All I Can Do Is Write About It

Author Gustave Flaubert wrote: The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe. And, with a nod to Lynyrd Skynyrd and his ballad All I Can Do is Write About It, I have decided to share my thoughts about COVID-19 in writing. For me, ideas don’t become mine until I write about them. Clear prose means clear thought and, for me, writing is all about thinking. It solidifies my thoughts and helps me formulate new ones. The ancient Chinese regarded the written word as a transformative force able to move heaven and earth and unite the reader with the source of all things, the Tao. (The Art of Writing, Chou Ping)

Where do I even begin to unite with the source of all things? Living amid a global pandemic, working from home with Jim, wearing masks to go out, leading a school community at a distance, and worrying about adult children and extended family is starting to take a toll. It has been two months since the Kent School Talent Show – our final hurrah before spring break, and the last time students were on our beautiful riverside campus. Our students are missing the breathtaking spring blossoms in the Little School garden, on the cherry and dogwood trees, in the rain garden and Monarch Waystation, and missing the harvesting of the vegetable garden they so painstakingly planted. 

Clinical counselor Phyllis Fagell, author of Middle School Matters, joined our community for a Virtual Town Hall last week. She shared an acronym I am adopting. We are all NUTS for a reason. The situation we find ourselves in is a New, Uncertain, Threat, that has vastly changed our Sense of control. In a NUTShell, that sums up how I am feeling and I know many of you share this.

The uncertainty of the situation for schools has me going NUTS. In Maryland, at the moment, schools are expected to be back on their campuses on May 18. Planning many different what-if scenarios is exhausting for my leadership team. We need clarity and time to plan how the final month of school may or may not play out. It surprises me that planning piece-meal is deemed acceptable. I fully recognize how hard it must be to make decisions for an entire state, but significant thought needs to be given now to all schools, all teachers, all students and all parents, to make plans for May and June….and, don’t even get me started on September, or August – that is another story I cannot write yet.

For the time being I am going to remain positive, and continue to write down my thoughts. It is all I can do. 

Words Matter

With all due respect to Easter, Passover, Earth Day, and showers, April means National Poetry Month to me. I know I am a literary geek, but as a poet myself, I am inspired by this month dedicated to poets and their craft. National Poetry Month was established by the Academy of American Poets in 1996 to increase awareness and appreciation of poetry. 

For me, poetry has always been the vehicle which allows me to observe and comment on my world. I cannot remember a time when I did not read and write poems, and I can still recite poems memorized in my childhood. I especially loved reading and writing Haiku as a young girl and later expanded my writing using rhyming techniques. In my early 20s I began to explore free verse or open form poetry, which does not follow a specific pattern, and that is the style I currently use. 

My first published poem appeared in my local hometown newspaper when I was in the 6th Grade. I won a town-wide poetry contest and that was all I needed to throw myself into writing. I have had several poems published in Poetic Voices of America anthologies over the years and they sit on my bookshelf as a reminder to Write On. I wrote a poem to each of my children when they were born – that is another story – but, I have a journal for each of them which I hope one day they will treasure. 

As poet Lucille Clifton noted: Poetry is a matter of life, not just a matter of language. Rob Evans, noted clinical and organizational psychologist and the Executive Director of The Human Relations Service, spoke to School Heads in a webinar last week. He advised us to turn to poetry for nourishment during our current reality. I couldn’t agree more. Poetry is a lifeforce, and my go-to, because I believe with my whole heart that words matter a great deal. 

In this time of great uncertainty and anxiety, now, more than ever, our words must be hopeful, healing and drenched in love. We cannot give real hugs to our extended family and friends, but we can give the warm embrace of our words. As a school leader, communications and conversations are all I have to connect with many families. I hope that my love for our school, their children, and our entire learning community is evident in every word I choose to send.

As I write now from my home office (aka kitchen counter) which faces the Chester River, I am mindful of the important work that the Kent School faculty, and all of those who support teaching and learning, are doing to stay connected to our students and their families at this time. Beyond content, it is the connection that is most important. A connection that is built by empathetic and caring words.

Follow me on Twitter @nancymugele for a taste of poetry each day during the month of April.

Family Matters

Family time in the age of COVID-19 has dramatically changed for those with school-aged children. Children and parents in the home 24/7, teleworking and homeschooling, certainly has its challenges. But, it is also emotionally challenging to be worried about your adult children who live in places near and far, and whose actions you can no longer control.

