Good Natured Dread

This has been a crazy year in education, as it has been a crazy year beyond the walls of the schoolhouse. It has been a year when the those schoolhouse walls have expanded to include every kitchen table in town, every student chromebook perched on a stack of pillows, and more than a few garages where a corner between the lawn mower and boxes of holiday decorations has been converted into a place to dance, paint, or play the clarinet.

Now, as the world seems to be turning in a different direction, with some students returning to campus (and a good many other students choosing to remain at home to learn) some of that external craziness is turning into heightened internal emotion. Those feelings, just as confused as the world around us, were described beautifully by one of the seniors at my school who when asked what she and her peers were feeling replied: “Dread. Good natured dread.”

Another adult who was in on the conversation followed up: “Do you mean at school?” She asked, “or in general?” The student paused and then said: “Yeah.”

I loved (and was not surprised by) the way the student phrased things. I work at a ridiculously creative school where iconoclasm is equaled by wit. “Good natured dread” captures both the weariness inspired by the past year or so and the pluck that I know can lift this current generation of students (and the fortunate adults who get to work with them) out of the mire. 

If our school was asked “Which Disney princess are you?” We’d answer “Mononoke.”

And her phrase stuck with me as I thought about how best to approach the final weeks of this unusual school year.

Acknowledge the dread, was my first takeaway. That our students and staff and families are feeling pressure, unprecedented stress, and worry is a real thing, and smiling and pretending that isn’t the case doesn’t do anyone any good. The causes of understandable anxiety are many and varied. Not all of us can understand exactly what it’s like to face them all, but as we begin the climb back up to more solid ground it is important that we recognize that the trauma that has helped to define our past year is real and the way through is long, may be complicated, and is best managed by all of us supporting one another.

That community, that sense of good will, that is what I hear in my student’s other two words. Sure there is a level of despair, but our engagement with those emotions can be on our terms, good natured. I quoted the stoic philosopher Epictetus a few posts back and will echo that again here: “Men are disturbed not by the things that happen but by their opinions about those things.”

We can and should face the feelings that have grown over the past months, and it seems to me that we’d be wise to do so with the same strength and cheek of the student describing how she was feeling about school and life.

Back to that princess, hardly Disney, I mentioned earlier. In Hayao Miyazaki’s film Princess Mononoke a character named Osa, bandaged head to toe and wracked by leprosy, tells our hero: “Life is suffering. It is hard. The world is cursed. But still, you find reasons to keep living.”

Epictetus, Miyazaki, that ACMA senior, they each have something to teach us. We are not without stress, or justifiable anxiety, or disappointment, and… 

We don’t have to face these alone or without hope. Together it’s natural to bemoan a bit, empathize with one another, and maybe, just maybe, feel good natured dread. I’m convinced that months from now that good natured dread will fuel stories of resilience, shared strength, and the power of our human spirit.

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