Finding Serenity Amidst Challenge

It is June already, just days away from our graduation from the Onward Leaders program and we have just begun to peer out towards some degree of normalcy as the cloud of the Covid-19 pandemic has begun to lift, letting some light back into our lives.  This same cloud, though, unearthed some deep pains in our country as we were all forced to face the ongoing tensions of historical racism in our country and to reflect upon our participation in and contribution to its hold.  I must admit that I have let moments of disappointment sneak in as I realize I will be entering the role of principal in this climate of unrest and uncertainty.  It is taking great effort to force myself to be reflective in this moment and allow myself the leisure of looking back over what I have learned.    


Each time that I share with enthusiasm the news that I have been officially hired as principal in the upcoming year, I am met with the same questions and worries - “Wow, what a tough time to enter the role!”;  “Will you even be able to have classes?”; “I heard that the kids have fallen really behind during this time and will have a hard time catching up.”; “How are you going to keep little kids six feet apart and wearing masks?”.  The questions are so infused by fears and worries and a tone of helplessness that it takes the wind out of my enthusiasm and suddenly places me on the defensive.  


My response has been to remind them of the strength and resiliency of our Catholic school communities, the dedication of our teachers, and the power of our collective vision and mission.  What I tell them is that even though I do not know all the answers to those questions and cannot predict what new challenges will face us when we return to school in August, I do know that we will face them successfully.  I remind them that over a weekend our Catholic school leaders, teachers, students, and parents were able to make a transition to distance learning and this wasn’t just at some isolated schools, but consistently across the Archdiocese.  We made it work and we have learned from the process.  No matter what the guidance will be, no matter the financial challenges we face, we will work together as school communities to address them and to provide our students with a safe and nurturing environment where they will be challenged to learn and grow.  


As excited and optimistic as I am to join the Sacred Heart Elementary school community in this upcoming year as their new principal, I know we will need to root in prayer as we make decisions and prepare for the return to classes in August.  As I worked with my mentor principal and her school community this year to meet the challenges of distance learning, I found myself often leaning on the Serenity Prayer for guidance and strength. I have learned this year to find serenity even amidst the challenges, a lesson I’m sure will serve me in the upcoming year.  


God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I have learned during this time the power of reframing the question, “What can I do?”.  It is easy to fall into the helplessness of that question, as a leader and as a school community.  When we received the news that we needed to shut down our schools, send our students home, and plan for distance learning for an undetermined amount of time, it is understandable that each of us would wonder if this was even possible, wonder if we could meet the challenge with any degree of success.  Our world had been turned upside down.  That following Monday, we met as a team and acknowledged those fears and worries and the weight of that great loss and then we reframed the question from “What can We do when so much is out of our control?” to “Okay, what CAN we do?”.  We began to focus on what was in our control.  We asked empowering questions - What technology, programs, and resources are available? What do we need in order to use them successfully?  What talents do we possess among us as a community that can be shared for the benefit of all?  Soon, our answers to these questions became plans and we had a roadmap for our journey into distance learning.  At each new challenge along the way, we returned to that same strategy of facing and naming the challenge and then working collaboratively to determine what we could do to address it successfully.  This line of the Serenity Prayer reminds me of the power of reframing the question.  

Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time;

Each day that I have been on campus, I am overwhelmed with the silence.  I miss the sound of laughter and the noise of learning that bustles through a school.  I miss standing at the gate by carline greeting the students - some with smiles and some still clinging onto Mom wishing they could go back to bed.  I love the challenge of trying to get them to smile again.  On difficult days, I love walking into the classes and interacting with the students, encouraging them to “Tell me what you’re learning today?”.  Those little moments replenish you and remind you of the purpose of Catholic education.  During this time of distance learning, I reminded myself to take time to encourage and to look for those little replenishing moments too - to look for the beauty even among the clouds.  A few moments come to mind.  I hold in my heart the picture of the many Zoom screens with students, teachers, and their families gathered together to participate in our annual Stations of the Cross.  Each slide of the projected presentation was personalized by the drawings and reflection of a student and their family.  It left us all in tears and forced us to appreciate all the gifts God had bestowed upon us.  I also have a photo in my mind of one of our preschool students sitting on her carpet at home, in almost the same spot as her classroom carpet, looking up at the TV screen and singing along with her Preschool teachers to the Good Morning song and participating in the daily calendar activities.  It’s just one picture of many that I hold in my heart that illustrate how far the love and dedication of our teachers can reach.  Each time that I was on campus, I was also reminded of the importance of humility and grace, as our own Ms. Palma consistently greeted members of our surrounding Huntington Park community who came to pick up meals with a smile and a welcome, “Good Morning”, “Que Dios Bendiga”.  Whatever challenges face us in the upcoming school year, this line of the serenity prayer will remind me to make space for those little moments of joy and to allow them to replenish us.

accepting hardship as a pathway to peace; taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that You will make all things right if I surrender to Your will; so that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with You forever in the next.

On June 19th, I will be able to visit the campus of my new school.  The outgoing principal will be welcoming me as she retires after serving there for over twenty-five years. As the school’s first lay principal, I can’t help but be humbled by the leaders before me from its current principal all the way back to its founding in 1890.  When the outgoing principal announced her retirement early in the year, there would have been no way for her to know that her farewell message to the school that she had served for so long would be a virtual one.  There was no way for either of us to know the challenges both personal and professional that would face us in this transition.  Yet, weekly, via zoom, over this last month we have met through our screens and talked about all aspects of the school community - what has been accomplished, what still needs to be done, and what might be some next steps to ensure as smooth of a transition as possible during this complicated time.  Although it has been difficult to transition in this way, we have enjoyed great conversations and even laughter too, both accepting the situation “as it is and not as we would have it”, placing our trust in each other and more importantly in His will.  As I enter this upcoming year, these final lines of the serenity prayer will remind me that we are not facing these challenges alone. We are supported by His will and our communal strength and dedication to a mission that has existed before us and will continue to fortify us as we move ahead.  


I am blessed to have been an Onward Leader this year and will cherish and put into action all the lessons I have learned.  I look forward with optimism to this new academic year with all of the challenges and lessons it will hold for us, knowing we are equipped to face them and that we are not alone.