Yesterday was the first day of school for GVP. As I arrived on campus in the morning, I felt excited and nervous—as I had every year before. But, things were so very different this year. I wore my mask into the school. I stopped at the front desk to take and record my temperature. I went to wash my hands, and then I went to prepare the classroom where I would be working.
I had to be sure that the tables and chairs were properly distanced, that the sanitizing station was set up and ready, and that the pens and pencils had been sanitized. I had not stopped by the other classrooms to say hello to teachers or to chat about the weekend. I had to think about everything differently. Think through all the new protocols. Follow them carefully.
We held in person enrollment sessions for five new students and their families in three of our classrooms on Monday. As usual, we hired interpreters and picked up students and parents in our buses. As each student and family member boarded the bus, drivers took and recorded their temperature and handed them a new fabric mask generously donated by GVP volunteers. Once at school, we enjoyed snacks, learned new COVID-19 protocols, and then spent several hours going over waivers, agreements, filling out and copying all kinds of required documents for school here in the U.S., and getting to know each other. It was a huge departure from our typical GVP Enrollment Day.
GVP Enrollment Days, for many years, took place in Clarkston—at the public library, GA Piedmont Technical College, the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf, the International Baptist Church gymnasium, and the Clarkston Women’s Club. We would rent any large space we could find to accommodate all of our staff, students, families, interpreters, mentors, and family helpers. We didn’t have buses and bus drivers for many years, and we needed to make it easy on families to get to these events. We would share coffee and stories from the summer, complete forms, take pictures, and get to know our newest students and families. In later years and with buses, we started holding these Enrollment Saturdays in the Fellowship Hall in the church below our school. Enrollment days at GVP were always more like family reunions than school registration events. Smiles, stories, and big hugs abounded. We missed each other over the summer and our GVP family was finally back together again each August.
This year feels very unusual, but there is a quiet intimacy to these very small, socially distant enrollment days that I am grateful for. I enjoyed the simplicity and stillness of our first Monday morning, as I sat with a mother and her two girls, our Newcomer Teacher, and our Kinyarwandan interpreter in the large Community Room. I enjoyed the flow of our conversation without the many interruptions, movement, and noise that would be typical of the day. We sat apart and watched the GVP school video together. We watched videos of our GVP students’ singing performances at the Decatur Library, and we sang This Little Light of Mine together. Softly inside our masks. Mama Beatrice told the interpreter how much she liked the way that song sounded. It was a beautiful Monday morning.
This year, none of our returning students and families are taking part in an Enrollment Day event. We met with each of them and their parents online this summer to get them set for the changes ahead, and now we are focused solely on our newcomers. So, we sit at our separate tables, with hidden smiles, trying to learn about each other and sharing a new kind of welcoming experience. I pray that our new students and parents will know how much we care for them already. I hope that they can feel our love for them and our desire to provide their daughters with the best education possible, even in this strange year.
After our new students and parents went home on the buses yesterday, I joined GVP returning students and teachers for our online orientation—our afternoon Welcome Back sessions. We sang the Welcome song, which I can’t seem to get out of my head even now, and students asked many questions of me and their teachers. They want to go back to school together, in person. They want to know when this will end. I reminded them that even adults and leaders don’t always have all the answers. I don’t know when this will end, but I pray our students will come back to school with us online. We had less than a handful missing on Monday and only three out today. We have been and continue to prioritize weekly family calls, chats and check-ins with students, home visits, and food deliveries. We are putting relationships first.
Our GVP teachers have been hard at work for several weeks now. They have pushed themselves to learn and use new technologies. They have had to make plans for their at-home work and for students’ online learning. They have had to rethink and reimagine almost everything in their personal and professional lives. It hasn’t been an easy time. The tensions, anxieties, and stressors have been high. Despite it all, this superhero team manages to support each other, to learn and stretch, and to strive for excellence. It has been wonderful to see teachers collaborating, teaching each other, and caring for each other so well. They are an extraordinary team.
I am not sure what this unusual year will bring. But, I remain steadfast in my optimism, and GVP remains strong in our commitment to creating a caring community of support for learning. As we move forward into each new and different day of this school year, I believe that the love we have for each other and that we center in our work will carry us through.
“A love of learning has a lot to do with learning that we are loved.” – Fred Rogers
“The giving of love is an education in itself.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
“Old friends pass away, new friends appear. It is just like the days. An old day passes, a new day arrives. The important thing is to make it meaningful: a meaningful friend – or a meaningful day.” – Dalai Lama