|Be Thankful, We Have Shoes: Gratitude and Empathy|
A long ago, in that time known as BC (Before COVID), we truly lived in a different world. Prior to that, few of us had heard of N-95 masks, social-distancing via the magical six feet and self-quarantine. We would not have imagined air travel stalled, all cruise ships in dock, hotels empty and restaurants held to 25-percent capacity.
These changes in our lives have tested us all. Some have been more fortunate, some have been devasted, but all of us have been affected. Try as we might, 2020 will be a year none of us will soon forget.
When faced with uncertainty, a sense we are losing control may follow, which can lead to anxiety, stress and sometimes anger. What’s more, a few months into the turmoil of the pandemic, our nation was shocked by the killing of George Floyd. We looked inside ourselves and our society to try to better understand this tragedy. Then followed a summer and fall of demonstrations and one of the closest, most contentious national elections of this era. Collectively, we all have been through A LOT.
Last year, BC, I shared research on how to develop resiliency in our children and in ourselves. We looked at studies done by Richard Davidson, including his featured interview in the OnBeing Podcast. To develop resiliency in ourselves, Dr. Davidson’s findings teach us we need to expand and hone the traits of empathy, gratitude, reflection, respect, communication, inclusivity (think DEI) and focused attention. I expanded on each of these individually in my Green Glasses series of newsletters … all BC, which can be revisited online here.
As we approach Thanksgiving, I want to revisit two of these traits – gratitude and empathy – via two musical stories.
After a tough spring followed by an August of shutdowns and sheltering in place, when some struggled with the environment and rules thrust on us all, a tension filled the air. Some unkind, un-Mr. Rogers-like behaviors became almost a daily occurrence. For those of us trying to re-open schools – trustees, administrators, teachers and all the others who work so hard behind the scenes – this was a challenging time.
As everything swirled around us, we kept our focus. By mid-September, our students slowly began returning to their classrooms. Although for safety concerns parents’ access to schools was limited, those of us working inside once again enjoyed seeing the smiling eyes of children (behind their masks) as well as the lightness of movement among friends. It truly brought tears to our eyes.
When we finally were allowed to bring students back to school, I visited as many classrooms as possible. My first words to each staff member … teacher, custodian, nurse, bus driver, cook, principal … were “Thank YOU.” I would then stare and marvel as they created magic for their students. As I left each room, I thanked them again. Invariably, unexpectedly and very often, the staff member would stop me before I could leave the room, look me in the eyes and say, “No, thank YOU. I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes.”
Bulletin Board at Hill Country Middle School
A few days into this “Groundhog Day” experience, I stopped, turned back to a teacher, looked down at my shoes and replied, “What’s wrong with my darn shoes?” It seemed no matter which pair I picked to wear each day, nobody wanted to be in my shoes.
Some of you know I play saxophone and piano; neither very well, but I try. My piano teacher is none other than Floyd Domino and he is amazing. Having played for years with Merle Haggard, Asleep at the Wheel and recording with many country-western music legends, Floyd now gives lessons (via Zoom) to a few of us who struggle to find a tune on a keyboard. During one of our pandemic piano sessions, I told Floyd the story of my repeated conversation with staff members and how I was trying to figure out “what’s wrong with my darn shoes.” Simultaneously we both stated, this could be a song.
A few days later, at 2 a.m., I tossed in bed unable to sleep and I thought about everything going on in the world, our nation, the community and our schools. I remembered back to last spring when Paul Cruz, the former superintendent in Austin ISD, shared during a call with several superintendents that during this stressful time how he slept like a baby: he napped a few hours, woke up crying, curled up in a ball and cried himself back to sleep.
My nocturnal experience is a bit different. I often wake in the middle of the night and start drawing out plans, reading and writing emails, drafting memos and trying to be as prepared as possible for whatever is coming the next day. But one warm night, a song kept creeping into my head. At 2:22 a.m., I quietly slipped out of bed, went out onto my balcony, looked at the Austin skyline, pulled out my iPhone and started recording my first song. It is not very good, but Floyd likes it, and he graciously helped by recording the piano track. Since then, my talented nephew, Ben Bueltman, has added in guitar, bass and drums.
Music can be a blessing in times of stress. My song begins with the melancholy question, “What’s wrong with my shoes,” but ends with some element of confidence in a twisted chorus that comes to the conclusion, “I’m just fine in my shoes.”
I wish I could share the tune with all y’all (speaking Texan here), but it still needs work. Plus, the recording of my singing voice would damage the ears of every dog in Austin. Instead, I will end with this beautiful tune recorded by our very own Valley View Elementary second-grade teacher, Ms. Quen White. Recorded in the early days of remote learning, Ms. White recorded "Look for the Good" by Jason Mraz for her class, with lyrics so reflective of what the Eanes ISD community has experienced. Ms. White forwarded her song to me because I appreciate music and she thought I would enjoy the message. More than that, I love the message. You can hear it by clicking the image below.
Ms. White with a few kids in her class
One day we hope soon, we will be in the AC (After COVID) times. No more masks, no more social distancing, no more COVID. Until then, let’s give each other some grace, let’s show some empathy, let’s imagine walking in another’s shoes, let’s think the best of others’ intentions and let’s show some gratitude. During next week’s vacation, let’s truly focus on empathy and giving thanks. By doing so we will not only support those around us, but we will also strengthen our own resiliency.
Stay safe, be well, wash your hands … and have a wonderful Thanksgiving.
Dr. Tom Leonard
Superintendent of Schools