Packing Parachutes

GOVSometimes a piece of student’s writing draws my attention away from offering feedback and assigning grades; instead, I feel a need to pause and reflect more deeply on why I feel called to work in schools. Reading Noah’s essay moves me to reflect on why we do what do:

Before coming into Government, I never thought I would be so participative as I am. I have never been interested in any of the events that were going around the nation or even the world.

In Government, you have helped me have my own voice, whether it was during school, class or at home. I have been able to speak for myself and what it is right for others… before this class, I kept my mouth shut and never gave my opinion in an argument with friends or family. Now, they are used to me butting in or look to me to settle one.

I want to thank you for how hard you push us to be responsible, engaged, involved, participating citizens in our American democracy.

As I read Noah’s writing, I recalled a remarkable essay authored by Toy Savage, one of my old teachers. In his piece, Mr. Savage reflects on the meaningful relationships that make great schools so magical. I have posted an excerpt below – hoping that the sentiment “lifts us up and keeps us well.”

After a few minor matters of business, Royster Director Matt Sigrist dug into the real “stuff’ of a middle school – the formation of meaningful relationships between faculty and students. He reminded us that grades seven through nine can be tumultuous, confusing times, and the availability of a caring adult for each student is at the very heart of what we do.  He talked of our designing schedules and systems that maximize the opportunities for those relationships to develop and flourish, and he urged each of us to focus on simply being there for the kids.  Heady words indeed.

But what followed really got to me.  One by one, Cecil Mays, Ari Zito, Brooke Fox and Trish Hopkins stood up and answered the question “Why I teach.” 

It took Brooke Fox to put me over the edge.  She played an excerpt from what I assume is a motivational speech given by Charlie Plumb, who was shot down over the Sea of Hanoi during the Vietnam War, parachuted to safety but was captured and incarcerated as a POW for six years. Evidently, this gentleman was out to dinner one night many years later when a complete stranger approached him and asked him his name.  When the reply came as expected, the fellow said, “You know the day you were shot down?  I packed your parachute that morning.”  The implications were obvious – as teachers, we never know when some mundane exchange with a student will end up being very important to him or her, so we better pay close attention to every one of those moments.  We may be packing parachutes daily.

Except Brooke turned it on its head, and talked about the times in her life that being a teacher acted as her parachute.  She recounted several moments in her life roughly equivalent to being shot down, and how returning to a classroom gave her what she needed to hit the ground safely and fly another day.  In doing so she unplugged my basket of memories of the same times in my life, where the smiling faces of those before me in a classroom or on a field sustained me when I needed it most.  I had to fight back the tears.

So I have never been more excited for a school year to begin.  As a faculty we cannot wait to get to the work of providing students fabric, factual and emotional, that they may hold on to in their lives.  The joyful mystery of that work is that in packing other people’s parachutes, we receive fabric in return that lifts up us and keeps us well.

Noah, thanks for packing my parachute today.

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About Dr. Ostroff

Head of Upper School at The Emery/Weiner School in Houston, TX
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