Originally published April 17, 2020 by Whatcomtalk.com.
By Stacee Sledge
When Silver Beach Elementary P.E. teacher Tonian Gray, isolating at home like the rest of Whatcom County, posted a humorous cup-stacking video on her Facebook page, friends clamored for more—and the 2020 COVID Olympic Games were born.
Tonian created that first video as a fun way to fill some time, before her school district had details in place for her to resume teaching. It grew into a series of daily videos, moments of levity that many local students and their families looked forward to—and even got the attention of actor John Krasinski’s popular web series Some Good News.
Where did the original idea spring from? “Well,” Tonian says, “it didn’t come from a happy place, to be quite honest.”
Anyone who knows Tonian (Mrs. Gray to her students) knows she’s a positive, spirited, energetic and athletic person who searches for (and finds) the good in any person or situation.
“My husband, Rob, is a teacher, too, and that first week we had off was really fun. We just enjoyed it,” she says. Their son, Keenan, was still away at college. “We just relaxed and enjoyed the quietness and it was a beautiful week of sunshine.”
But the following week, the weather grew grayer and so did Tonian’s mood. “We were all glued to the news and it kept getting worse and worse,” she says. Plans began to be put into place for online teaching—but P.E., music and library were, understandably, last on the radar. “I was losing my mind and felt useless.”
Tonian is quick to sing the praises of Bellingham Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Greg Baker and her Silver Beach Elementary Principal Teri Herda, but admits she was struggling. “That week was so depressing, because I thought all of us were going to jump online and get going, and I could post videos and it would be fun—and then it wasn’t.”
While she waited for the go-ahead to move forward with virtual physical education, she looked around online to see what others were doing. Inspiration struck and she had Rob film her stacking cups in their kitchen.
“My kids were always in the back of my head, but I knew these videos weren’t going to go out on the school district’s website,” Tonian says. She’s Facebook friends with many parents and former students and joked about doing 14 days of Olympic games inside her home. James Pullman, a kindergartener of Tonian’s from her first year of teaching, in 1994, told her he was going to hold her to that promise. “I saw that and it was game on. I’m a drama queen and I love it.”
Tonian and Rob started brainstorming—her only stipulation was that it all had to be filmed inside their home—and soon had 14 days mapped out. “I’m the extrovert and he’s the introvert in our marriage,” she says. “He’s also really smart and funny. There were quite a few things he came up with, like how I was going to lift the weights with Gatorade bottles—and he was adamant about how I was doing my squat lifts.”
She initially also said that no real P.E. equipment could be used—but they broke that rule in the swimming video, when Tonian ran over to the elementary school to borrow one of the scooters she uses in her classes.
Which video was the biggest challenge to stage?
“We almost divorced over the luge down the stairs,” Tonian says with a laugh. Rob worried she’d go right through the wall. “He’s the sane one.” He eventually tied a long rope to the back of the toboggan and held it out of the camera’s view while Keenan filmed her run from various angles.
Tonian did endure one injury that was, thankfully, more embarrassing than serious. She hit her head on a door frame during a balance beam dismount, but didn’t realize until two hours later that it left her with a bleeding gash. “I also fell on my butt five or six times trying to film the speed skating in the garage.”
Rob shot the first seven videos on an iPhone, but once Keenan returned from college, he upped the editing ante, filming different scenes and angles, and then stitching them together. It was also Keenan’s idea to make day 14 a highlight real and medal ceremony, with online friends deciding which event would garner the gold.
During the two-week run, a couple friends began sharing and tagging Tonian’s videos with John Krasinski’s Some Good News Facebook page, which has nearly 300,000 followers. On April 7, Tonian’s swimming video appeared in the popular feed.
“After the Some Good News mention, it kind of went crazy,” Tonian says. “Within an hour, 17,000 people had seen it.” The video currently has over 30,000 views.
Tonian enjoyed interacting with commenters on the Some Good News Facebook feed. “It was fun to see how much they enjoyed it,” she says. “They’d be like, ‘She’s so brave,’ and I’d comment back, ‘Or stupid,’ and add the laughing emoji.”
The day we spoke, Tonian was finally getting ready to shoot official teaching videos for her students. She, like all of her colleagues, is mourning the fact that school will not be back in session before summer. “I keep thinking how we’re going to miss Field Day, 5th grade graduation, and the 50th year of the 5th grade track meet,” she says.
Tonian’s motivation for creating her COVID Olympics video series stemmed from a core part of her personality—and one of the many things that make her an exemplary P.E. teacher. And it’s this same desire to help her kids that has her thinking about ways to wrap up this unusual school year. “I want to end the year with something positive and fun,” she says. “So they can see that even in a dark time, the best thing to do is to use humor to get through it.”