On 23 March 2020, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman declared a 21-day curfew that effectively turned into a compound lockdown except between the hours of 6:00 am and 3:00 pm. On March 28th at 4:00 am, while I was working on lesson plans for the start of the week, my sister called via WhatsApp to tell me, crying, the news I had been dreading to hear for awhile.
“Are you sitting down?”
“Dad’s gone,” she said.
I went numb and then came days and days of the surreal. My colleagues on the compound showed up at my door, breaking quarantine and social distancing to ensure:
1. I knew they were there, even in the absence of human contact, for we were now in the throes of socially isolating and implementing virtual school—not as a drill, but for real. They wanted me to know I was not alone, though I sure felt like it in my head.
I was inwardly freaking out at the thought of being unable to get back to my 78-year-old mom in Canada, left to manage 80 acres; back to my sister; back to my dad to say goodbye. It still brings tears to my eyes. My mom was standing nearby as he fell to the ground in his own workshop after spending the day doing a welding job for a friend. Dad died the only way he or I could have wanted to: instantaneously, and in service to another.
It is every expat’s nightmare not to be able to get home under these sorts of circumstances, not only in order to help but to process the tragedy. There I was, though, stranded in Saudi by a pandemic. Rumor had it that if I left then, there was a good chance I’d be unable to get back. That rumor proved true. The country locked its borders “until the pandemic is over.”
2. I had food. One of my American colleagues immediately put into action a keto-friendly meal train for the next week. In came trays of food—enough to freeze and keep me going for weeks.
I learned then that such things aren’t just for the new parents in the community. It opened my worldview a bit, I must say, as one of the few single hires on staff.
3. I could do whatever I needed to do. Literally. “You do whatever you need to do, Lorelei.” This came from my admin and our school head’s wife, who stepped in to provide emotional support along with guidance. I could never be more grateful for this support and trust on the part of my leadership team.
Prior to my father’s death, I had already figured out what I wanted to do as a first project with my students and had a green light and full endorsement from our school head. We were all rapidly adapting programs, and at year end the foundations were in place to support this decision for flexible student-led learning in view of our circumstances. As a long-time popular theatre teacher (social issues theatre), and as a person who is savvy with tech, I felt that we had not only an opportunity to utilize the COVID-19 pandemic as a context and “theme” for learning, but that we had an obligation to do it. If learning isn’t about making sense of the world, about drawing meaning for ourselves and others, then what is it for?
I had already instructed my students: they would collectively, across all grades and subjects, engage in a six-to-eight-week long “Genius Project” in both the drama and digital arts (media) classes.
Long story short, these projects were fully devised, outlined, justified, and undertaken by students individually or in teams, and then assessed by them, their peers, and me. It didn’t matter what the students did as long as it pedagogically was in alignment with their course objectives and got my approval.
I wrote a candid letter to my students and their parents informing them of my need for a week’s bereavement. Then I continued to teach online until the year ended. Our school’s mission is: “We inspire innovation and compassionate action.” In true form, one parent reached out and wrote letters to me daily for two months until the heat of this tragedy subsided. Words will never suffice to describe what my entire school community did for me throughout this wrenching period.
Students kept up with the work, attended Zoom conferences, filled out their spreadsheet trackers, and accommodated me with patience in my early weeks of shock and grief. This was life and we were in it together. They had a lot of empathy, and created remarkable art in this time as they began to process their own losses and stresses.
COVID took on changing meanings over time for all of us. Collaborative plays and spoken word poetry added to the animations, films, and scripts that students had created.
After classes officially ended, a group of student leaders from the Digital Arts class wanted to learn web design, so I facilitated that learning. Five of us built everything into an online summer play fest—"Sparks of Creativity”—in lieu of the lost spring play fest I normally produce with my pre-IB Drama 9/10 students.
It was a way to salvage the year somehow in terms of performances. And why not? The show had to go on, and this, in my opinion, was and is the innovation required of us in digitizing learning: how to create flexible, relevant, meaningful experiences.
All of us, in shock, came through a profound time, epitomized in part by this online collection of performances, categorized by type and merit (kids were granted participation certificates and “Academy Awards” in various categories). I am, and we are, proud of these.
I still haven’t been home for a memorial that has been indefinitely suspended. At this time, Saudi is still under national lockdown. The borders remain closed. No one can return.
Looking forward, I find myself thinking about the geopolitical shifts in this region and imagining how, in my classes, we might make sense of the new themes weaving meaning into our lives, digitally and otherwise.
I’m no hero, but we drama teachers like to think of ourselves as a little bit superhuman. In fact, we dwell in the world of possibilities all the time. My motto a while back became: “Because drama.” Because, seriously, anything can happen in this job.
No matter what, I love it.
Lorelei Loveridge is a teacher, writer, arts manager, festival producer, digital marketer, business strategist, life coach and Mindful Self-Compassion trainer who teaches and directs at ISG Jubail School in Jubail, Saudi Arabia.
2020 online ISGJ Drama and Digital Arts Festival