PORTLAND, Maine — Ten teachers from Reiche Community School, along with a handful of sympathetic spouses, charged into Casco Bay’s frigid waters Sunday morning for a midwinter dip.

A crowd of spectators, bundled in layers of scarves, hats and mittens, stood on the sand and cheered the audacious group. Most swimmers screamed or whooped during their brief plunge. A few went back in for a second round of splashing and backstrokes. The ocean temperature was 41 degrees, while the air temp hovered around 22 degrees.

The stunt was the culmination of a schoolwide program designed around courage and facing pandemic anxieties. It also raised enough money to buy a new, hand-picked book for all 400 students at the school.

Ten teachers and a handful of spouses charge into the frigid water at the East End Beach in Portland on Sunday. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“I was tired of talking about courage,” said Kristen Fox, a third-grade teacher and event organizer. “I wanted to do something about it.”

Fox and fourth-grade teacher Joy Goddard pulled the event together. The spectacle was videotaped, and students will see it on Monday, just before they receive their books.

Fox and Goddard said they’ve seen a pandemic-induced increase in anxiety and fearfulness at school.

Clockwise from left: Joy Goddard (left) and Kristen Fox hug in the cold waters of Casco Bay at the East End Beach in Portland on Sunday; Joy Goddard, a teacher at Reiche Community School gets ready to run into the water; two women applaud as teachers jump into the ocean. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“I have really strong kids who are anxious and fearful about just coming to school because of the pandemic,” Fox said.

And teachers are not immune to it, either, she said.

“This is a way to control our own own anxiety, by being with each other, by facing our fear — and we’re teaching this to the children,” Fox said.

Reiche Community School coworkers Annetta Weatherhead (left) and Kristen Fox emerge from their second plunge in the ocean at the East End Beach in Portland on Sunday. Teachers raised enough money with the stunt to buy a book for every student in the school. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Goddard said their students are fatigued and tired of living through the pandemic. They’re tired of remote learning. They’re weary of masks and teachers keeping their physical distance.

“We tell them, this is when you go the hardest, when you’re tired,” Goddard said. “You stay committed. You stay strong.”

That’s the reason for the frigid stunt — and also to raise money.

Clockwise from left: John Fox emerges from the icy waters of Casco Bay at the East End Beach in Portland on Sunday Jan. 31. “Let’s do it,” Fox said. “Let’s do it every weekend.” Reiche Community School lead teacher Ted Hummel reaches for a dry sock after plunging into the ocean with coworkers; Annetta Weatherhead, a long-time ed-tech at Reiche Community School, wades through the 41-degree water. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Teachers pulled in $4,000 through a Donors Choose online grant. The cash is enough to buy books for all 400 kindergarten through fifth grade students at Reiche.

“Every single kid is getting a hand-picked book from their teacher around the theme of noticing you have a fear, understanding it, figuring out the obstacles and figuring out how to face it,” Goddard said.

The courage-based lesson plan has been a school-wide effort.

“It’s not just jumping in the water,” Fox said.

“It’s a metaphor,” Goddard said.

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.