Remember the scene in I Am Legend where Will Smith’s character visits the video store? If you haven’t seen the movie (or read the novel it’s based upon), Dr. Robert Neville is a survivor of a global pandemic living “alone” with his faithful German Shepherd in what’s left of New York City. One of the things Dr. Neville incorporates into his daily routine is a visit to the local video store. Throughout the store, he has staged mannequins as people he interacts with on a daily basis. He also returns the DVD he borrowed the night before and picks up the next one in alphabetical order on the shelf. “Mid way through the G’s,” he tells “Hank” the clerk before asking about the new girl in the back. He leaves with no answer and an “I’ll see you in the morning.”
As a school principal, this was one of my go-to stories. How I jokingly shared with folks that I read every volume in our library. That I went in each night after the building was empty to pick out my next book, read it overnight, and return it the next morning. How I fended off those who challenged or criticized what was in circulation (to be fair, I did read all of those). While I enjoyed my time in our library perusing the shelves, it didn’t come close to a daily affair. Another aspect of I Am Legend did and it’s not what you’d guess.
Nope. It’s not Covid. Not the global pandemic. Even though the last three school years have been consumed by mask debates, vaccine questions, social distancing, quarantine learning, and student learning loss. That’s not it. Our teaching professionals responded like warriors to those challenges and continued to produce student achievement, engagement, and growth. Honorable mention if you guessed feeling like you’re being chased by vampire zombies, because that’s not too far off. It’s something else.
Being a principal is a lonely, lonely job. So many times I remember sitting alone in my office thinking this is something I have to carry completely by myself. I couldn’t share with my staff. I shouldn’t share with my colleagues. I wouldn’t share with my supervisors. It’s not fair to my family to take it home. Whatever this is or was, I had to bear it and address it. Alone. There’s not one person in the world I can be completely honest with about it. Even in the joy of a school celebration, athletic victory, or concert performance, the albatross is ever present. A singular, invisible black crow.
I will miss so many things about being a school principal. The kids. The first day of school. Being the good cop. Visiting classrooms. Working with teachers. Artwork in the hallways. The feeling of community. The aforementioned library. Teaching and learning. And, having a full basketball gym at my disposal wasn’t too shabby. And, the kids.
But not the burden. This “burden of solitude ( . . . ) the weight of the world” according to the American poet Allen Ginsberg. In his last trip to the video store, Dr. Neville stands “alone” with the new girl in the back fulfilling a promise. He tearfully asks her to “please say hello to me.” This burden, love, is something neither man will be able to shed. Nor will it be for principals and their school communities.