143: A Message of Love

143: A Message of Love

In May of 2019, Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania dedicated May 23, the 143rd day of the year (except in a leap year), as a day to honor the inspirational Fred (Mr.) Rogers. The number 143 was significant to Mr. Rogers; it represented not only his shorthand for the phrase ‘I love you’ (the number of letters in each word), but also a conscious checkpoint for his physical health, as his weight stayed at 143 pounds for most of his adult life. The number 143 has taken on a life of its own for all of us who teach (and learn anew) his message of love.

As teachers in today’s new online world, we are denied our most basic need and desire: to be with our students. We find ourselves separated, disembodied, talking into what often feels like a digital abyss. However, the heart of Mr. Rogers’ message is twofold, and contains a reminder that teachers need to hear for themselves. We must remember Fred’s 143 message to take care of ourselves--body, mind, and spirit.

This is not a trite “self-care 101” mantra. This is a foundational and grounding awareness of what we must absorb in order to come out the other side of this experience whole.

When our school district was sent home to begin what would become our new digital normal, I immediately thought of Fred Rogers. I sat quietly stunned that night, and wondered what message he would have for all of us during COVID-19. I longed to hear his voice come through in this crisis, just as it had in so many other national and global tragedies. And as I sat there, staring out into the digital void,  I started to see people jump into action. People began posting about how to help kids who would not have access to daily meals with their schools shut down, or how to care for children who might be under lockdown in homes that weren’t safe. Overwhelmed with emotion and a sense of purpose, I posted one of Fred’s most famous quotations about how to get through difficult times: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

My entire teaching career is rooted in wanting to be that helper Mr. Rogers was talking about. But in this new world, I’m lucky if I am able to get through teaching a class where my eyes don’t fill up with tears when even one student decides to turn on the video--just for a moment--to let me see her face at the other end of the pinhole camera, at the edge of my laptop screen. The unexpected declaration “I miss you, Ms. Mac!” that pops up in the comment section makes me want to put my head down and weep because I miss them, too; I miss them terribly. I teach on a US military base overseas, mostly seniors, and to see them daily, knowing they are doing the very best they can with all of their grief (both current and anticipatory), simultaneously inspires me and guts me. It often feels like one of those dreams, or scenes from a movie, where you are looking out at all of this action going on around you, but somehow everything is in slow motion, and there is a strange ringing in your ears. You rise to go to where the action is, you know you’re talking, but you aren’t sure if you’re being understood. You feel connected and disconnected at the same time.

It’s hard these days to feel as though I’m that helper Mr. Rogers was talking about, and yet, I know this to be true: Fred Rogers pioneered teaching children through the lens of a camera. Decade after decade, he knew--even though he couldn’t see the children he was teaching in real time--he knew the children were with him, that they were seeing him and hearing his message of love. There is a beautiful interview in which a young man talked about living in an abusive home for his entire childhood. The one light in his life was when Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood came on, because Mr. Rogers was the only person ever to tell him that he was loved, that he was special for just being himself. Think of the way he wielded that personal power to connect with kids.

Even in the most difficult of times, Fred Rogers always found a way to get his message across in a measured, calm, and purposeful way.  Throughout my career I have tried to emulate his demeanor and philosophy, and on my very best days, maybe I allow myself to feel some success, but in the tough moments, which are frequent now, I doubt myself. Digital teaching during COVID-19 can feel like you are shining a light out onto a dark ocean--you pour your heart out, but fear your students cannot hear you over the waves of their homelife distractions, their feelings of being overwhelmed, their sadness and depression. It can feel like a tidal wave of alienation and loneliness.

But when you close your eyes, you can sometimes hear that faint 143 coming in on the tide.

That Friday afternoon, when the announcement came over the intercom that our district was going to close for traditional learning and move to online schooling, I had about an hour to figure out what I wanted to say to the seniors sitting in my room at that time. In the end (and what I now know are the last words I will ever say to them in a real face to face setting), I asked them to think about this as an opportunity for growth, a way to practice getting through a difficult time, because as adults they would certainly face more adversity. I hope that they will look for the helpers. I also hope that they will be the helpers.  Perhaps it is in the most challenging of times that we are able to still practice the tenets of love and kindness that define us as teachers, as helpers.

143 Day is right around the corner. So, to the teachers all over the world who are doing the very best they can, 143. To the parents doing the very best they can, 143. And most of all, to the children out there in that digital abyss--watching, hearing, absorbing, doing the very best they can--hear our collective teacher voice in unison: 1-4-3.

Dawn MacFarland has 20 years of service in the classroom to military-connected students and families through DoDEA (Department of Defense Education Activity). She began her teaching career in Arizona, and has taught in London, England, Cuba, and Germany. Ms. MacFarland’s lifelong commitment is dedicated to educating the whole child—mind and heart.  Her career is cultivated by a mindset that looks beyond typical markers of student success and dives deeper into areas of long-term student development and growth.  Her entire concept of teaching revolves around the idea that in education, as in life, leaders need to build relationships and create climates of security in order to get the best out of the communities they serve.   Ms. MacFarland was a DoDEA Teacher of the Year finalist in 2020 and is the DoDEA Europe East Teacher of the Year. She is a proud member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY), and you can follow her on Twitter @MindandHeartEDU.


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