Wrapping our Arms Around Infinity

“In Africa there is a concept known as ‘ubuntu’ - the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others; that if we are to accomplish anything in this world it will, in equal measure, be due to the work and achievement of others. “ – Nelson Mandela

 During the month of February, I paid little attention to the news. I heard about a virus in China and assumed it was like the outbreaks we had seen in the past that had little effect on our day-to-day life.   By the beginning of March, I realized that COVID-19 was different.   My family started reaching out, asking me if I heard about it and the impact it was having in China and other parts of the world.  


I hadn’t kept up with all the warnings and updates. I was in my own world, preparing for our annual summer conference, determining projections for upcoming fiscal year, and working on all the other important projects in front of me. Like too many of us, I figured it would pass. I was, figuratively, living in my own bubble. Now, my family and I are “sheltering in place,” literally living as one.


Everything has changed.  A handful of speaking engagements I was scheduled for were cancelled.   Projects with schools and districts have been put on hold.   Our Fellowship and Leadership trainings have been postponed. Our Summer National Conference -- in serious jeopardy of not happening for the first time in 25 years. Peter McWalters, former RI Commissioner of Education and BPL Board President captured my emotion: “I’m still trying to wrap my arms around the potential infinity of this situation.”


I did have a moment of panic, but, for my family, for myself, and my team at Big Picture Learning, I knew I had to be calm and focused.  I also had to check my own privilege. I remembered that, although I had some unexpected personal challenges to deal with, so did the rest of the world.   Those experiencing homelessness, single parents, hourly workers, folks with pre-existing health issues, and small business owners are particularly vulnerable. Millions of people around the world don’t have the option to homeschool their children, are out of work or risking infection in order to work or have elderly parents and family members. (This is true for my elderly parents and 96-year-old grandmother, still in the Bronx, alone and with a history of health challenges).


The social scientists tell us we are living in an increasingly “VUCA” world—volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. To survive, if not thrive, in such a world, we need to remind ourselves of who we are and what animates our learning and work. I believe the design principle for our BPL schools—one learner at a time in a community of learners—can serve as a design principle for the society we wish to live in. When we know our history, we know our power!    


The temptation to give in to anxiety and fear is real but, that alone, has never created solutions. Historically, those who have survived wars, recessions, and plagues tell of people coming together and helping each other. At BPL, our team is committed to using all of our creative energies to rethink how to help address the situations that young people, schools and communities are facing. We look to our BPL community to unleash their creative energies on behalf of our schools and the students and families we serve.


Recall Victor Frankl’s observation: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”  If the crises we and our network face do, indeed, feel infinite at times, we’ll do what we’ve always done. Wrap our arms around them.