Haven and Hope
When I joined its teaching staff in June of 2014, The Orthogenic School was on the verge of a major transition. As it turned out — so was I. I spent my first days as the Archaeologists base class teacher inexpertly navigating a building that was — and I say this affectionately — labyrinthine in nature. Essentially two very different buildings cobbled together piecemeal over several generations, antique murals hung on walls, and the Gothic turret with its spiral staircase kept solemn watch over the vast Midway. There were rooms on half-floors that you could only reach through a single inconspicuous passage. Classrooms on the same floor that you somehow needed two sets of stairs to travel between. A corridor of rainbow stained glass, fraying tapestries, checkerboard floors, and a courtyard statue with a dubious history. I was, to say the least, thoroughly charmed by this eclectic space — if a bit disoriented.
This is, perhaps, romanticizing the situation excessively. In addition to the aforementioned character and whimsy were the leaking roofs, crumbling walls, and an old building starting to show its age. Everything has its time, and it was time for us to go. Even so, moving from the University of Chicago campus to nearby Woodlawn represented the end of an era at the O-School, and the loss of a beloved home many colleagues and students had shared for years or decades. The team was somewhat smaller then, with plans to grow into the state-of-the-art new building we would soon occupy, and the first time I piled into the well-worn living room for the daily morning meeting, I knew I was in a uniquely brilliant professional community with a deep shared history.
Much collaboration ensued as we prepared to ensure a smooth transition for our residential and day students, both physically and emotionally. I remember feeling impressed and inspired at the specificity and insight with which each student and group was considered. Plans were made, and people were identified to help students manage big feelings, including grief and anger, as they arose in creative and accessible ways. I began to understand then that a key part of my role would be helping students say goodbye to treasured relationships and experiences without closing their hearts to new opportunities, and building the coping skills to do so for the rest of their lives.
And so it was with many checklists and bittersweet feelings that everyone packed their last bags and walked, as a community, to the Ingleside campus a few blocks away. The group carried with them an assortment of traditions, rituals, stories, inside jokes, art, and physical mementos from what would henceforth be known as “the old building.” The iconic yellow doors, old and new, welcomed their arrival. These pieces of home and comfort provided kindling to light a new hearth fire in a different space—changed, but no less. To all this, I was mostly a witness and helper; having been in the old building just a few weeks at the time. I was more enthused about the smartboards, colorful classrooms, and brand-new science lab that I didn’t yet know the future – AJ would inhabit. Still, it was immediately clear that the O-School had a great deal to teach me about acceptance, transition, and loss, and I found myself eager to learn more.
Eight years later, I might venture to call myself an O-School veteran, and again the past two years have brought seismic changes to our organization, the city, and the world in ways I couldn’t have imagined then. Norms and routines were shattered in a matter of days, cutting adults and children alike off from critical support systems and threatening our most basic sense of safety and survival. And then a year ago, once again, our staff, students, and families had to reconcile saying goodbye to the O-School’s historic and much-loved residential program, and were asked to embrace the challenge of developing and growing something new.
Once again, I watched the O-School staff and leadership rally and regroup, redesign and reprioritize programming around this changed reality—not once, but over and over. That we made it to the end of this school year with our students so engaged and resilient is no miracle or accident. It’s a testament to the weeks and months spent reinventing every aspect of the O-School curriculum and instruction in response to catastrophic conditions that changed daily. It is the payoff of dozens of spreadsheets and team meetings, hundreds of check-ins, Zoom classes, graduations, and Life Space interviews that built and repaired relationships even between people who had never met in person. It was the grace and flexibility of our students and their families and their steadfast support that got us through remote learning, even as they endured so, so many emails. For all of these reasons, I am grateful; other aspects of the past two years, I’m grateful to bid farewell.
As we launched the 2021-2022 year as a fully in-person day school, helping our students and families build schema and skills to cope with unpredictable transitions and losses were never more important. Students may have felt unsettled moving between classrooms, or fatigued by the increased social interaction. They may have felt cheated out of time with friends who graduated during remote learning. The O-School milieu looks and feels different, and student groups will continue to shift and grow. Children and adults alike may experience grief or nostalgia for “the old days,” or be angry at the ongoing limitations needed to maintain Covid-19 safety. All of these feelings and responses are valid, even expected. What’s happened to our global community over the past several years is terribly unfair, and reaching where we are today has come with a devastating cost. The world will never again be like it was before. Our students’ 9/11 or Kennedy moment, if you will. In times like these, acceptance and adaptation are the only way forward.
And— at the Orthogenic School, the work continues every day as it has for over a hundred years. Some traditions and rituals persist, while others fall away. New inside jokes are born from the shared, ridiculous moments of living and learning among other humans. Every morning, our receptionist greets people from the front desk, and a group of adults gathers to share information and talk about students by name. Meals and spaces are tended to with care by dedicated teams. base class teachers stand in their doorways to greet each child with a smile even when it’s not returned. Art is created, arguments are had, and tears are shed. Mistakes are made, and relationships begin and sometimes end. And somewhere in all the ordinary hustle and bustle, magic creeps in. Healing happens. Community forms around the new groups and spaces one conversation and connection at a time, creating an evolving, enduring safe haven, and a pathway to hope for generations to come.
Author A.J. Wieselman, MAT, served as an O-School special education science and social studies teacher for seven years before transitioning to her current role as the O-School’s Curriculum & Instruction Advisor. To learn more about the O-School’s day program, please visit our website. If you have a child or loved one who you believe may benefit from the O-School’s services, please visit our contact page or call our Director of Admissions, Kristin Friesen, at 773-420-2891.
Some pictures of the original O-School building and the new campus.
- Milieu therapy
- Residential treatment
- child and adolescent development
- day treatment
- mental health
- residential treatment center
- therapeutic treatment
Haven and Hope is a destination for professionals, educators, and parents to learn from O-School experts about the issues facing children and adolescents with a variety of social-emotional challenges and/or autism, and how various aspects of the School’s 21st century therapeutic milieu provides a safe haven and a path to hope for those in need.