On the second week of the social distancing and stay at home directive, and after I became proficient on Zoom (haha), I invited my husband and children to a family meeting on Zoom. Everyone turned down my request. Jim was too busy with the market conditions. The girls were Zoomed out from work meetings at home, and James was fishing. 

James’ entire life in Montana is by design a model of social distancing. Fly fishing with Boh or guiding two guests on the mighty Yellowstone River, is his blissful existence. The girls are hunkered down in Baltimore and Nashville working from home, as are Jim and I in Chestertown. Yes, we have been getting in each other’s way just a bit.

After another week of working from home, with no restaurants open for dining, and no toilet paper to purchase, suddenly everyone wanted face time. Social distancing should be renamed physical distancing because humans need social connection to thrive. The best part of social media is the regular connection we have to our family and friends through photographs and messages even though we may live miles apart.

I tried to play it really cool when the kids decided we should all get on FaceTime, because I had been wanting to see their faces for weeks, but certainly did not want to seem overanxious. We finally all connected two nights ago. It made my day, my week and the months of March and April combined. To laugh and joke with our children, plus 3 dogs, lifted my spirits tremendously.

The world is now experiencing collective trauma, thus, any way to connect with our loved ones is good for the soul. I am still smiling! Have a great day! 

Living History

Unprecedented times reveal our core values, and managing crises reveal our core character. The COVID-19 pandemic may be one of the single most important moments in history to define us as humans. I have found in the past few weeks that the single most important trait we need to survive as a species is empathy.

Empathy, defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is more important now than ever. The successful ones on the other side of this human crisis, will be the ones who were kind, who listened, who connected, and who could share others fears and feelings in a compassionate way, while also lifting them up.

These trying days have proven that the real heroes in our community are doctors, nurses, emergency care workers, first responders, grocery store clerks, pharmacists and others who run essential businesses. Schools and teachers most definitely included. Although our beautiful riverside campus stands quiet, Kent School is in full swing in an impressive and evolving distance learning plan connecting faculty to students, and students to their classmates, in unexpected and meaningful ways. At Kent School, we have been in gear since March 18, using two built-in snow days on March 16 and 17 to prepare as an employee group to pivot to remote learning.Thus, we have not missed a single day of teaching and learning in our academic calendar. I remain hopeful we will be on campus together sometime in May.

We are living history. The first time that brick and mortar schools worldwide have had to move to 100% distance learning, in a short timeframe, and for an unknown amount of time. Parents and students are anxious, and the best thing we can do is remain empathetic to the needs of our teachers, our students and their families. A smile, a kind and reassuring word, an acknowledgement of the struggle – these are the things that will matter most when this crisis has passed. Yes, continuity of instruction is critical to learning, but continuity of relationships is critical to living. And, relationships thrive and grow with empathy.

Tough times build strong people. Stay empathetic, strong, and healthy, my friends.

Social Contact

Humans are not isolationists. Regardless of your political views on isolationism – foreign policy asserting that a nations’ best interests are best served by keeping the affairs of other countries at a distance – the majority of people do not fare well isolated and alone. We are social creatures. Sure, we have our share of hermits and loners, or free climbers, working alone and focussed, but in general, humans thrive on relationships and daily interactions.

As you may imagine, I have been thinking a lot about relationships in the past week as Kent School moved quickly, and mightily, to distance learning this past week, after being on spring break, when the markets went south and COVID-19 ramped up. We came together for two days to plan and then launched a wonderful, fun, connectedness that inspires and moves me. I am so proud of the faculty, and those who support teaching and learning at Kent School, for an abrupt shift which by all accounts, at the end of Week One, was hugely successful.

It is not the teaching and learning, though, that I value the most. I am in the process of calling each Kent School family. I have only finished one and a half grades. Although I am leaving many voice messages, the parents I am reaching are talking at length. Education has always been about relationships. Students, especially boys, work hardest for teachers they like. Today, in this surreal world of contagion and uncertainty, relationships matter more than anything else. I am also holding a virtual coffee and conversation with parents this week to help them feel connected to School and, just as importantly, to each other.

These past two weeks have made me value the independence of the independent schools in Maryland and in the country, even more than I did a month ago. I have been on numerous video conferences, calls, and webinars learning lessons from Seattle schools, who are 10 days ahead of us with distance learning. I have heard legal and financial advice, as well as great operational tips. Peter Baily, Executive Director of the Association of Independent Maryland and DC Schools, is working tirelessly to keep Heads informed and connected. I feel so fortunate not to be hanging out on a limb, isolated.

