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Durin Chappe is a carpenter and essayist who lives in Sullivan.
On a recent morning, my daughter and I sat down to breakfast and conspired to steal a few minutes from the looming school day, with a stab at the daily spelling bee.
From a mouth filled with corn mush and maple syrup, emerges the word “mote.”
I check the letters and tell her, “There’s no ‘a’ here.”
Maybe it was my attendance at a recent district school board meeting — where I was one of two masked attendees in a sea of unmasked parents — that got me thinking of the other “moat,” of the winching up of drawbridges and the ideological fastnesses that people have retreated to, in this post-election year.
While listening to claim after unsubstantiated claim decrying the tyranny of the masking, the threats to peoples’ “freedoms,” it seemed as if our little coastal hamlet had never felt more sad or riven.
Finally, I stood up and read from a tiny fraction of the four pages I’d prepared, and then listened more, as the arguments grew shriller, and the board did the inevitable, confirming their “masks optional” decision of three weeks earlier.
Returning late to the side of my sleeping wife — too tired to be angry -– the theoretical problem had suddenly turned real: Were we going to send our seven-year-old into an unmasked environment, where the vaccination levels of older students and staff are still vague, where, indeed, 60 percent of the staff oppose a mask mandate? Where a nervous minority was now being forced to settle for a hastily-assembled remote option?
Hadn’t any person of authority thought about the optics of a classroom, in which masked students sit separately from the unmasked, breathing the same air, perhaps even led by an unvaccinated teacher? Or considered that the violent opinions of the previous evening might percolate into the classroom?
We treaded water for a few days, while I asked the school for a “survey” of the classroom and found that the reality was much worse than my predictions: Nearly 80 percent were without masks.
Two unequal tribes were forming, whether we liked it or not -– and we wanted no part of either.
This week, we are still scrambling to get my daughter situated in a new school. My wife has tweaked her work schedule to allow her to deliver and retrieve our daughter from the new location, some 40 minutes away. We are hopeful that our one good car will continue to hold up.
The new school is headquartered in a charming, restored, Civil War-era farmhouse, with various outdoor structures arrayed on the field behind, offering differing degrees of shelter. Teacher-student ratios are excellent.
My wife and I, both public school alumni, have always favored an inclusive environment, mindful that a diversity of backgrounds creates a worthy education in and of itself. With some supplemental classes, we were sure that our daughter would continue to flourish there.
Now, delight in a new place mingles with sadness at having to abandon a public school which has been our daughter’s home for the past two years.
What overruled everything in the end was that there was an open spot — and financial assistance. And that classes, as in the previous year, were largely to be held outside. Learning with all senses. Masked appropriately. Heads out of laptops and feet getting wet, in a tidal stream, at the fringe of the field.
“Mote,” says my daughter, again, with more emphasis.
I reiterate to her that there is no “a” among the letters. But she’s talking about the homonym, something we’d studied together.
“Oh,” I say quietly, “you mean ‘mote.’” She groans.
I am hopeful still, that drawbridges can be lowered, that our “moats” become more like the tidal stream, wherein influxes of salt and fresh waters, each carrying their own distinctive habitats, merge to form a novel synthesis, with neither predominating — still thriving, still alive.