Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

The Year of Scourges: How I Survived Illness and Racism to Find My ‘Tribe’

A Black school leader reflects on the hardest year of her professional life
By Reba Y. Hodge — April 12, 2021 4 min read
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In 2020, I often asked myself: At what cost am I carrying on?

I am amazed sometimes that I am still at my job as a school administrator. I have wondered how I even survived the year—a Black woman in a politically volatile country twisted by racism, a school leader during a pandemic that for months shuttered my school and so many across the nation.

Just 14 months ago, I was planning a formal party for my birthday. Then I got sick—sicker than I ever remember being before. After doctor visits and when I felt a little better, I returned to my job as the assistant principal of Van Duyn Elementary in Syracuse, N.Y.—only to suffer a setback.

Nonetheless, I held the birthday celebration. I didn’t want to disappoint the family, friends, and colleagues, some up from New York City, who had been looking forward to it. Eventually, I was diagnosed with walking pneumonia. Looking back, I’m pretty sure I had COVID-19.

A few weeks after that, school buildings closed. Teachers and students began to teach and learn remotely because of the pandemic. At the same time, Black Americans were struggling through an epidemic of violence inflicted by state authorities. The epidemic was hardly new to us, but it was highlighted and amplified by the slayings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd in February, March, and May, respectively.

I did not feel like smiling. I felt like screaming.

The isolation and stillness caused by the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders allowed folks who were never really concerned with the racist history of this country to reckon with the fact that from their silence came complicity. Privileged people who are able to enter and exit conversations pertaining to race at will, who never had to grapple with the harsh reality of racism, were paying attention. For me, the toll from the brutal instances of racialized violence—the weight of trauma heaped on my mind, body, and spirit—was heavy.

Many of us Black women leaders persisted in our duties while navigating our own tensions and hurt. We are afraid and we ache because we understand this reality: The world will use the intellect and effort of Black women even as our people are murdered taking a walk, going to the park, sleeping in their beds at home, even as colleagues amongst us keep silent about the racism.

There were times this past spring when the identities I hold most dear crashed into one another. I drove around handing out teacher-appreciation signs or as part of a car parade for students and their families, tears in my eyes. But at each destination, I smiled. Smiled, because that is what my staff needed. I did not feel like smiling. I felt like screaming.

Then, on May 28, came a districtwide workshop on trauma-informed education. The Zoom meeting began with one “mindful” minute—an exercise for participants to clear their minds of anything they may have been feeling or holding so that they could be present in the moment. That was my undoing. Sixty seconds could not erase all the anger, rage, and sadness I had been carrying. The tears began to fall, and they kept falling.

I reached out to my principal and texted, “This was all just too much” and removed myself from the Zoom call. She understood. Then my teachers began pinging me, their own anger and frustration evident in their calls and texts.
Many of my teachers were experiencing compounded trauma as they recalled months of carnage, death, wrenching changes, and enough violence against Black bodies to last a lifetime. Some were dealing with isolation and feelings of despair. Uncertainty about the future was taking a toll. And then there was the complicit silence from white colleagues who didn’t get that racism was real. Black teachers, teachers of color, white teachers were feeling emotions ranging from disappointment to rage. These were not feelings that could be “cleared” in a moment.

I remember saying to them, “You can get off the call.” But I also contacted the district person in charge of the Zoom meeting and expressed my frustration at the lack of concern that we all were exposed to that morning. How could they think that a season of loss and, for some of us, a lifetime of racism could be put behind us just like that?There were apologies both vocal and written as well as concrete promises to do better.

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Now more than a year from that birthday, I want to believe that I am no longer staggering. For the most part, I feel solid on my feet, and that has a lot to do with my professional “tribe.”

Finding your “tribe” in your professional setting is just as critical as it is in your personal life. I am quite selective about that group. The teachers are Black, of color, and white. The commonality among them is that they are committed to improving their own teaching practices as they work to create conditions where Black and brown students can thrive. My only essential is that these folks prioritize the health and overall well-being of our young people.

I trust these teachers and am encouraged by their willingness to become more responsive and effective educators. Our shared work has been key to renewing my sense of purpose and urgency.

I do not take for granted that I am here in all of these spaces that I belong—as a mom, educator, leader, sister, aunt, friend. I know that I am fortunate to have the opportunity to continue to heal. I am still here to locate all those instances of joy necessary to live a thriving life. I am still here to show up for my students and teachers even during those times when it seems the battles never stop.

This is part of my healing—cultivating teacher leaders who work to condemn and disrupt the ways racism operates in classrooms, schools, and districts. For them and for our students and their families, I will continue to unapologetically confront silence and call out inequity.

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told us in 1963 that there is such a thing as being too late, he could have been talking about today. “This is no time for apathy or complacency,” he declared. “This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 14, 2021 edition of Education Week as The Year of Scourges: How I Survived Illness and Racism to Find My ‘Tribe’

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