Finding the bright side of the COVID-19 crisis in Sherrill.
by Sue Smith Romero
As I walk to my assigned classroom each morning as a substitute teacher at the Vernon-Verona-Sherrill elementary schools, posters lining the walls on both sides of the hallways embrace me with cheerful, brightly-colored messages: “You are loved!” “You got this!” “You’re awesome!” As students arrive, hang up their jackets, and take out their morning work, I hear little voices say, “Yay! My favorite sub!” One Pre-K child told me I look like Anna from Frozen, the highest of compliments! This kind of thing never happened when I worked in public relations offices and certainly hasn’t been part of my solitary freelance writing life. I look forward to subbing days as a refreshing break from the computer screen and a chance for delightful connections. But on Friday, March 13, 2020, this suddenly changed. That morning, I subbed in one of my favorite classes, Miss Hill’s 5th grade at McAllister Elementary in Sherrill. After we finished the math lesson, we had fun making a St. Patrick’s Day craft for the students’ kindergarten buddies. As the kids cut, stapled, and glued their construction paper creations, they chattered about the coronavirus. COVID-19 had been a hot topic at school all week. Two days earlier, a third-grader at J.D. George Elementary in Verona had read her original paragraph to me, detailing all the ways she knew to fight the virus including “Wash Your Hands,” “Cover Your Cough,” and “Stop, Drop, and Roll.” Each time I heard the subject come up, I assured the kids they were in no danger. I didn’t want them to be afraid. Plus, I really hadn’t been paying any attention to the news with all the work I had from my new writing client. I’m disappointed now about how oblivious I was. It wasn’t until I got a text from my mother about 5:00 that evening saying all Oneida County schools were closing immediately until April 14 that the reality of the situation grabbed my attention. I froze and stared at my phone. This seemingly distant news story had suddenly shown up at my own front door. Over the course of the next week and a half, I immersed myself in catching up on these new topics of research — virology, historic pandemics, the economic impact of a worldwide shutdown — while intermittently working on my client’s website and social media. My client, the new Irish Cultural Center of the Mohawk Valley in Utica, was suffering the loss of it’s biggest roster of events to date, the celebration of Irish-American Heritage Month. Four major events had to be postponed indefinitely, hopes of raising funds for the new museum were dashed, the pub’s employees were laid off, and St. Patrick’s Day had to be celebrated online. All of this required a scramble of creating graphics and writing Facebook posts to keep our fans informed about rapidly changing decisions. As I scrolled social media feeds and read articles in the New York Times online, the days wore on and I felt more and more the return of freelance isolation without the refreshing screen time relief my substitute teaching job provided.
Then on March 24, one of my neighbors invited me to a new Facebook group called Rainbows Over Sherrill. Founded by Sherrill resident Katie Byrd-Wright as a way to create a city-wide game of “I Spy” for the children as they walked with their parents, she hoped it would become a fun replacement for playing with friends at playgrounds, now discouraged due to the virus. This struck me as such a Sherrill-like idea. In the seven years I’ve lived here, I’ve been impressed again and again by the strong sense of welcome and community in the smallest city in the state of New York. I lived in many towns over the course of 20 years as a military spouse, and I’ve never seen such a friendly place. A walk in Sherrill means exercising your waving arm as much as your legs. I ran down to my craft stash and found a small embroidery hoop I had painted yellow for some reason a long time ago and a basket full of multi-colored ribbons. In a few minutes I too had a rainbow in my window. As I scrolled through the photos posted by the citizens of Sherrill, I saw many of my little friends from school and admired the artistic rainbows they had made. A couple of hours later, an email arrived from the City of Sherrill announcing a parade organized by the elementary school teachers. They planned to drive their cars through the streets of our city, and we were all invited to stand outside, spaced at least six feet apart, to wave as they went by. I was probably as excited as the kids to hear of this event.
The next afternoon, I stood on the sidewalk across the street from McAllister Elementary School, my camera slung around my neck. Happily, I saw my friend Nancy in front of her house. We were able to chat at a distance, though I couldn’t pet her dog Buddy who strained against his leash desperate for a greeting. Dogs can’t comprehend such a foreign concept as “social distance.” As the teachers’ cars began their slow progress from the bus circle toward Kinsley Street, I saw their colorful decorations: balloons, stuffed animals, crepe paper, and hand lettered signs declaring, “We miss you!” “Keep Reading!” “Got any wiggly teeth?” The catchy tune of Baby Shark streamed from one of the car stereos. The teachers waved and called out greetings and their students, widely spaced along the sidewalk holding signs they’d also made, shouted and waved in return.
Having spent a year of school days in the VVS elementaries, I know very well this love and longing is real. I’ve seen these teachers caring for their students, daily pouring every effort into the kids’ academics and probably even more into their personal and social development. Even I leave school at 3:30 feeling like I can do anything after working in the atmosphere they create. We all understand the reasons for our separation and isolation during this pandemic. We all want to do our part. But this is a painful sacrifice. School is so much more than what children do with pencils, paper, and Chromebooks. Every day, children encounter small conflicts, confusions, problems, from moment to moment. They learn from their teachers and fellow students better ways of responding and broader perspectives. I’m not at all against homeschooling. I homeschooled my own three daughters throughout their elementary years. But my time as a sub has shown me the value schools provide too. When the VVS teachers decided to drive through our small city, winding up and down every street waving, honking their horns, and calling out, “We miss you,” they meant it with all their hearts. As the cars slowly disappeared around the corner, I went for a refreshing walk along the sidewalks of Sherrill. Rainbows Over Sherrill had spread quickly, and I found lots of them in windows to photograph. More than an hour later I could still hear the teachers’ horns honking in the distance.