I can’t please all the people all the time. But there are things that keep arousing uncertainty in me. Native Americans were exposed to smallpox, measles and flu and, with no previous exposure, this was a death sentence for millions; 10% of them survived: is this what people mean when they anticipate “herd immunity”? What about if a virus like Covid was artificially developed in a Chinese lab, can you have a “natural immunity” to it? I’m uncertain about this new vocabulary that people seem to presume everyone understands but I don’t. 

It’s all good. Obviously, we are living with uncertainty and risk, and I have no idea how long we are going to be dealing with the current scenario, or how much I can bear. But there are a number of things I am certain good school leaders foster in all times: mingling with our kids again without fear, courageous discussions about hard things even if they are outside our comfort zones, loving our children beyond words. Joy runs in schools like families, a persistent instinct—this prevails in my mind.

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