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My Turn: Exiled from school, we find joy in the Hempstead community

Hempstead High School Principal Stephen Strachan led the

Hempstead High School Principal Stephen Strachan led the teacher and staff parade honoring students and family through Hempstead on May 4, 2020. Credit: Rebecca LaBarca

Never at a loss for words, Mark Twain once reminded us that “to get the full value of a joy, you must have someone to divide it with.” For the past two months, we’ve found that ability to divide joy elusive. As we remain locked away, detached from our alliances and acquaintances, the frisson of human connection has given way to an isolation that paradoxically, is imposed to keep us healthy.

I’m a teacher at Hempstead High School, and I derive my happiness and joy from the daily interaction with my students. No matter how challenging or frustrating a day might be, it’s always leavened by the kids in my classroom. Whether it’s the brash fist-bump from Carlos, the polite, barely-audible “Buenos Dias” from Michelle, or Jonathan’s sulky mumble, the presence of my students imbues me with a spark of concern, empathy and, above all, joy. Due to our absence from the classroom, such joy has been in short supply. But May 4 was different.

That day, our district reminded us all of what it means to be a community by arranging a parade to salute our students and their families. On a glorious spring morning, we teachers and staff gathered in our parking lot, more than 100 strong, our cars festooned with balloons, streamers and window paint, as we prepared to show our love and appreciation for our students and their families. Waving and shouting, we gathered as a group for the first time since March 13. The atmosphere, despite the current crisis (or perhaps because of it), had the feel of a family reunion or a summer picnic — one at which actual hugs were nonexistent, but where there were plenty of the socially distant, virtual variety.

At exactly 11 a.m., the procession began. Up and down streets we paraded, a merry band of masked — and gloved — merrymakers, blowing our horns and flashing our lights as we careened about the neighborhood to the delight of the residents. Families gathered on porches and lawns, together but apart, respectful of maintaining distance, yet thrilled to be communing with their neighbors. With the police blocking off streets and our cars winding their way through the community, I felt a rush of joyful adrenaline that was almost alien, so long had it been absent.

The spontaneous smiles and waves from residents had the restorative effect of a shot of vitamin D or a strenuous workout. (It also reminded me of how careful you have to be behind the wheel when you’re in a parade. It’s challenging to wave to people and keep your eyes on the road.)

When we returned to the high school parking lot, it was clear the chemical rush had everybody buzzing and reveling in the joy and spirit we had spread through the neighborhood. It felt great, both the desire to high-five or embrace one another and the awareness of the force field of social distancing that prevented us from doing so.

As the high-noon sun shone upon us in the parking lot, a number of us looked longingly at the high school. Suddenly, it wasn’t just our workplace, somewhere to punch a clock and fulfill our obligations as teachers and administrators. It was a home from which we’ve been exiled, at least until September. By parading through our neighborhood, one that belongs to educators and students alike, we had taken an hour to divide our joy — and everybody went home happier and healthier.

Chris Claro,

Port Washington

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