Community is About a Lot More Than Proximity

As someone who has spent nearly my entire life in schools, as a student, then a teacher and eventually as a school leader, Memorial Day Weekend has a certain, special feel to it. It feels hopeful. It feels deep-down tired, but it also feels luxurious thanks to the extra day off. It is not quite carefree, because the school year isn’t finished, but the long weekend feels like a window that opens up onto summer. A time to relax, recharge and reflect. 

This year, of course, Memorial Day Weekend felt very different. It felt a lot like all of the days that have preceded it since we started shelter-in-place. 

The end of the school year feels entirely unfamiliar too. Typically, late May is a blur of events and celebrations: exhibitions of student work, awards nights, parties, graduations. The end of the year is crazy-busy, but it is also the most rewarding time of the year.  Students are excited, and they shine. They demonstrate a year’s worth of learning, reflect on how they have grown, and offer sincere gratitude to those who have helped them. School is full of love and pride and accomplishment. This year, year-end rituals and celebrations are taking place via computer screens and virtual hugs are the best we can offer. The year is ending with as much uncertainty as pomp and circumstance.

Despite the challenges and changes that COVID-19 has brought, the Gateway community has reminded me that community is about a lot more than proximity. Yes, it’s true that our “classrooms” are now spread across nearly a thousand homes and apartments across San Francisco. And, I think it’s fair to say that when we closed our schools on March 12th, none of us realized that we were saying goodbye to each other for the remainder of the school year. But, over the months since shelter-in-place started, I have seen incredible demonstrations of community and connection among students and staff: teachers’ weekly shout-outs to students in our all-school videos; touching digital celebrations of each senior as they prepare for their next adventure; the entire 6th grade meeting and interviewing (via Zoom) Ji-Li Jiang, the author of Red Scarf Girl, the book they were reading when school closed; my advisees comforting Ali via group text when he realized that he would be missing out on all the excitement of senior rituals he had been looking forward to for four years.

Schools – and specifically Gateway High School and Gateway Middle School – are home for me. I often say that it is an honor to work in a community with the incredible diversity of Gateway, a community that reflects the richness of backgrounds, experiences, and cultures that define San Francisco. Each year, we all agree to support each other to learn, grow, and discover our unique potential. Schools are places of ideas, change and hope. I am blown away by the grace and creativity with which teachers and staff adjusted on the fly to distance learning. I am also blown away by students’ resilience and their ability to maintain perspective in the face of such monumental changes. One of our seniors, Masiyah Edwards said to me, “I’m not dwelling on it. Yes, I would have liked to have a normal graduation and that special moment when I realize I made it. But, even without graduation, I know I made it, and I know I couldn’t have done it without the support of my teachers and friends at Gateway. And nothing changes that.”

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