Who Moved My School?

If you know my father, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, then you have probably heard the joke that he sleeps in a three-piece suit (as they say, “It’s funny ‘cause it’s true”). Which is why I never liked wearing suits. As far as rebellions go, there are far worse. As a head of school, I wear suits. But for a few years on Fridays (and sometimes other days), I would wear pants and a blazer, no tie. One winter Friday, my family drove into the city for a Shabbos Bar Mitzvah, dropped our things off at my parents and went straight to the Friday night portion of the festivities. I was one of a handful of men not wearing a suit and tie. Walking home from dinner, my father very gently said, “You know, Josh, you’re a head of school, a leader, I think you should wear a suit and tie.” The next morning over breakfast, my mother said very gently, “You know, Josh, I think you should wear suits and ties.” Since that Shabbos, I rarely don’t wear a suit and tie.  

Fast forward to today, under quarantine. As usual at this time of year, I started to “turn over my closet”--not from winter suits to spring suits, but from winter suits to no suits. Every day I wake up and put on a button-down shirt and jeans or other casual pants. That is how these few weeks have been in so many ways. Coronavirus moved my school. It hasn’t moved my cheese. Yet.

Like most of the world, we didn’t see this coming. (If you did, please let me know because I’d like to solicit you for our scholarship campaign). But we can adapt, we can enjoy (yes we can) and we can learn to expect and be ready and enjoy the next big change.

For most educators, it’s Just. So. Different. It’s the opposite of everything that brought us into this field. It’s not a field that lends itself to a remote, work-from-home setup. Students aren’t numbers on a screen. Teachers aren’t Powerpoint presentations. It’s personal. Even with the boundaries that are needed between adults and children, it’s still personal. It’s still about proximity and the ability to read expressions and body language and listen and be there. It’s still about forming deep bonds and connections. It’s not that every educator needs to be an extrovert, but every educator has to have a fundamental belief in people and a desire to interact with them in a meaningful way.

Now do that with your three young children running around, expected to be engaged in their own distance learning, at the same time that you’re supposed to be teaching your students or calling parents or donors. True, this may not have been the ideal time to potty train our almost 3-year-old, but my wife and I were terrified of the alternative (“you mean you were in the house for 90 days straight and your daughter isn’t potty trained?”). And don’t work in your bedroom for countless reasons. But what if your home doesn’t have an abundance of private areas?

It’s nice to be home with my kids. But now go explain to them why mommy and daddy are home but not able to play with them. That was never an issue when school was school.

And I sit in an office most of my day so my home office is different, but not as different as my teachers’ new classrooms.

And my Amazon packages with office supplies, that I have to leave outside, wear gloves, open the box as if I’m on the FBI Bomb Squad unit, come back into the house sweating, needing a shower let alone a hand washing.

And the list goes on and on. Everything has moved. 

And while a routine has set in after three weeks, it can turn on a dime. We thought we were good after two weeks, but then some cracks emerged. Not enough Zoom classes. The worksheets weren’t sophisticated enough. Too much paper having to be printed. Not enough specials. Too many specials. The day is too short. The day is too long. Other schools are doing such and such.

One clear lesson: Be proud of your accomplishments, but be nimble and humble so that you can continue to evolve.

Nechama Leibovitz’s explanation as to why the fifth phrase of redemption, ve-heiveti, “And I will bring you [to the land of Israel],” doesn’t warrant a fifth cup of wine is that the first four phrases came true--we left Egyptian slavery and became servants of God--but the fifth lasted only a short while and then we went into exile. Even the best plans have hiccups, the best roads to success take detours.

One of the values listed in the Westchester Day School mission statement is resilience, based on the verse in Micha, Ki nafalti kamti, “Though I have fallen, I will rise.” This experience isn’t a straight line. But that is ok. It will make everyone stronger in the end. If that is the only thing learned during this time, it will be the most important lesson any of us learn, let alone our students.

Enjoy the experience. How? Celebrate every success and win. Have a great day of learning? Enjoy. Have a great day of learning in one grade? Enjoy. Get a positive email from a parent? Enjoy. Make a good decision? Enjoy. Have a great class? Enjoy. See posts of kids doing acts of chesed at home? Enjoy. Watch teachers support each other in new and creative ways? Enjoy. See administrators do things that make you proud to call them colleagues? Enjoy. Witness teachers and administrators do everything they can possibly do to reinvent themselves? Enjoy. Sleep well? Enjoy. A day where your 3-year-old has no accidents? THROW A PARTY!

I cry all the time. This made me cry (from a WDS parent who is a public school teacher): “Just wanted to let you know that this afternoon while on a Zoom call with my entire grade team and my supervisor I brought them into my kitchen to watch my daughter complete her science experiment with Ms. Shapiro. You guys are doing such a great job and I wanted to show them how distance learning can be done correctly. Thank you for all your hard work!”


And if this has taught us nothing but that change will find a way in somehow and the next time we won’t be as shocked, then we will have learned a valuable lesson.

And then there is perspective to help us handle the lows and celebrate the highs. Today I spoke to a friend whose father is on a ventilator, sedated, after testing positive for COVID19. He can’t go visit him. He can’t be with him. He can’t hold his hand. His father is alone. He has a 50/50 chance of coming off the ventilator, and even if he does he might have irreparable damage to some of his organs. He found out his father was intubated after the procedure. The doctors told him to be prepared to find out that his father’s condition could change for the worse.

That is real change. Ours, as disorienting as it is, will pass and we will be stronger as a result.

We pray for all those who are seriously ill at this time.