Op-Ed: Little Hearts, Big Opportunities as Schools Reopen

Op-Ed: Little Hearts, Big Opportunities as Schools Reopen
Angela Bracero

There’s a short video trending on Facebook. Every time I see it, I like to watch and listen to the message. The video is a short clip of Herman Munster from the goofy ’60s sitcom The Munsters, explaining to his son, Eddie, that regardless of our skin color, the two things that really matter most in this world are the size of our heart and the strength of our character.

This “Reading Rainbow”-sounding message probably falls on deaf ears and has people rolling their eyes as they scroll on. However, for some weird reason, Herman Munster’s wise words and ridiculous Frankenstein getup catch my attention every time, and his message stirs feelings in me that I have a hard time putting into words.

Almost six months ago, I found myself in a Dollar Tree swallowing down my anxiety, along with Rolaids, and searching barren shelves for toilet paper and other items I could use to assemble an “emergency” kit for my home and family. In the face of the unknown, this seemed like a logical thing to do at the time. The pandemonium that would later become COVID-19 was just in its beginning stages, but already accompanied by a lot of confusion and uncertainty.

Anxiety was hanging heavy in the air, and as I shopped, I tried to imagine what would happen if my school needed to close. I am a Head Start pre-K teacher, and I work for a small district near Denver. Our community is what you would call “high-needs,” and poverty is very much present. I thought of the parents who rely on us for childcare so they can work and provide for their families, the children who rely on school meals for nourishment, and the students who rely on their teachers for unconditional love and support.

A small feeling of panic would come and go in the days to follow, but I kept it at bay with simple thoughts of faith. Faith that our district and community would support us and that we would make it through what was to come. We may be small, we may be poor, but our community is strong — and band together we did. Our leaders worked hard to give families access to technology; the director of our learning center drove a wi-fi bus so kids could have access to the online lessons. Teachers and staff handed out meals, doubling the quantity on Fridays so that families wouldn’t have to go hungry during the weekend.

Our school closed in March, and we just returned for in-person learning last week. This live transition to learning has been met with some controversy, and at the root of this upset is the simple fact that people want to keep themselves and their families safe and healthy. Almost half of our year has centered on mortality, and during quarantine we all probably had some deep thoughts about death. My own anxiety returned as I resumed school for the first time, and took a good, hard look at all the toys I’d have to clean, the new safety procedures I’d have to enforce. But my anxiety was met by my own inner determination that regardless of this pandemic, I’m going to make this the best year I can for my students and we’re going to get through this.

After spending the week preparing, the kids came.

Almost all of my students are returners from the previous year, and their delight at our reunification made my heart swell. They were ecstatic to see simple old me, they were elated to be back in their classroom. They’ve adapted to the new procedures with an ease that I didn’t think possible, and even though there still is a fear of catching COVID, this worry fell to the wayside as I reflected on our first week back on my drive home. Thinking about these children — their kind and open hearts and their innocence — had me choked up. I consider myself lucky to be able to work with such beautiful little people who give me their full faith and trust to keep them safe and help mold them into the people they are destined to become.

There is a saying that the difference between stumbling blocks and stepping stones is how you use them. Since March, I’ve had to remind myself to be gentle with myself and others. Living through a global pandemic is traumatic, so is living with civil unrest. Nevertheless, if anything good is to come from this historic event that we are all bearing witness to, it’s that this pandemic has shown us who exactly is brave enough to walk around with an open heart and who is willing to stand up and show their strength of character. Both of these concepts sound mushy coming from a feel-good sitcom, but to stand up in the face of adversity takes courage. To be a bleeding heart in a society that currently does not value such tenderness takes guts.

I can’t pretend to know what will come in the months to follow, but I think the adversity we’ve faced is going to bring about some much-needed changes. In the meantime, we can support each other the way I’ve felt supported by my community, my colleagues, my friends, my family and, even though they are young, my students, who help keep me grounded.

Being a teacher gives my life purpose, and COVID-19 will never change that.

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