Barriers and Breakthroughs

These past few months have been a strange version of summer. I feel like most of our plans have transitioned from plan A to plan COVID. Regardless, we have done our best to make the most of our time together: week long trip to West Glacier and Ashley Lake, fishing with Court, working in the garden with Emma, weekly trips to Red Lodge to see Mom and Dad, a trip to Missoula with family, and I have logged 280 miles in the last nine weeks towards my marathon training.

This month as I prepared both physically and mentally to return to my classroom in such an uncertain time, I tried to focus on the good and to work on the elements that are within my control. In July, I was notified that I would be teaching English from a cart. I spent the next week moving my personal items out of the classroom I have taught in for almost ten years. After the last box was moved out, I stood in the hallway and looked back into the room. It was odd to feel possessive of “my space” and then realize how much the physical space I occupy becomes a piece of my identity. With the help of an amazing custodial staff, we moved all of my classroom materials to my technology integration office. It is a nice space and I spent hours making it feel like “my space,” but something about it being an office instead of a classroom feels out of place.

On the Thursday before students arrived on a Monday, I learned I could return to “my” classroom. When the custodians came to see if I wanted help moving all of my things back to the classroom, I told them with everything going on this year I would teach from a cart. I explained I didn’t need all my things to teach, all I needed was a space to occupy with my students. In the past few weeks, I have had colleagues move not only buildings, but content and grade levels. So many of the things I use to find important are now irrelevant as I adjust to what education is during COVID.

Last Sunday, I heard an update from the health commissioner about the uptick of cases in our county. What my classroom will look like for more than a few weeks is unknown, but I will do my best regardless of what my room (or digital classroom) looks like to share a space for learning to continue. This week I was eager to teach four, two hour blocks to two sections of students. It reminded me who and what matters during this uncertain time. Again, I found myself trying to focus on the elements I can control when there are so many uncertainties.

Yet, everything this year feels fragile. So much is still and will continue to be uncertain. So much could and will still change before the class of 2021 graduates. One of our school leaders, Jeremy, shared the following with me “blessed are the flexible for they will not be broken.” Although some days I want to dismiss the statement as optimistic, most days I seek hope through its message. As a result, I have been searching for hope anywhere I can find it. During a writing club gathering, a piece from The Missoulian was read. It prompted the reader to identify 19 words of hope. Here are mine:

A trail sits

silent, surene, smoky

in shadowed sun.

My headlamp’s lone

beam illuminates

slumbering hoppers

safe from sneakers.

On a training run last weekend, I passed a gentleman walking an elderly lab. Politely, we exchanged good mornings and his voice alerted me to the fact that I knew him. I wanted to stop him and ask him all kinds of questions, yet an overwhelming emphatic feeling came over me and I choose to just keep running. When I told my running partner it was the superintendent of the district I work for, she said “oh, I didn’t recognize him without his suit. He must be in disguise.” It was part of this disguise that made me think how a person in a position of such a high level of accountability would need a day to simply be—a person. Too often, I feel we find someone to blame instead of recognizing the person is only one person in our system. Our district has asked us to focus on finding breakthroughs not barriers this year. All week as things I could not control changed and then changed again, I focused on that moment on the path and choose to just keep running. We are all just people doing the best we can with what we have.

I have been listening to the Underneath it All podcast on my solo runs. It addresses why some of us turn to the outdoors. During the third episode “Port in the Storm,” the guest speaker shares her struggle with high-functioning depression. As I listened to her story, I felt as though her words were sharing my experience: loss, trauma, shame, guilt, fear, life. It gives me hope to know I am not alone and many of us seek ways to keep moving forward.

Last night out for sushi with Courtney my fortune cookie reminded me to take time for the things that bring me joy.

On Friday afternoon, a coworker asked me what I am passionate about other than my work. I said running. He laughed and said that running didn’t count. I disagreed. Running has been one of the things I can selfishly allow myself to feel. I can’t convince myself my mental health is more important than many of the items on my daily to do list; yet, finding stability through running, I do just that. On Saturday, I joined three of my friends on a twenty mile long run. We joked about wanting to buy tickets for the struggle bus, but each of us made it by continuing to run forward, even when all we wanted was to give up. Hope and friendship (and perhaps sheer stubbornness) carried us. Sometimes, it is the struggle that makes us stronger.

The beginning of a school year brings new beginnings for friendships. Because we share a space, we share stories and we lean on each other for strength. However, each interaction in which the casual “do you have children” question surfaces, I catch my barriers going up and I want to find a disguise for my grief. In seconds I run through the pros and cons of being vulnerable about Josh’s life and the person I am now because of our time together. I am who I am because of my son. His story is the reason I continue to write my story.

I continue to search for grace in grief, hope in despair, ports in the storm, and breakthroughs not barriers on this trail I am upon. Here is to a year of uncertainty and for the strength and courage to continue even when the trail is unknown.

5 thoughts on “Barriers and Breakthroughs”

  1. I am always in awe of your ability to describe what you feel so eloquently! I know the depth of your self awareness is an incredible gift to your students! This year you will be able to support them and show them how to persevere and how to become resilient and hopeful! You are an amazing woman, Wendy, and I am so glad you are a part of my life!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are so sweet, Carrie. Thank you for your kind words. One of the items I boxed up was the calendar you gave me when I graduated from UM. You, and your family, has been a huge part of my story. I am thankful for you.


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