The best two pieces of advice I heard over the past week are as follows:

Less is more with distance learning – families are anxious and stressed with siblings vying for computer time and parental attention. Those parents who can are trying to telework while homeschooling, and those who cannot work from home are shuttling children to grandparents or sitters, thus school work is hard to accomplish in some families. 

Secondly, more important than the student learning, we must continue to strengthen relationships with parents, take care of our exhausted teachers, and take care of ourselves.

Humans need social contact with immediate and extended family, friends and co-workers. We must find continued ways to connect with technology in the weeks to come. Our happiness depends on it.

In an Abundance of Kindness

If I hear or read in an abundance of caution again, it will be too soon. Every single communication about COVID-19, including one I wrote, uses this language. It is the omnipresent phrase of the day. Out of an abundance of caution used to be a phrase that only serious scientifics used as a way of depicting the risk while not appearing to overreact, because it implies proactiveness and restraint, instead of panic. It is also slightly poetic – an oxymoron, if you will — abundance meaning plenty and caution signalling limits.

I have decided not to use this phrase in the next few weeks during Kent School’s closure. Instead, I will adopt in an abundance of kindness, are you with me? In an abundance of kindness we should observe social distancing so as not to spread, or unwittingly catch, the contagion. In an abundance of kindness we should isolate ourselves with family members. Oh, and while we are isolating with loved ones, perhaps we can slow down a bit and enjoy this spring gift of time. I realize this is slightly unrealistic for people who are not able to stay home from work, but we could all benefit from a slight slow down. 

At Kent School, we will meet tomorrow as a faculty group to plan for distance learning. (We will keep a safe distance apart and not hug each other.) A work in progress, we started to think about our plan two weeks ago. I am inspired by my colleagues all of the time, but especially in this unprecedented time of worry and fear. In an abundance of kindness, Kent School faculty are busy creating lessons, projects and fun activities to complete at home to maintain a connection to our students and their families, to foster student learning, and to help parents. 

I hope we are back in school on March 30, but there is no telling how this pandemic will progress in the next two weeks, as each day brings news of its evolution. I am mindful of how this crisis is affecting all of us. My cousin just reported that after several days of delays and cancellations, his college-aged daughter is finally home from Europe, in isolation in her bedroom, after having to cut short her semester abroad. So much disruption, nervousness, and stress.

I am grateful my three children are keeping their humor and managing well, although I bet none of them have a few extra rolls of toilet paper or food in their freezers. That is definitely another story. 

In an abundance of kindness, let’s breathe. Let’s go outside and watch spring blossom before our eyes. Let’s read. Let’s organize our junk drawer. Let’s connect with loved ones and friends in responsible ways. Let’s stay healthy and strong. 

And, for me, it turned out to be the perfect time to get a puppy!

Blustery Day

Ten more days until the Vernal Equinox, yet I feel the sun’s warmer kiss already, if only the March winds would calm. Springtime – the eternal optimist of the seasons. A time of hope, when the Earth awakens and the outdoors blooms right before our eyes. As new puppy owners, Jim and I have been outside a lot over the past two weeks, watching the natural world spring to life. We meant to wait until summer for a puppy but that is another story! The only unpleasantness in being outdoors is the wind. Why is March so darn blustery?

Some weatherdudes made it clearer – it is windy in March because of the increased atmospheric instability caused by the increasingly strong sunshine. This heats the earth’s surface and since warm air is lighter than cold air, the air rises. This process results in more “mixing” of the air, which tends to bring down the stronger winds from the upper atmosphere. 

This makes complete sense. The sun is ready for summer, but winter still has a hold on the earth. No wonder the lion that is March cannot go away quietly. March is also the month when we lose an hour of sleep. I don’t mind because daylight savings time is my favorite eight months of the year. I truly cannot understand why we don’t adopt it all year, in order to make better use of natural daylight. Created by Congress in 1918 as a “way of conserving fuel needed for war industries and of extending the working day” (Library of Congress), it was repealed after World War I and re-established in 1942 during World War II. 

Four months of standard time does nothing but make us cranky. To go to work in the dark and return home in the dark is why many people feel depressed in the winter months.Can someone please tell this to the Department of Transportation who oversees the time changes across all time zones. I was surprised to learn it was the DOT, but I guess someone has to do it. The DOT reports that DST saves energy, reduces auto accidents and crime. Seems like a great reason to make it last for 12 months!

