New author Donte Woods-Spikes picks up the conversation where it left off
In ‘So Long: Unfinished Good-Byes with the Children of COVID-19,’ the mentor and educator asks questions in an effort to kickstart a larger discussion
Donte Woods-Spikes has never been one to celebrate his birthday, but last year, as he prepared to turn 30, he was braced to make an exception at the urging of Day’Mariah Faust, a young student for whom Woods-Spikes has long served as a mentor.
“She said, ‘Could I spend time with you on your birthday?’ And I told her, ‘I guess so. I’m not doing anything interesting,’” said Woods-Spikes, who refrained from sharing with Faust that he typically avoided marking the occasion because it’s so heavily linked in his mind to personal tragedy.
But before this celebration could take place, on the day before Woods-Spikes’ March 17 birthday, Columbus City Schools canceled classes amid the spread of the coronavirus, sending Woods-Spikes, who served as an instructional assistant at an elementary school, into a temporary tailspin.
“I was taken away from my job, which was working with children, and I began to think of all of the children I had connections with, that I made promises to, who I was in mid-conversation with, who I was trying to teach lessons to. And all of these moments were ripped away from me,” Woods-Spikes said. “When COVID hit, a big portion of my identity was being a mentor to children, and when I had that taken from me I felt a sense of worthlessness. … I felt like I’d lost my identity, like I couldn’t deliver as an educator. I felt empty.”
Soon, however, Woods-Spikes’ thoughts turned to those he dubbed “the children of COVID-19,” who were suddenly ripped away from classmates and friends, forced to learn remotely while simultaneously wrestling with all of the unknowns of a global pandemic.
With these kids in mind, Woods-Spikes started writing, completing his first book, So Long: Unfinished Good-Byes with the Children of COVID-19, which he self-published and released late last month.
Constructed as an active discussion, the book finds Woods-Spikes recounting a number of interactions with students, delving into his own struggles coming up in the public school system and then asking readers to engage in a larger conversation, each chapter ending with workbook pages on which individuals are tasked with analyzing their own experiences in light of what they have just read.
“This is me inviting people to come into my world,” Woods-Spikes said. “One of the things that really upsets me is, since I’ve been in the school system, it’s a lot of the same mistakes and issues and problems that still exist. So each story is inviting you into my world as a Black man, as someone who works in the school system and engages with children in poverty. … It’s me giving insight into what it’s actually like to be inside those buildings.”
Throughout, Woods-Spikes engages with a wide swath of issues, penning stories that touch on childhood hunger, toxic masculinity, homophobia, race and the challenges of educating children who are still processing severe trauma, among other things. Rather than being prescriptive, though, offering solutions to problems that have long plagued public education, the book serves to invite deeper self-analysis. “This book is a challenge to revisit your childhood,” Woods-Spikes writes, “and remember what molded you into the person you are.”
“Everyone is invited into this conversation,” Woods-Spikes said. “In this book, I’m giving everyone the opportunity to meet at a central point and have these conversations with each other.”
Unfinished Good-Byes is heavily rooted in Woods-Spikes’ inquisitive nature, which he said has been embedded within him from childhood, and which he first traced to a high level of emotional intelligence that caused him to ask questions when a situation did not sit right with him.
“When I saw someone whose feelings had been hurt, I’d ask why, and why is it OK for that to happen to that person?” Woods-Spikes said. “And that [instinct] slowly began to develop in an intellectual sense, where it was like, OK, emotions, yeah, but when it comes to other things, how can we engage in in-depth conversations that could actually take us to higher levels of understanding? A question is still one of the most powerful things.”
Woods-Spikes’ book, in turn, arrives packed with them, the multi-faceted activist, filmmaker, educator and mentor trying to find ways to address the myriad complex issues students are faced with in navigating day-to-day life, some of which, left unaddressed, can be major impediments to the more conventional lessons being taught in the classroom.
“One of the questions I ask in the book is, is school a place where we can have these conversations? Do we avoid conversations about race? Do we avoid conversations about [the] LGBTQA [community]? Are these things too complex for children? Or is there a different way we should be doing it?" Woods-Spikes said. What would you do? How would you do it? What has worked for you? How can we come together as a group of educators, on a universal level, to make sure all of our kids are safe, and to make sure we get all of the resources and support we need to make the classroom experience great for teachers and students?”