The last year and a half, since COVID became a pandemic, have been everything you’d expect a school Superintendent to say: hard, unprecedented, exhausting. I could go on.
But I don’t need to. We all lived it. We get it. We know.
Instead of focusing this back-to-school blog post on what we all lived the past eighteen months, I want to put into words what I hope our teachers, staff, parents and students will experience in the next ten months.
First, I want you to feel appreciated. I hope for you that in very real and palpable ways you will experience the gift of gratitude. Whether you are a staff member who showed up for kids last year amidst very real fear and uncertainty about the risk you were taking; a parent who had to juggle a full time job while supporting your child with online school; a volunteer who while managing a life turned upside down found a way to give of your time, talent, and resources to support others during the pandemic; or a student who navigated the emotional ups and downs with resilience...I hope that you experience real gratitude from others and that that appreciation gives you strength to meet the challenges that await.
Next I want you to feel heard, truly listened to. I hope that each of you has at least one person in your life who regularly stops what they are doing, asks you how you are feeling, and truly listens as you share how the last eighteen months have impacted you. I want them to hold your fears and hopes close to their heart. I want you to experience the power of someone bearing the burden with you and following through with encouragement and support.
I also want you to feel hopeful. As the incomparable National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, shared so eloquently at the inauguration of President Biden this year, “The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.” You would be forgiven were you to look at all the challenges staring us in the face and crumble--an ongoing global pandemic, an historic drought, fires burning wherever we turn, income inequality run amuck, social and political division across the globe, catastrophic environmental impacts seemingly unabated, systemic racism inextricable from every part of our society, and real and lasting threats to our democracy. And this is saying nothing about our own personal battles that we face. If we allow ourselves even just a moment to take it all in, it will quickly overwhelm even the strongest of psyches. And yet...if we are BRAVE enough to SEE the light of hope...if we are BRAVE enough to BE the light of hope then, as Amanda Gorman says, we WILL FREE the new dawn. HOPE is free, it’s always accessible, and it can cure the most daunting of fears. I wish for you a year filled with HOPE--both to fill you and to pass on to others.
Lastly, I want you to feel empowered. When so much in our lives is out of our control, it’s normal to feel anxious, angry, frustrated, unmotivated or some combination of all these emotions and more. However, this year, rather than despair about things over which you have little control, I encourage you to focus on all the areas of your life where you do have control. I want you to feel empowered to ask for what you need; take breaks when you need to take breaks; be the person you want to be rather than the person you think others expect you to be; to say NO when you need and want to say NO and say “YES!” when maybe your fears are answering for you. We have the power to ensure we don’t become victims of our circumstances.
Appreciated. Heard. Hopeful. Empowered. These are the words I want to speak into your life at the start of this school year.
And as inspiring as those words sound, I’m also realistic. This year is going to be hard...again. Even though we thought we might be out of the woods with COVID, new variants are causing very real concern. The political battlelines grow deeper and the division that results creates strife and disunity. In our community, we must pass a parcel tax and reach fundraising targets or risk further cuts, requiring thousands of volunteer hours when our parents and community already feel incredibly stretched. And as school begins, we’ll help our kids navigate social challenges, increased responsibility, academic stress, and transition back to a life they haven’t fully experienced since March of 2020.
I want you to know that as your Superintendent, I recognize how much is being asked of you every year, but especially this year. I feel it myself in my role, too. It feels like a lot, because it is a lot.
And so, as any good leader would want to do, I have spent the last several months thinking about what message I would send to you - our parents, our volunteers, our kids - as we commence a new year when so much is being asked within a context of such uncertainty. And the message that kept coming back to me is this:
“YOU ARE ENOUGH.”
Not very Silicon Valley of us, right? The reality, though, is YOU can only do so much. WE can only do so much.
Because I know you, I know this: You will show up each day and give your best. And that will be more than “good enough;” it will be GOOD. You’ll ask for what you need and expect people will hear you and respond accordingly. You’ll show up where you are expected and offer what you can. With kindness and grace, you’ll meet each day knowing that you are where you are, giving what you can, and taking account of what you need in order to get to where you need to be tomorrow.
Each one of you is here for the right reasons. You are well prepared, incredibly creative, and resilient. You are more than I could ever ask for and more than we really need to accomplish what is ahead of us.
Yes…#URENUF! Maybe, just maybe, we can cut through the noise of Silicon Valley to remind ourselves and others that WE TRULY ARE ENOUGH. We just have to be willing to embrace that reminder ourselves. I know I will be working on that myself this year and I hope you will, too.
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Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.