This week we have a time change, a full moon and Friday the 13th. I am on spring break, but I feel for my educator friends who are in school. March’s full Moon, called the Worm Moon, will be amazingly bright as it rises above the horizon tomorrow night. This full Moon is the first of three supermoons in 2020—the other two occurring in April and May. Our Kent School Little School just completed a spectacular unit on space, completely transforming their physical space into outer space. It was so impressive. But, the most magical part was our three- and four-year-olds’ knowledge of all things space. It was a highlight of last week.

For those of you on Spring Break, enjoy. And, hold on to your hats! It’s March.

Welcome River

Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift. It is not the least reason why we should honor as well as love the dog of our own life, and the dog down the street, and all the dogs not yet born. What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs? Mary Oliver, Dog Songs

Yes, we got a black lab puppy a week ago. Welcome River. Some of you may ask, why? Others of you will know. Dogs are joyful, energetic, a lot of work, yet a warm and wonderful companion on a cold night. We had two yellow labs while our children were growing. Maggie and Mia brought lots of happiness to my family, and lots of annoyance to me, but after all, I had three young children. Adding two dogs did not help with the chaos, but that is another story. I admit I was not a dog lover.

When James got his black lab, Boh, the summer after Mia died, I literally did not have to do anything, at first. When he left for his sophomore year of college, Boh did not get packed. Thus, Jim and I ended up with Boh until James was able to get an apartment his junior year. Did you know Jim is a dog whisperer. I am not kidding. Jim loves dogs and has a stern but loving way he speaks with them, so they listen and follow his lead. It is amazing to watch, and I became a dog lover that year with Boh. It is amazing how much you can appreciate a dog when you are an empty-nester.

The relationship between humans and dogs is age old and dogs have played an important role in the history of civilization. They were among the first domesticated animals, and were important in hunter-gatherer societies as hunting partners, and protection against predators. According to genetic studies, modern day domesticated dogs originated in China, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. 

River joined us last week as a 7 week old. We got him from former Kent School First Grade teacher Kay Sweezey of Double Creek Kennels. He is so little – I had forgotten. We are enjoying getting to know him and he is settling in quite beautifully. He has been to Kent School with me a few times as he is going to be the #schooldog (you can follow him at @adventuresofriverinctown on Instagram). River joins the ranks of Duchess, our founding Headmistress Joan Merriken’s black lab, and Natty Bo, Interim Head of School Joan Flaherty’s black lab. Our students are in love. 

River is my new obsession. Dogs don’t just hold your heart; they can make it stronger. Studies show that having a dog is linked to lower blood pressure, reduced cholesterol, and decreased triglyceride levels, which contribute to better overall cardiovascular health. Spending just a few minutes with a pet can lower anxiety and blood pressure, and increase levels of serotonin and dopamine, two neurochemicals that can help calm you and contribute to well-being. Pets can also help prevent depression. For me, I am looking forward to the added exercise. Earlier this year, a study in the journal Gerontologist found that older adults who walked dogs experienced “lower body mass index, fewer activities of daily living limitations, fewer doctor visits, and more frequent moderate and vigorous exercise.” This is perfect as I plan to stay mobile and healthy for a long time.

Gotta go walk River….

Cast Away

Nothing a child ever does is trash. It is practice. 

Nothing by Naomi Shihab Nye, Cast Away

Young People’s Poet Laureate Naomi Shihab Nye was Kent School’s Kudner Leyon Visiting Writer in May 2017, my first year at the School. I could not wait to welcome her to my new school by the river. We met in the urban-ness of my former city school, and I was eager to show my friend the beautiful river views and lush farm lands surrounding my school.

That visit indelibly marks my first year as a new Head of School. Naomi brought me strength, disguised as olive oil soap, when she arrived on my campus. Strength also arrived as her driver, my friend, mentor, and former Head of School Jean Brune. My time with Naomi and Jean over a two day period meant everything to me. I began to breathe in my new role.

Flash forward to nearly three years later. As I sit with my coffee staring out across the porch on this cold, February morning, I am reading Naomi’s newest collection of poems for our time, Cast Away. I am remembering her smile on my porch as she gazed at the tidal river. Her notebook, everpresent, so she could jot a note or a phrase she particularly loved in the moment it was uttered and still in the air. 

