A Dotte of Happiness

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By Peggy Bair

KCK Teacher Finds Inspiration in the Slow Lane

The stay-at-home order for Kansas may be especially tough for the state’s extroverts. For Sarah Fahnestock Williams of Kansas City, KS, hitting the brakes in her on-the-go lifestyle has been hard.

“I have always been a social butterfly. I’ve always gone out and about with friends. The biggest change for me has just been staying home and learning to be ok with NOT being on the go,” said Sarah. “I’ve had to slow waaaaaay down and find simple things to do to occupy myself. I’ve been organizing my home, cleaning, cooking, reading, crocheting, coloring, planting flowers, listening to music, and doing puzzles,” she said.

If that seems like a lot of words and not a lot of slowing down – that’s Sarah, though. Her Facebook description is: wife.mother.teacher.singer.poet.gypsy.

An English teacher by day, she relishes and excels at inspiring her students. Her energy is vibrant, expressive and ever-flowing. Meeting her in person, she’s one of those people who – you know – hasn’t ever met a stranger,  as they say, and whose countenance welcomes with the crinkle of her eyes as well as with the curl of her smile. She’s one of those people who would probably hug you and you would think ‘that’s just fine’ – and the kind of person that would be first in line to go out the door at the end of a no-touch, stay-at-home order. 

Fortunately, Sarah’s home life is busy (but probably because she makes it busy.) It includes her husband Kaleb, a millworker, who has been laid off due to the pandemic, and her son A.J., 14, who is schooling at home. 

Sarah and Kaleb met back in their 8th grade year at Sumner Academy of Arts and Sciences in Kansas City, KS. 

“It was my 13th birthday,” recalled Sarah. 

“I was coming out of the choir room and Kaleb was coming out of the band room. He had drumsticks in his back pocket and a permed mullet.”

We’re with you so far, Sarah. Please, go on.

“I liked hair bands at the time and thought that was pretty much the coolest thing in the world,” she said.

The fleeting teen romance only lasted a couple of months but 10 years later, Williams’ father nudged her to “date someone you can be friends with.” 

“Kaleb was the first person I thought of,” Sarah said. The mullet was gone but love still bloomed. After a year or so of dating, they became engaged. The couple married in 2001.

Sarah had been a Navy brat – her words – and was born on a naval base in Rota, Spain. Her family was stationed on the east coast naval bases for several years. Her father grew up in Butler, MO, though, and the family returned to the area, eventually settling in the The Dotte, where Kaleb grew up. Her ties to Leavenworth, KS came from the family shopping at the commissary and going to the doctor at Fort Leavenworth and her father, who had gotten his social work degree from St. Mary. He work at the Leavenworth VA as a social worker for many years. 

Kaleb has been a millwright for 21 years with KCI, inc. He had followed in the footsteps of his stepfather. Normally, Kaleb would travel for his job as his company designs and installs large machinery for various industries. But the furlough came with the pandemic so he’s not able to work at this time.

Sarah’s undergraduate degree is in English and her MA is in teaching from Park University. She spent seven of those teaching years at Leavenworth High School but in 2018, she took a job at Piper Middle School in Kansas City, KS. The COVID-19 interruption ended physical attendance on March 13 – and then for the rest of the school year.

“I am teaching from home,” Sarah said. “I had to pack up my classroom and plan an online curriculum in one week, then hit the ground running and try to figure out how to keep them [the students] engaged throughout the rest of the school year. I have to be tolerant and adapt and change my lesson plans, if needed. 

It’s a challenge trying to maintain good relationships with my students on a digital platform. It’s much more impersonal. The hardest part was not being able to say goodbye to them. I miss being in my classroom and seeing their faces,” Sarah said. 

Sarah said she set up separate spaces for her and A.J. to do class work and Zoom sessions so they won’t interfere with each other. A.J. does online school from 8:25 a.m. until noon and then independent study in the afternoons.

“I teach till 11:30 and then spend part of the afternoon grading and responding to student emails,” Sarah said.

“A.J. has had it the toughest, I think” said Sarah. “Home-schooling is hard for most kids because they don’t get that social interaction they are used to. 

He can see his friends in their Zoom meetings, but it’s not the same as sitting beside your friends in class,” she said. 

