Over the course of the summer, I have found myself spending random moments of time in atypical places reflecting on school and the importance of the great work that takes place at St. Margaret’s each and every day. Such places as riding a lawn mower in an open field in Maine, a mountain bike ride high above Dana Point, a very long drive across a vast and seemingly endless expanse of Utah, and the emergency room in Damariscotta, Maine* have provided interesting venues for some wide-ranging thoughts on what we do, why it is so important and how I have loved my life in schools.
This past June at the Grade 5 Promotion ceremony, Reverend Phil Duval offered a prayer, the Prayer of St. Francis, and encouraged those who knew it to join in. The words weren’t on the program and they weren’t projected on the wall, but the prayer was known and said by the vast majority of students there that morning. From the time I first heard this prayer many years ago, I have been moved by the words and increasingly by the connection these words have to what takes place or should take place in school communities like ours. In those moments of quiet reflection these past now fading weeks, this prayer stands out as the perfect mission statement for the perfect school.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace
Where there is hatred, let us sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is discord, union
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
Where there is sadness, joy
We are bombarded nearly daily with hateful comments in the news, on television, in social media, and occasionally, sadly, within our school community. I must confess that I am more than a little discouraged by the vitriolic comments that appear regularly as part of our national political discourse in this hotly contested election year. Contrary to what we see outside the school, I believe our challenge is to do all we can to bring out the very best in people and to offset hatred with love. The greatest reforms in our country have come about because people were courageous enough to stay true to their cause and not succumb to the hatred that surrounded them. As the Quakers have long said in times of conflict, “let’s see then what a little love can do!”
The notion of responding to injury with pardon is so much at the heart of what great schools should do as we help our students and each other through the inevitable rough spots of life. We have all been hurt by mean-spirited comments and it is very difficult to forgive those who have offended us. How many of us have responded to a child’s mistake with a strong rebuke or stated categorically that a certain behavior was both unacceptable and unforgivable? Yes, children, students, colleagues and parents do make mistakes, and one measure of our humanity as a school is the extent to which we stand for strong principles but at the same time provide the framework and the support for each of us to find ourselves and learn from our missteps.
Creating union out of discord is a challenging and seemingly mutually exclusive concept. How can we be one when we have so many divergent opinions? Isn’t it better for the unification of the school to discourage debate? Isn’t it far better to simply say this is the way it is? If you don’t like it, keep your feelings to yourself. Or, “love it or leave it,” as some used to say. The strongest and best schools are those that are united in the very fact that diverse opinions are welcomed and celebrated. This is sometimes painful and potentially divisive, but schools that do this well emerge stronger and more united, as each member of the community feels his or her voice matters.
Changing doubt to faith seems to be very much at the heart of our hope for our students. Great schools create the climate where essential questions can be asked and students are encouraged to find their voice and their own set of beliefs, especially here in an Episcopal school. I suspect that many of us can well recall memories as a student when we had many unanswered questions, and in time, perhaps because of a wise mentor or thoughtful friend we came to have a belief and a faith in something bigger than ourselves – a higher calling.
The challenge of changing despair, darkness and sadness into hope, light and joy seems to me to be a daily part of our work. Our school community has experienced profoundly sad, dark and desperate moments when we have witnessed tragedy and death and felt the excruciating pain of people we know and love. These feelings run deep and each of us in those moments of despair looks for beacons of hope and light in an otherwise dark and depressing landscape. Schools – schools like ours – we are those beacons, places where each of us should feel welcome, understood and safe and where the promise for the future burns bright in the eyes of our students. And we, all of us at one time or another, are called on to light the candles and eliminate the darkness.
At our recent opening faculty and staff meetings, we spent a day with Dr. Jennifer Bryan, a distinguished scholar, psychologist and author (From The Dress Up Corner To The Senior Prom: Navigating Gender and Sexuality Diversity in PreK-12 Schools) who took us through some enlightening conversations on sex, gender and sexuality that will make us even better equipped to understand and lend support to all our students. Dr. Bryan was invited to St. Margaret’s not to advance a political agenda but rather to provide yet again another perspective from which to reach out and support our students and each other. In the spirit of continuing revelation, we have an obligation to engage in substantive conversation about difficult topics and broaden our perspectives on important issues that clearly matter to our students.
This summer I joined a group of school heads for a day at Harvard’s Kennedy Center talking about students and how best to serve them. One of the professors in the session mentioned the results of a survey that Harvard conducts annually where students are asked at the end of their freshman year if they have at least one adult on campus they can go to in a moment of tragedy or sorrow. Eighty-five percent said they did – a very positive result, or so it seemed. When the survey results were presented to Harvard’s President, Drew Faust, she expressed deep disappointment – what about the other 15 percent? What happens to them? To whom do they turn? How can we be satisfied with these results?
In a new novel by Liz Moore called Heft, a high school student from a very troubled family happens upon his mother who has attempted to take her own life. He calls 911 and then spends time with her at the hospital. Many hours later, when she is stable and out of the woods, he leaves, gets in his car and begins to drive. At first he doesn’t know where to go – he just drives. Eventually, in the middle of the night, he ends up in the parking lot of – of all places – his school. “It is a comfort to me to see the building,” he says. “At school I am generally happy and relaxed. At school I have friends and am respected.” In short, at school, he feels safe.
My sense is that the majority of our students feel the same way. But I, too, can’t help but wonder about the few who might not feel that this is a sanctuary where they are known, valued, respected and loved. Dr. Jennifer Bryan provided the perspective and the language to help us support all our students, even and perhaps especially those we know least.
St. Francis calls us to see our work as being guided by a commitment to empathy, compassion and understanding – “grant that we may seek not so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.” This is hard work and it requires a willingness and desire to get out of ourselves and strive to understand, console and love our students, our parents and each other. When I first began my career as a teacher, I recall well that the prevailing climate was one of telling students what to do and expect blind obedience in return. We spent very little time trying to get inside the heads of our students and much more time telling them what to do.
There is a higher calling for us today. We are presented each and every day with an opportunity to help others, to do what we can to understand where they are coming from and to give people the benefit of the doubt. When I become frustrated with a student’s lack of commitment or effort, it is incumbent on me to remember that I, too, had those same days, many days in fact, as a student. When demanding parents storm into my office, I try – not always successfully – to imagine what it feels like to be in their shoes and understand what’s behind the position they have taken. Much as I hate to acknowledge it, I have also had moments when I have wanted to write someone off, turn my back on a parent or a student and wash my hands of them. They simply don’t get it, but this works both ways, doesn’t it? Did I try to “get” them? I mean, really try?
I have been blessed to be part of an incredibly impactful profession and an extraordinary school community, the very best I have ever been a part of, where we hold the future in our hands as we help nurture good, caring, compassionate human beings who will go into the world inspired by the gifts we have given them. And it is in this giving that we receive – the joy and satisfaction from knowing we can make a difference and that we, all of us in this wonderful school community, can shape the future as instruments of God’s peace.
On Wednesday, August 29, it all begins again. Our students will come and we’ll be ready. What an amazing gift!