Reading these poems today, and thinking about how much we have thrown away in our lives, I am literally struck silent by Three Wet Report Cards on Camden Street. It is a coincidence, or maybe not, that on Friday we held a professional learning workshop for Kent School faculty specifically addressing what assessments tell us. Naomi is speaking to me this morning from San Antonio, and I am listening. In 20 years, reports cards will be lost, thrown away, smudged and bare. Teachers don’t want to be remembered on a report card. All teachers really want is to help create and witness the spark of discovery and passion in their students’ day to day experiences. Why does our educational system place so much emphasis on grades? They likely won’t matter much in a child’s future.

Nothing a child ever does is trash, yet we cannot keep every single piece of practice over a decade and a half of schooling. There are still two large storage boxes for each of my three children in my basement. They made the move to Chestertown, treasures to be saved and never looked at, cast away by my adult children. Now, it is time to cast them away for good. Keeping some memories is healthy, keeping everything is not. There is always a time to let go of material collections and free yourself of the past.

Makes me think about what is really important in a purposeful life – people and experiences, not things that can fit in a storage box in the basement.

Three Wet Report Cards on Camden Street
Sorry, all that homework
and now even your own name
has washed away
Report cards from the late 1970s
dumped in a clump
smudgy grades
Teacher Comment areas bare
Was someone moving and 
they fell out of a box?
I'm tempted to leave them
lying by the curb behind
the Catholic school
feeling great sadness
for the hard work of teachers
filling in so many little boxes
dreary evaluating and judging
when what teachers love best
is that spark of discover
that great question
the shy person
finally speaking from the stage

The Civility Moon

Middle schoolers I know are better mannered than the adults who claim to represent us in Washington. That is a sad fact in our society. And, I cannot even say that the leaders of our country are acting like children, because that would be an affront to children. Our country’s leaders, on both sides of the aisle, are morally corrupt and ill-behaved, and frankly, I am tired of seeing it.

Many of you know that I never talk about politics or religion, (or football, but that is another story). These topics are really not appropriate for a Head of School to have a public opinion about, and I will not talk about them with you unless we are married, or close family members. In reality, no party represents me. This was especially evident this past week.

All of our political leaders need a lesson in civility. I had the privilege to meet the late P.M. Forni during my time at Roland Park Country School. He was an endowed lecturer one year and I was his RPCS contact and guide for the day. The former Johns Hopkins professor and director of the Civility Initiative wrote two books, Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct, (2002), and The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude (2010). These should be required reading for all humans, and most especially, for those who serve the people. In Choosing Civility he wrote “civility derives from the Latin civitas which means “city,” especially in the sense of civic community.” Thus, I believe it is every human’s responsibility to act with civility to improve the quality of life for all in our community.

In Choosing Civility, he also wrote: Speaking with consideration and kindness is at the heart of civil behavior. To speak kindly you need to be aware constantly that you are speaking to living, breathing, vulnerable human beings. Don’t discount the power of words. The thoughts that they might cause unnecessary hurt or discomfort should inform every conversation. I would add “acting” to “speaking.” Actions are just as powerful as words – not shaking an outstretched hand, not standing for a 100-year-old World War II veteran who is being honored, or ripping an important document on national television were too much for me. I have added two characteristics to my list of must-haves for a candidate to receive my vote: civility and kindness. You can learn lots of things on a job, but kindness is not one of them. That trait is innate.

Forni also wrote: If we agree that life is important, then thinking as we go through it is the basic tribute we owe it. It also happens to be the golden way to the good life — the kind of life in which happiness blooms. I could not agree more. I do my best reflecting when I am outside, or on the porch, looking outside. Have you seen the Snow Moon this weekend. This February full moon is named after the snow that we normally have on the ground at this time of year, although some Native American tribes named this the Hunger Moon due to the scarce food sources and hard hunting conditions during mid-winter. Regardless, it is simply breathtaking. Look up. If we take the time to observe the beauty that surrounds us, we can better appreciate our lives. This, in turn, should help make us a more civil society.

For millennia, Native American tribes and people across Europe, named the months after features they associated with the Northern Hemisphere seasons. Let’s make this coming November’s moon the Civility Moon, and only elect a leader who is civil and whose words are respectful and kind.  

Words and actions matter.

Photo cred: My friend and RPCS alumna Shelby Strudwick, The Snow Moon over the red roof inn from across the river on February 8.