Much of this was written in mid-September of 2020. For reasons that should become clear below, I never finished or published the post. At the time of the writing, I had recently finished reading Erik Larson’s book The Splendid and the Vile and I couldn’t remember enjoying a book more.
The story focuses on Winston Churchill and his family during the Blitz. While Churchill is at the center, Larson also brings to life the time period from the Nazi point of view, using personal journals and notes of meetings of top Nazi officials to elucidate the reality of the war from Berlin. Larson’s storytelling and attention to detail are exceptional. It is an incredible read.
The central lesson I took away from the book at the time, and one that I felt applied to all of us leading our schools through the pandemic, was the need for leaders to skillfully balance honesty and hope.
Churchill’s candor about the daunting challenges his island faced during the Blitz, mixed with an unending sense of hope and confidence in ultimate victory, were evident throughout The Splendid and the Vile. One of Churchill’s most famous lines, taken from his speech to the House of Commons on May 13, 1940, demonstrates with absolute clarity the hardship ahead when he states, “I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” It is a dark message wholly appropriate for the time.
In the last line of the same speech, however, Churchill demonstrates the optimism that gave hope to millions by saying, “But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.” Though separated in the original speech, these two lines are combined for dramatic purpose in a scene from the film The Darkest Hour.
I finished my never-to-be-published post in the fall of 2020 with the following:
What more can we do as leaders than to trust our communities enough to give them an honest assessment of the challenges brought forth by the coronavirus, while at the same time providing a message of “buoyancy and hope” about the great work we are doing to support our students and families during these uncertain times? Though it will be hard, and the challenges ahead are daunting, we will get through this and will be better for it when we come out on the other side.
Looking back now, I feel naive for having written those words. I didn’t grasp at the time how hard it was actually going to be to get our schools through the pandemic. I had little conception of how daunting and nuanced the challenges would be.
Now that some of us seem to be reaching “the other side,” I wonder if we would agree that we are “better” for having gone through the pandemic. Through tremendous effort, The American School of Brasilia has managed to remain fully open the entire school year. A few weeks ago, we went mask-optional and are incredibly appreciative of it. It’s so nice to see people’s faces again. But are we better due to having gone through covid? I’m not sure.
And two years on from the start of the coronavirus, we find ourselves in another moment of crisis and once again look to a Churchillian figure, this time in the form of a former Ukrainian TV star turned president, to give us both an honest assessment and a sense of hope in this dark, despairing hour.
And though we will never face the trials of Churchill then or Volodymyr Zelensky now, as leaders of our schools, the importance of the lesson they teach remains. We owe it to our communities to face the challenges we do encounter with clarity, candor, and “the buoyancy of hope.”
Originally published in A Blog by David Blair: Husband, Father, Educator, Leader.
David Blair is the High School Principal at The American School of Brasilia. He is a former teacher of history and international relations who holds an MA in Educational Leadership from Michigan State University and an MA in International Relations and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.