By Guest Blogger Summer Riley

I can still remember how heavy my arms felt as I laid my students’ spring writing in a semicircle around me at 5:29 on Friday the 13th of March. I was mourning that evening. After all their hard work writing and editing and giving feedback to one another, their work wouldn’t be celebrated in front of their families. Instead of performing live readings, they would record in our classroom and post it to our class blog. While they wouldn’t get to see the loving response of their listeners and be greeted with smiles and quiet snaps, I knew they would rally as a community of “readers writers and thinkers”  and enjoy seeing themselves on our classroom screen.

But the best made plans are just that: plans! I laid those colorful opuses on our circle time carpet, turned off the light, and walked out of the classroom like it was any other Friday. I didn’t know it would be two whole months spent with my own family of six, huddled in our home, mired in e-learning, e-teaching, figuring out how to manage 24-hours-a-day of togetherness, with no sports, no church, no friends, no takeout, before I would see my students’ masterpieces again.

In the middle of all this too-busy new-normal-nothing, when we were cocooned in our houses by sheer will power, an amazing thing happened. There was a delivery on a very ordinary new-normal Thursday evening.

At 6:30 that Thursday I stepped out expecting a delivery truck (possibly my new bestie: the Amazon man), but instead came a parade of cars with vibrant signs and colorful streamers a-flutter, horns a-honking, and the most precious grinning faces peering out of back seat windows. There came my living, breathing, loving students and their families.

Y’all. I yelped, I made THE euphonious yawp you read about in literature class. There literally are not accurate words to describe the melodious cacophony of my joyful cry mixed with horns and shouts. This surely will go down in pandemic lore as the sound of love made visible, and that is how it is seared on my heart.

As I wiped away tears and cast my smile from one cherubic little grin to another I knew this is what love does. Love shows up, even if it has to stay six feet apart on the not-yet-grass lawn and wear a mask. Looking from those faces to their families and reading their adorable signs and watching as they reached their arms out for outlawed hugs, something very real in me broke and healed.

Exactly two months after I laid those stories on our carpet I turned the light on in our abandoned castle of learning. With tears in my eyes, and my fabric mask properly tied, I sorted those precious books and put every creation my class had labored over into labeled paper sacks. In silence and isolation, I packed up everything I’d known about school and community and love and learning and turned off the light. As I packed, I pouted and lamented all the things we’d missed as a learning community. Over those 2 months I’d watched field trips on my calendar come and go. Classroom celebrations and birthdays passed in the strangest ways, so differently than I had planned. We had wrangled our way through so many new obstacles clinging to what we knew best: face to face meetings with songs and laughter and stories and magic.

So I packed up that room where kids had learned to share, and to take turns and to read and to listen to one another, and as I laid the evidence of the school year spent together in those paper sacks I was thinking about the lessons I learned from my covid-classroom. The lessons I taught and learned seated at my dining room table, facing a computer screen filled with my students’ faces, and the lessons that beckoned to me from the lawn where the same faces beamed and arms yearned to hug. Those lessons reminded me that community exists where we build it, which cannot always be live in-person, but can be brief expressions and extensions of love built in a previous time. Inspired by the efforts of my tiny classmates and their families, I loaded the precious paper sacks of our school year together not into the atrium for pickup at a not yet announced date, but into my minivan. In Amazon delivery man style, I visited each child’s lawn, for one last life-giving, community building exchange of love.

Being present isn’t about where you are physically. It is about being accessible, aware and engaged. Presence among each other really is a gift, spend it wisely, receive it gratefully. Y’all, I miss restaurants, and baseball, and even driving my 4 kids to so many activities. I don’t think I will yawp the next time a server asks for my order, but I do have a video recording of the sound I made when I realized those cars were carrying my people and realized how much I yearned to see them.

I realized also I want to be both those people. I want to be the teary-eyed yawping old lady on the lawn whose heart is exploding with joyfulness, and I want to be the grinning, shouting, scene-causing, mini-van-driving somebody who actively loves enough to put down their too-busy nothing, don their mask and spread joy a little further than six feet. There is need in this world for both those people, for our own sake and the sake of others.

In this time of so many questions and unknowns, we still know what is true and right. Love wins.

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