I’ve read more than my fair share of fantasy during this pandemic, Tolkien of course, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and A Song of Fire and Ice (even though I’m the one person on the planet who hasn’t seen the TV show). I zipped through Three Hearts and Three Lions, a book I hadn’t ever read but had heard about from more than a few people; The Eaters of the Dead, inspiration to pick up Heaney’s translation of Beowulf; and most recently The Dragonbone Chair, which begins with a line that felt written for our present uncertain times: “Welcome, stranger. The paths are treacherous today.”
Around us all are opinions and realities, too often competing with each other and frequently piling wood on the fire of concern (about a host of topics including the pandemic, social justice, and mental health) that has been blazing now for more than a year. All the while we mask up, wait in line for the vaccine, and try to make sensible choices, and while there are days during which it feels like the flames are dying down, enough pops and sparks are coming from our metaphoric bonfire to keep us all feeling a little singed.
If this were a fantasy novel we’d be questing against the great threat. Our swords would flash, arrows would fly, and an elf would make a smart remark. We are, however, profoundly human.
So we wash our hands and wipe down our shopping carts and there are days that feels pretty heroic. Sometimes.
It is in our human nature to want grander shades of heroism than any that involve hand sanitizer. We want to strap on that pack, sling a battleaxe over our shoulder, and head into the haunted forest to save the world.
Those fantasy authors understand that desire and package it between embossed covers. Whether it’s Middle Earth, Narnia, or Westeros, the worlds they imagine invite us to join their hero’s journey from the comfort of our own COVID bubble.
But then we close the book, wash our hands again, put on our mask and head out into a very different world. How to be heroic there?
I know the answer looks different to everyone. Sometimes the seemingly small acts of kindness bring more power than a wizard’s spell. Telling a grandparent you love them, helping a parent with dinner, reaching out to a friend who needs to hear your voice, any of those things can pack as profound a wallop as an ogre’s club.
As a principal I get to see both magic and epic challenges every day. I see sweeping emotions, gritty reality, and swashbuckling glee. And that’s just at student lunch.
The teachers, counselors, and staff, these are heroes.
They may not battle goblins (though have you ever seen middle schoolers running to the bus?), they don’t wear chainmail or carry magic swords, they simply bring to their work with students more than a little magic and heroic hearts.
As challenging as I know the final few weeks of the school year will be —and it would be naive to believe that they won’t pack in a dragon or two— as challenging as those weeks will be, because of these professionals I’m as optimistic as a hobbit at second breakfast.
My teachers, counselors, and staff members know that the greatest strength isn’t independence. The truth that they know, as any successful adventurer knows, is that the greatest attribute a hero can have is interdependence.
Frodo needed Sam who needed Aragorn who needed Gandalf who years before needed Bilbo who needed Frodo to pick up the ring and become heroic.
Whether we’re teachers or hobbits (or both) the next few weeks invite us to form a fellowship with those we know, those we love, and those we don’t know …yet. Having been away from our usual life for more than a year we are beginning to return to a wider world, a place still treacherous, but ripe for heroism if we approach it together, both friends and strangers (many of whom will be friends as this adventure continues).
As the road stretches out ahead I encourage us all to straighten our helmets, polish our shields, and look out for one another as if wights were circling the barrow. The day will come when we look back on this adventure and raise a glass with the friends we made through the strife, reminiscing about the dragons we overcame along the way.