White Boxes, Full Humanity, and Showing Up to Crisis

Full Humanity and Showing Up

So Many White Boxes

I took my dog Buster to the emergency vet recently. This happens sometimes. For those who’ve read my previous post, you know my dog is pretty high maintenance, and he suffers from terrible digestion issues that send us to the emergency room on occasion. He’s also old now, and arthritic, which exacerbates any pre-existing conditions he has. And in the time of COVID-19, the pet emergency room is a risk and an undertaking.

So with our fear, anxiety, and knowledge that Buster was suffering, my partner and I got in the car and took my dog to the emergency vet. My partner asked if I was ready for what might happen today, that this could be our last day with Buster. I said I was, that I had thought about it for some time, and that surprisingly, I felt strong. I was good in a crisis. I told her I was scared, but that I had strength enough for all of us today. I was going to be fully human about it all.

We parked in a numbered stall, called from outside, and a cheery vet tech came out to meet us with some paperwork. The whole experience would take over three hours. Someone would come to get Buster and bring him inside while we waited. About 30 minutes into waiting for someone to collect Buster, we heard whimpering from a car parked two stalls to our right. Minutes later, a different vet tech, more somber, walked out with a white box the size of a baking sheet. In it, we surmised, were the remains of a pet who was just put down. My partner cried. I felt angry and just let it be. Implicitly, we wondered if that would be Buster’s fate. 

An hour passed, and someone came to bring Buster to see the doctor. I explained his condition, his history, his age, and as he trotted off with the vet tech, I worried it might be the last time I’d see my dog. A few minutes later, a husband and wife walked out of the vet’s office, tearful. “Oh no,” we said. And soon enough, the somber vet tech emerged with a white box, this one a bit larger. We cried some more. 

And then another car pulled up, and several vet techs sprinted from the hospital to the vehicle. We overheard that the dog had been hit by a car, and the vet techs were quick to bring the dog inside. It was a little long-haired dachshund (Buster is mixed with a dachshund). And within a half hour, the couple was summoned inside; they later emerged tear-filled. Another white box. How many more white boxes would we see today?

Thankfully, Buster was okay. No white box for him. Just some fluids and a few medications and a follow-up for some x-rays and blood work. Buster is old, and his time will come soon enough. I know this. I’m just glad it wasn’t today. I couldn’t take another white box, even when feeling strong enough.

Centering Our Humanity 

All over the world right now, we’re dealing with the same situation. We’re in a global pandemic, a time where “I don’t know” is the catchphrase. People are losing their jobs. People are experiencing enormous fears and anxieties. People are dying. So many white boxes. So many losses.

When I sat down to start writing this blog, I had originally thought of times when I had to show up to crisis, and the stories of my past experiences flooded my mind: when I attended three funerals in six weeks for former students who had passed; when my colleague suddenly checked herself into a hospital for mental illness, leaving her classes with no teacher, several of us stepping in to teach extra courses; when the economy turned in 2008 and our small and struggling school had to determine a way forward, at great cost; when I first became a school leader and had to counsel my friend out of her job; when a teacher I had just hired had a recurrence of terminal cancer and we needed to support her, the students, and the department in a time of uncertainty; when our new school leader left mid-year because he was grossly underperforming in his job. In all these moments, whether when I was a classroom teacher, a teammate, or a supervisor, I had to summon strength. And in each of these instances, the strength I found was to be achingly, authentically, fully human. Just like I was at the vet’s office with Buster.

I read a story in Plato’s Republic that has stayed with me for a couple decades: “The Ring of Gyges.” The essential question of the story is “What do you do when no one is watching?” Do you show up differently to yourself than you do to the world? Is your presence in the world a performance? Or do people see you as you are, in all your humanity? 

During the time I attended three funerals in six weeks, I found myself laid bare as a teacher. I had just finished my fourth year in the classroom, and the grief I experienced was immeasurable. That experience also made me a better teacher. I found myself beginning class with check-ins with my students, and when appropriate, giving hugs to those who most needed it. I ensured my lessons had a balance of playfulness, vulnerability, and academic rigor. I worked to be more culturally responsive, because I knew students learned best when I met them where they were. And to do that I had to meet myself where I was, every day—to show up to the classroom no different than in my home spaces, with all my humor, sadness, joy, and vulnerability. To be the adult, yes, but to model a way of being that was fully human, ready to hold space for people’s experiences.

When I became a leader, that same ethos dominated my disposition. I became a senior leader the year of the 2016 election, and during that time, I endured a school in political crisis, where we had to decide what justice meant for our community—where we stood and what stance I would model as a leader. The same held true after the marches in Charlottesville in 2017, or when I counseled teachers out of their jobs, or when those I supervised suffered the loss of their family members, or experienced divorce, or struggled with their childrens’ challenges ranging from neurodivergence to discrimination to eating disorders. And every time I had to show up to crisis with an open heart. Without performance. With compassion, tenderness, and love. In crisis and in life as it is, those are the disposition of leadership.

Pivoting to Our Full Selves

At Bright Morning, we have had to make a massive pivot in our offerings. We know that to stay responsive to educators in crisis, to support our society and the larger world in building resilience, that we would have to be our achingly human selves. And it has been challenging. Our company has been dealt the common blow all small businesses have undergone. We are navigating social distance with a vicissitude of emotions. We are experiencing the fears that come with immuno-compromised family members and the impact of injustice and inequality and the ways the virus hits different communities across the globe. We are taking our pets to the emergency room, struggling to home school our children, managing the sadness of living alone, and asking “What’s next?” in the world that awaits us. And we are doing this in a way that centers humanity: yours, ours, the world’s. 

To show up to crisis right now means to bring one’s full self to the Zoom room (or Skype space or Hangout). It means people will see where we live, who’s in (or not in) our homes, how we collectively work to keep school and our lives going as details of the virus change from day to day. To show up to a crisis means making every conversation count even more now—with more frequent check-ins, listening deeply to what people have to say, and holding space for awkwardness and new learning. We’re all learning right now. And we all can be coaches for one another, and for ourselves.

The white boxes are going to keep coming. And the grief and fear will be big and deep. Regardless of who we are or where we are, we need to center our humanity. We need to show up to crisis ready every day for the uncertainty of what’s to come. I will bring my strength and my full self, and I’ll meet you with yours.

To Read

Check out Lori’s three-part series on “Sharpening Your Equity Tools” – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

To Do


Taking place over two months from April 7 – May 28, the Coach’s Toolkit Virtual Summit provides 18 sessions focused on coaching tools, practice, opportunities for modeling, and more. It is relevant to anyone seeking to level up, as a coach, mentor, leader or educator. 

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