Driving Home

In this age of imperfect analogies I offer my own.

Decades before I became a principal, years before I started teaching, back when I was a twenty year old sophomore in college I was driving through Montana on my way home to Oregon after a road trip with a roommate that ended with me dropping him off at his home in Lewistown. Even having grown up in Oregon, a state more rural than urban, Montana’s wide open spaces were of a different scale to me and midway through a particularly long stretch of driving I looked down and saw that my gas needle was on empty.

I had miles to go before the next town. All around me the landscape stretched out, brown rolling hills, a few ramshackle wooden fence posts strung with wire, mountains in the distance. Montana is known as “big sky country” and the enormity of the sky above was equaled only by the length of the two lane highway that stretched out for miles and miles and miles and the sinking feeling in my chest as I looked down at the gauge and wondered how I’d not noticed the gas level back at the last town. 

That town was miles behind me now and in this day before smartphones or google maps I could only look at my odometer and try to puzzle how far I still had to go before I got to the next gas station. A long way, I figured. I looked back at that needle on E.

Alone, still moving at sixty miles an hour, I continued west. I wasn’t sure how far I could drive on empty, but I couldn’t see an alternative (or a town or house or place to make a phone call) so I drove. Half an hour later, my eyes continually drawn down to the gas gauge, I did the only sensible thing, at least in the mind of a foolish twenty year old; I leaned my wallet up on the dashboard so I couldn’t see the needle pointing to empty.

I drove that way for a long time. The map on the passenger seat told me I was headed the right direction, youthful optimism told me all would be well, and the back of my black leather wallet didn’t tell me if the needle could actually slip below E. I kept driving.

Then, like a miracle, the town of Bozeman appeared.

I dropped down into Bozeman, pulled into a gas station, and removed my wallet. Filling the tank it was as if there had never been a threat. I refueled, closed the cap, stretched my legs, and got back into the car. No fuss.

I have remembered that nerve jangling drive vividly for more than half my life.

And this week, as the school where I am principal prepares to welcome students back into classrooms after more than a year away from campus, I thought of that ride again. The stress that so many of us have felt, the frustration in not being able to see students when their cameras are off in Zoom, of not being able to see why they’re struggling or pick them up when they stumble, all those things have made the past year so difficult. We have done our best to make progress, to teach and learn, and to support our students, but other than knowing that we are tired, we are struggling too, and that our tank is close to empty, there is little that some of us are sure of.

What will it be like when the students come back? How will it be to engage in hybrid instruction? How soon can we have everyone back and begin to refuel and continue our journey with confidence? Like that hidden gas gauge, we just don’t know.

I promised that this would be an imperfect analogy, and it is, but it seems to me that we are collectively not unlike that foolish young me who kept pressing on, hoping to make it, knowing I needed to fill my tank and not sure just how empty it was. We are driving in the right direction, keeping hope as best we can, and while we can’t be sure just how much we need to fill our tank we keep moving forward hoping for the relief of seeing the lights of town ahead. I think that relief will come. I believe that as empty as some of us feel right now we will be full again. I know that at the end of this we’ll come home.

Marionette

I have a friend who loves his wife very much and one year, nearly two decades ago, he wanted to surprise her with the perfect gift for her birthday. They hadn’t been married all that long and he wanted something unique and wonderful, like her, and being the researcher he is, he hunted high and low for an idea for something that would be a surprise she’d be delighted by. The result did surprise her. Delight? Well…

“She didn’t know what to say,” he told me and another friend the next week, shaking his head. “I thought I’d nailed it.” We laughed aloud, my other friend and I, and asked him to tell us again about …the marionette.

He explained that he’d found a puppeteer and craftsman who made custom marionettes. He’d commissioned one of his wife, fashioned from her photo, its hair realistic, its clothing similar to hers. “It wasn’t her hair, right?” my friend asked. “No,” my other friend answered. “It wasn’t even human hair.” That was a relief, anyway.

I saw the doll only once, crumpled in the corner of a guest bedroom. It seems to have vanished in the years since. It did look startling like his wife, who despite this perfect gift is still his wife, and it has always held a place in my heart, linked forever with the discrepancy between perception and intent.

Things feel a little like that marionette right now in education. Teachers are working harder than ever to connect to students. They are innovating, putting in long hours, and striving to find ways to help students engage with the material, the class, and each other.

Students are working hard too, and without the comradery that comes from sitting in class with one another, able to lean over and whisper or talk across the table and connect. Separation from those thousand little interactions is profound, and we see the impact it has on kids in big and little ways.

Families are working hard, not just to support the kids, but also to balance the many pressures and obligations, all made more complicated by the pandemic and its impact on our world.

And principals like me are trying to find ways to keep our schools connected. We strive to develop opportunities for students and staff and parents to be active and together, and even as we all put in herculean efforts, lots of time, and all the creativity we can, well…

The results are far from perfect. As much care and craft as we have put in, as much time and thoughtfulness we dedicate to this experience, there are still times when each of us feels like a marionette crumpled in a corner. 


That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t get through this and have a long and happy relationship. Heck, my friend and his wife made it through the perfect gift together. And we will be back on campus together …sometime. Until then, we have our best chance at success, however we define that, if we allow ourselves to pause, take a deep breath (or maybe two or three), and show each other grace. Not every attempt is a success, not every effort yields the results we’d like, but we can do much to support one another, showing kindness even when we’re given a marionette.

One of my attempts at helping my school community stay centered is a series of “Fireside Chats” that I’ve been filming over the past few months. Sure they’re silly, just me and a green screen, but they’re as heartfelt as my friend’s marionette. The story for this post was the topic of my most recent chat, and you can chuckle at my buffoonery here: