The Bright Spots

My principal keeps asking us to look for the bright spots, the subtle and easily overlooked places where things are working in times of tremendous change. The concept isn’t new or unique to our most recent challenges. In fact, I’ve spent a lot of this year thinking about “the early glimmers of something going right” as I’ve been re-imagining how school could work to connect more young people to their communities and the natural world we inhabit. But the last three weeks have brought my year-long Rowland fellowship to what feels like a screeching halt. What does experiential learning and student leadership look like in time of social isolation and distance learning?

It’s a curveball I never could have anticipated when I set out to spend a year with one foot in and one foot out of the traditional classroom. Educators and school leaders often use the metaphor of building a plane might-flight to describe school reform. Now, our airspace is toxic and we’re being re-routed. Time of arrival? Unknown. Turbulence? Expect a lot of it. Will there still be snacks? Don’t count on it.

So I’m taking her advice in finding a new flight pattern: be flexible and gentle with yourself and others, and look for the bright spots. For starters, I, along with literally every teacher in America, am trying to get back to the core of what matters in our craft, the one piece of the formula on which everything else is predicated: relationships. Only now, it’s seeking connection in a time of unprecedented disconnection.

But I’ll admit that I’m looking for bright spots reluctantly. I am doing it because I know that it helps. When you illuminate success you can replicate the conditions and behaviors that made it so. You can study where the magic is happening and clone it. I’m doing it reluctantly, though, because trying to think about positives right now, when it feels like the world is going up in flames, can feel daunting at best, and exploitative at worst. Who am I to get to see bright spots right now? How many of these new learnings and experiences are only possible because of this tragedy?

Meanwhile, my heart breaks. My family members are walking into hospitals wearing the same N95 they wore the day before, having sterilized it in the kitchen oven. My students are isolated at home, many experiencing instability, the trauma of job loss, food insecurity, domestic violence and myriad other circumstances I can’t begin to imagine the horrors of. Dear friends are struggling to do three full-time jobs at once: parenting, teaching school and working. Bright spots? I’m looking…

A Harvard Business Review article published last week suggests that this feeling, ebbing back and forth between deep sadness, fear and loss is actually grief. Grief can be both an immediate feeling—mourning what you just lost, and anticipatory—knowing you’re in for more loss in the future. The steps to managing grief are first to acknowledge it, then deny it, bargain for it, feel angry about it, and finally, finally, to accept it. Understanding this cycle and recognizing my own grief is helping me move into a space where I can, at times, start to see some light.

I won’t be able to feel okay about my parents going to the grocery store or my in-laws and sister going to work for a long time: ok, let go of what I can’t control. I won’t be able to pursue the athletic goals I was on track for this year: alright, adjust and be persistent. I can’t give the most vulnerable young people I know a sense of safety and love in my physical classroom: fine, but I can hold virtual drop-in hours, help with meal delivery and send hand-written notes home in the mail. 

Three weeks ago when everything was normal, I asked that my students, all seniors, stand in a circle and share their answer to this prompt: “Imagine… I made each of you an appointment to get a tattoo this afternoon—permanent or temporary is your choice. What would you get??” 

Their responses are the bright spots I’m holding close to my heart in this time of school at a distance. Some of my students said funny things, like an inside joke with a best friend. Other choices included a map of a childhood special place, a meaningful symbol, and ones own artwork. More than half shared that they’d brand their bodies to honor their families. A young man rolled up his sleeve to reveal a still-sore real tattoo he’d gotten just days earlier as testament to his dad who passed away. I ended class by telling them how awesome they are and I reminded them to wash their hands. Turns out that would be our last time together.

When we got the call that we wouldn’t return this year I cried in the kitchen for a while. Its all hit me: this isn’t going to be over soon. School without the kids? That’s not what I signed up for. I am going to need those bright spots, those memories of moments where it worked, and the virtual equivalents to come, now more than ever.

My husband gave me a hug and helped me reframe. “How LUCKY you are, to feel such sadness that you can’t go to your job,” he said. And he’s right. I am so, so grateful to love what I do so much that it hurts to do it from my kitchen table. I’m starting to see that the bright spots aren’t going anywhere. In many ways, they’re already shining brighter than ever.

Yesterday, a student who’s an accomplished competitive swimmer emailed me to say that he took up cycling because he can’t go to the pool right now. He sent me pictures of the roads he’s been riding and now we’re trading photos of picturesque open roads. This morning another checked in and let me know that she’s working overtime at her family’s grocery store because they’re the only place in town where people can shop. “I’m going to try my hardest to get my work done, but right now its people that matter most,” she wrote. 

My bright spot today is that this circumstance, strange and tragic as it is, is giving us each a window into each other’s humanity that wasn’t there before—even if we can’t see each other physically. Perhaps these limitations are where we grow to new heights in our compassion, kindness, and ability to see each other as the resilient and brave beings we each are at our cores.

And I’m going to keep looking for bright spots, because I know the kids are.


Rachel Cohen is a 2019 Rowland Fellow and humanities teacher at Colchester High School. Her fellowship work explores how Vermont high schools can better utilize the outdoors to expand place-based learning and leadership development opportunities for students. In 2017 Rachel was a Fulbright Roving Scholar in American Studies in Norway. Follow her @Cohen_Noted 

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