Being at home for online classes is has a lot of differences for A.J., Sarah said.

“He has to practice self-control and discipline to get his work completed, as well as extreme motivation to learn new material without his teachers checking for understanding,” Sarah said, “Kaleb and I do what we can to help A.J. stay organized and on track. It’s a lot of work for all of us. I can’t imagine parents doing this with more than one child. WOW!”

The biggest challenge for A.J., though, has been the cancellation of his baseball season. 

“I can’t remember a spring without baseball,” Sarah said of watching A.J., who has been playing since he was only three. 

“Not being part of a team, not going to practices, not having games to look forward to – it was devastating for him. This was supposed to be his first year of high school baseball. He made the junior varsity team and was so proud when he brought that jersey home from school. The fact that he had been looking forward to this his whole life and has worked so hard for it – then to realize it wasn’t going to come to fruition…that broke his heart,” his mom said.

The stay-at-home order changed another thing for Sarah, who had recently taken up singing professionally in clubs. “About a year ago, I began singing professionally in a jazz duo. I wouldn’t call that a career, though. It’s more of a hobby passion of mine,” she said. 

All that is on hold right now with everything else so the family has continued to adapt with other projects and activities.  

Sarah has held Zoom sessions to chat, knit and have coffee with friends. She planted garden potatoes and takes her two dogs Ross and Blue for long walks with her mom to keep her mom active and moving. 

Sarah is an accomplished Filipino cook, having learned from her mom, Dori Ripple, so Easter dinner was “Flipino” style. “My pancit is almost at good as mom’s but my eggrolls will never measure up,” Williams said as she posted pictures of her dinner on Facebook.

For physical fitness, Williams said the family has been “perhaps more active than we were before.” 

“There is a lot of free time, so we are able to focus on exercise. I have been going for a daily 2-4 mile walk or hike. Kaleb has been doing work in the yard, planting vegetables in our new garden, and walking the dogs more regularly. A.J. goes to his grandparents’ house pretty much every day to play basketball in their driveway. We go for walks as a family, and A.J. still works out to stay conditioned for baseball,” Sarah said.

Sarah and her family divide up the tasks but also work together. “I do most of the indoor housework – cooking, cleaning, and so forth,” Sarah said. “Kaleb does most of the outdoor things – repairs, yardwork. We assist each other with various tasks. A.J. has been really helpful. He’ll do the dishes or fold laundry for me one day, and climb up on a ladder or help his dad in the yard the next day,” Sarah said. 

“It’s very fluid around here lately. We all help each other with whatever needs doing. We are functioning more as a unit than we used to.”

Also, there is more family time, said Sarah. “It’s nice to not have to be somewhere all of the time or to be a slave to your calendar. It allows time for inward reflection and growth, which is usually thwarted by our normally-busy lifestyles.”

Eating has changed for the family as well. “We definitely have been cooking and eating more at home than we used to. There is more time to plan and prepare meals. We have been sitting down for meals at our table more as a family than we used to. Our new vegetable garden brings a lot of excitement as we think about harvesting all those delicious and healthy foods this summer. Something to look forward to…” Sarah said.

The necessary adjustments were difficult at first.

“We think the most difficult thing is not having access to the convenient things we used to take advantage of, such as going out for a meal, going to the movie theatre or other types of entertainment, sporting events, gathering with friends and family – being able to walk into any store without having to wear a mask, not having to sanitize our hands after touching a public door handle,” Sarah noted. “We are all creatures of habit and we are being forced to develop new habits,” Sarah said. “It was unsettling at first, but we are getting used to it.”

Mental health is a topic in the front of the news right now, as people struggle between staying safe at home and needing interactions again. Being a teacher often means helping young people cope with whatever life throws at them at any given time so, Sarah, leading by example, also had some advice is for taking care of mental health in the midst of isolation.

“Mental health is essential. Do things that bring you personal joy and comfort,” she said. 

“That may look different to a lot of people, and that’s okay.  

Try to find beauty in the simple things that are available to you. 

Go with the flow and try to live in the present, one day at a time. There is a sense of peace to be found in that. 

Try to be compassionate towards others who may not handle situations like this well. We are all learning and growing at our own speed.”