After a year of social distancing, I recently got about 200 hugs in a single day. But I think they were meant for somebody else. I think they were meant for the teachers, staff and parents whose efforts got our students through the most challenging year in memory.
After more than a year of health and safety precautions that separated us literally and figuratively, friends and families were able to come together to celebrate the graduating class of 2021, and the jubilation was impossible to contain.
It was my turn to attend Glenwood Springs High School’s graduation ceremony and to hand students their diplomas as they walked across the stage. My job was actually to give a 10-second mini-lesson to each graduate on accepting a diploma, posing for a photo, and navigating across the stage. I had my lesson plan ready: put the diploma in their right hand with my right hand, make eye contact, say “congratulations,” gently grab their left elbow, say “look at the camera,” and then pivot them to their left, break eye contact and look at the camera, so they knew which way to turn.
But, while turning toward the camera, the first student let go of the diploma and unexpectedly came in for a hug. Hmmm.
I repeated variations on the lesson 229 more times, but no matter what I did, nearly every student gave me a hug. The trend followed no demographic patterns: Latino, Anglo, male, female, tall, short — they all wanted a hug. This can mean one of two things: either I’ve become irresistibly huggable for the first time after two decades of handing out diplomas, or the students this year were feeling enormous jubilation and gratitude at making it to the stage.
I’m sure it was the latter.
After a year of obstacles and isolation, those hugs were meant for the teachers, staff and parents whom I was representing on the stage.
During the pandemic, our teachers and staff overcame discomfort and uncertainty, learned new skills at an accelerated rate, managed increased workloads and maintained an inspiring level of creativity and perseverance.
Our parents got unprecedented views into the learning lives of their children, adapted to constant change, and juggled their own workloads with increased roles in supporting their children’s education. The throughline in all these efforts was serving students, reaching out across physical and digital divides, and getting them through the year with learning intact.
As I have shared before, the notion of “learning loss” doesn’t honor the many gains our students and community have experienced over the past year. Our students, staff and families have shown enormous perseverance and resilience, developed deeper empathy and expanded pathways of collaboration. This growth, while an unexpected outcome of living and learning through a pandemic, will serve all of us in the future.
This year’s GSHS graduation speaker, retiring art teacher Tish McFee, talked about the importance of pausing to experience “aesthetic moments” — moments of beauty that happen when we stop to notice the rainbow colors on the paraglider’s sail (as happened while she was speaking), the mathematical pattern in the pinecone’s shell, or the sun reflecting off the frost outside a window on a cold morning.
As we continue to see more normalcy this summer, I hope everyone in our community has an opportunity to stock up on aesthetic moments, whether that be through nature, the arts or sciences, time with friends and family, or wherever you find beauty.
And, I hope you will catch up on hugs.
Rob Stein is superintendent of schools for the Roaring Fork District, including schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt.