Working with Uncertainty

by Stephanie Sarantos, co-founder, staff member, and parent

Reprinted from the November 2001 issue of The School Bull, the newsletter of The Clearwater School.

Now more than ever in our lifetimes, friends and family are thinking and talking about the uncertainty that life brings. As the terrorist events of September 11 and the ensuing war hover over all of us, other topics become insignificant by comparison. In preparing an article for the school newsletter this fall, I found myself unable to attach to any of the many topics I think would be of importance to the school. Instead I am compelled to share my thoughts about uncertainty with the extended Clearwater community.

When The Clearwater School commenced the school year on Monday, September 10, 2001, we dove into the annual business of renewing friendships, joking and bantering that always permeates the first days of school. On that Monday, a radio talk show host from 107.7 THE END, called to schedule a telephone interview with me for 7:15 a.m. the following morning. On the morning of September 11, I rose early to squeeze in a run before the interview. On my way home I heard a phrase about “all of Manhattan,” broadcast from a car warming up on the side of the trail, and had a passing thought that something bad had happened. When I arrived home, my husband Tom and I turned on the radio to get a sense of the tone of questions I might face on the talk show. Instead we were blasted with news that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center in NYC. At first, I could not take in this information, but watched Tom’s reaction of shock. Watching Tom I felt myself realize the horror of this unfathomable thing that was happening. Over the next few minutes the reality sunk in as the second plane hit and the towers collapsed. My family continued to listen to the news and talk about what had happened as we prepared and then left for school.

The tone at school that Tuesday was so different from Monday. On the second day of the school year students, staff and parents were talking about what was happening in New York and Washington. We moved our old TV to see if we could get reception closer to windows or with a wire antenna. Failing to see more than shadows, many of us turned to radio and Internet news. I was especially aware of a complex interweaving dance between people following every minute of news coverage and others who sought to avoid the sounds and images. I found myself in the middle of the dance—wanting more information, but needing to walk away after hearing very little. My role as a staff member followed this same dance, taking me away from the news and back again. My responsibility to be available to the needs of students led me in many different directions throughout that day and in the weeks to follow.

Right away I interacted with two four-year-olds starting their first day of school. These children were not paying attention to the news. They needed to play with Legos, learn about rules and go to the park. At two different times, an eight–year–old and a ten–year–old each told me they wished the news would stop talking about this – they wanted to proceed with more routine aspects of their lives. Later in the day I gravitated to the computer room for glimpses of Internet coverage and discussions with the teens about the implications of what was happening in the world.

The reactions of different students at school paralleled the reactions of many of my friends and family members. Across the week I was struck by the different ways that the people around me chose to cope with an event so beyond expectations. Many people talked of needing to see every image and hear as many reports as possible – watching TV, reading “The New York Times” cover to cover and talking about each new bit of information. Other people avoided turning on the radio or even picking up the paper. Some of my friends spoke of numbness, others were overcome by tears throughout the day. I noticed myself reading a paragraph of news, sighing deeply and walking away, only to circle back for a second and third bite of information. I had many moments of hoping I would wake up to find this had not happened.

In the immediate days after September 11, I found myself struggling with conflicting feelings. I felt devastated at the destruction of so many lives and fearful that my life and my family might not be safe. I wanted to wake up from a dream, yet I wanted to understand and feel the sorrow of this event. I was struck with my disbelief that something like this could happen and at the same moment knew that such devastation is a daily occurrence in many parts of the world. I realized it is easier to think about uncertainty in the abstract than to experience it close-up.

Looking back on my activities of September 11, I am grateful that I could be at The Clearwater School with so many wonderful people of all ages. I learned many lessons. That Tuesday morning living with the terror of what had happened and the fear of what might yet happen, I found I could still enjoy wading through Meadowbrook creek with four-year-olds on a crisp fall day. I learned that life goes on. At Clearwater that day there was much playing to be done—full of joy and conflict and hope. When my ten-year-old friend told me she wanted to hear less news, I learned we can feel sad, but we can also maintain the daily rhythms that sustain our days. In the computer room talking with the teenagers, I learned of their thoughtfulness, internal strength, and emerging wisdom. From everyone I talked with that day I learned about the importance of allowing space and acceptance for the range of different responses people may have to the same experience.

I have given much thought to how we can best help each other—adults and children—to cope with the feelings that tragedy uncovers. We did not do formal “interventions” at Clearwater. But we gave our thoughts and feelings full attention. At Clearwater, students coped with this experience in individual ways—talking about all that needed talking about, taking space for silence, and continuing with play. I found inspiration from the students’ resilience and thoughtfulness. Through my conversations I learned that this tragedy has a different reality for each of us. We all have different histories with trauma and different ideas of what the future may bring. I hope that my presence and conversations with students helped them in some way to process their experience and think about the world. Their conversations with me strengthened my faith in their ability to work with the uncertainty of our times – and my hope for the contributions they will offer the world.

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