A lot can happen in a year. Reflecting on the past 365 days, I have done more new things that have been out of my wheelhouse than I have ever done.
A year ago, my mom lost her almost 4-year battle to cancer. I was fortunate to be by her side when she passed. This was one of the most emotionally challenging events in my life. Losing a parent, particularly one who you were close to, requires a significant mental shift; there is a rolling trauma as you process their change in existence from “is” to “was.” Everyone processes this differently, and I would argue that you never fully absorb that change, no matter how long it has been. As I was navigating the start of my grieving, I was also getting ready to start a new school year in a way I had never done before.
The COVID-19 pandemic, forcing teachers and students to adapt to remote and hybrid education, required me to figure out how to teach dance, fitness and hold play rehearsals through a computer screen. Part of the process started early in the summer of 2020, when I curated my fall drama and presented it virtually with my students. That play was my first foray into the self-publishing realm, and I released the script of “How Do We Feel Right Now” on Amazon in the spring of 2021.
Continuing the virtual trend, we rehearsed and presented our spring musical online, and as part of the process, I had to learn how direct and choreograph an hour-long musical production through Google Meets. In addition, the role of sound engineer was added to my credits, as I had to mix music tracks from 18 kids who had recorded their parts themselves on their phones at home. There were over a dozen songs in the show. As soon as that behemoth was done, the focus shifted to one more virtual production: a dance concert to highlight my student dancers. Reimagining our yearly concert experience, we shifted our usual live performance to a curated collection of individual performances from all of my students, blending dance, narration and artwork into the finished product.
The process of pivoting to virtual performances was exhausting. So many skills and procedures were brand new to me and my students. They all required patience, the development of new skill sets, the willingness to learn said skills, and the ability to motivate people who were not standing in the same room. They required the ability to look at my “usual” through a completely new lens. Lord knows, it would have been easy to throw my hands up and say that it just couldn’t be done, citing any of ten very viable excuses as to why it was time to pull back and save my mental stability.
I think one of the many lessons I learned from my mom is the importance of digging in and relying on what you are made of in order to push through any obstacle, particularly when you are passionate about what you are doing. When you decide to put your heart and soul into a project, you can and will do what it takes to make it happen. The following are some of my musings on how I applied her lessons to this very difficult year. I would argue that connecting to her lessons helped me move through the ongoing grief of losing her.
Shelve the excuses
What kept me going throughout the disrupted sleep and months of agita? Looking back, I think it was several things in play at once.
Self-preservation is a powerful motivator. Regarding the shift to virtual everything, there was a part of me that was afraid not to complete the tasks I have been doing for 25 years. Our district is notorious for budget cuts and I didn’t want to be even part of the reason that our arts programs could be relegated to the chopping block. In the mix of COVID, economic downturn and the cancellation of so many arts venues (including Broadway), I needed to make sure I was doing my part to not only giving my kids something to dig into, but to preserve the potentially decimated programs for the future. In my mind, there wasn’t much of a choice.
I didn’t have to look very far for inspiration. My mom, in her fight to survive, did everything in her power to live. From one moment to the next, one decision at a time, the struggle was stressful, messy, and sometimes quite ugly. Yet somehow, for almost four years, she stayed on the battlefield. Her tenacity, for more than just her fight with cancer, was pervasive throughout her whole life. That was the model for any challenge that I have had to take on. If she could do it, so could I.
Always be up for a challenge. This year was a unique opportunity to develop skills that I would otherwise never have needed to pursue. The result was a personal awakening for me; I was capable of achieving do more than I thought I could. The increased reliance on technology required me to open up a part of my brain that was otherwise pretty quiet. Teaching suddenly required the use of spreadsheets, which I was able to translate into the organization of rehearsal and editing information. Sound mixing on GarageBand gave me the confidence to try producing my own podcast over the summer. Meetings could be held at odd times when people were available over video platforms. I would never have thought to do any of these things, because I had no need to learn them.
Maybe I’m a bit of a workaholic, but I’m my mother’s daughter, and idle time can be better spent on creative projects. After my father died, my mom decided to go back to college to finish the degree she left to get married. She was in her late 40s, working full-time, with two older children who she was still looking out for. She could have stuck to the status quo, but she really wanted to finish what she started so many years ago. She found a local adult education program that combined in-person classes with writing papers about her life experience and graduated at the top of her class. She was learning new things every and thrived for the experience. All I had to do when facing a challenge was to follow Mom’s lead.
Be what you want to teach. As a teacher, I always want to model resiliency for my kids, both my students and my own children. I wanted to show them that if an old gal like me can work through challenges, then they certainly could. I wanted to show them how hard it was for me to navigate, but I did so with the required focus, diligence, inordinate patience, and considerable creativity. I wanted them to understand that their natural connection with technology could serve them in navigating these challenges and they could learn it much faster than me. I work to teach them these lessons through the arts in general, but the pandemic gave us an opportunity to demonstrate how to navigate the struggle in real time. The adage, “those that can’t do, teach” is a load of crap. It’s the teachers who need to know how to do the things they teach. Otherwise, how can you be even a good teacher?
The lessons I learned from Mom never came through by sitting down and telling me what she knew – she just showed them to me by living her life. Now, I take that cue from her and strive to do the same; be what you want to teach.
Take a leap
The day I arrived to be with Mom for the last time, I didn’t know if this would really be the last visit, or if she would resiliently rebound again like she had so many times before. Seeing her made me realize that was unlikely. Going into that last visit, I compiled a list of things I’ve learned from her and shared it with her, which made her smile wide. Doing that, and asking her to talk about her life was not something I would usually have chosen to do on a regular visit. But something told me it was now or never, and I needed to take a deep breath, listen, and record to everything she had to say. The summer of 2020 was the start of a “why not, go for it” mindset for me; those last conversations with Mom were just a continuation of that. I am most grateful for the lessons she taught me, just by living her life, which gave me the courage to use them to take a big leap. That leap culminated in the publication of my memoir about her called “What Ronnie Sue Knew.”