Commencement

On the evening of Friday, May 17, my seniors graduated. Commencement is a pretty common event yet I always find myself inspired and moved as I watch another group of young people venture off toward their future. This year was a bit different as this was the first group to graduate since I became Head of High School and I was also asked to deliver a commencement address. Since Friday, several people have asked me to share my words from that night, so I figured this would be the easiest way to make that happen. Below are those words–certainly, they are more significant to my kiddos and in the moment that it was delivered. Regardless, here it is…

“I love graduation night at CES. Friends and family outside of this community struggle to really understand this about me. Last year, for example, I was too sick to attend graduation and in the depths of my disappointment over my absence, I turned where anyone else would for comfort…to social media. I just knew that if I were to share my heartache over missing this special event that at the very least my teacher friends from other schools in other places would get it…they would understand. Except, most didn’t. In fact, many of them congratulated me on getting out of attending the ceremony, saying things like “the kids won’t even know that you aren’t there” and “there will be another graduation next year, don’t worry” All I could say was “You just don’t get it.” And they didn’t. I didn’t try to explain that things here are different or unique. They wouldn’t have gotten the weight of that either because our “essence” as Zoe referred to it in her Seniors Speak is far too intangible to fill a pithy Facebook response and worth far more than any number of likes, loves, thumbs up it might receive. There wasn’t enough space to express that when these young people graduate after spending so much time with us in our small, quaint setting that they are not just students saying goodbye, rather they are family moving away from home—and graduation has become a sort of formalized celebration of that bond before they depart and look to the next exciting moments in their lives. When graduates cross this stage, it means something to each member of this faculty because we have an investment in the lives of each of these young people that is made richer because of the size of our school, for though our community may be small, its heartbeat is mighty. Every graduation counts here. Every kid matters. These young people seated before you and all who have graced this stage before them have taken up a residence in my heart and in the hearts of all on this campus and while they leave us physically, there they will remain.

I consider it a great honor to have the opportunity to speak this evening as I stand in awe of this particular group of graduates. Mr. Morvant referenced them as “Living Stones” of CES the other night at our Academic Awards and while I’m sure his intent was for us to consider St. Peter, I couldn’t help but think of a line from the U2 song “Ordinary Love” —“the sea throws rocks together/But time leaves polished stones.”  While these lyrics stray from Mr. Morvant’s purpose, I also think they typify and exemplify so much about this class. To me, these lyrics consider the power of refinement an environment, even one that is tumultuous at times, can have. These lyrics also speak to the power of the company you keep in that environment—company that is not always your choice but because you share space you are being shaped by each other every single day in ways you may not even recognize—Yet, as a result of this closeness, there is  also a need to figure out how to respect the differences in those that surround you without losing what makes you the individual you are. After all, the rocks being tossed in the sea would become far less interesting if they were all polished to look identical.

So, if you don’t already know it, this is a group of strongly opinionated young people who had to work rather hard in order to learn how to share those convictions without insult or injury and how to hear opinions different from their own without judgement and clearly disgusted facial expressions. They had to learn how to have difficult conversations without it degrading into argument and vitriol. Honestly, the adults in this world have a great deal to learn from the process these kids have endured. When they believe in something, they are fiercely protective of it and that is commendable. That is how you end up with an Equality Club and a GSA; that is how you end up with a thriving golf team and a student council that fosters activities on par with schools 3 and 4 times our size; that is how you end up with costume design and a newly popular student vestry; that is how you end up with 17 young men and women some terrified, some exhilarated but all willing to stand up at Seniors Speak and share not just their learning, but their truth.

It is in fact a process of refinement. And I think part of what makes that refinement so difficult is the call to love. This greatest commandment, this call to love our neighbor is daunting because sometimes it is the people in closest proximity that can become the most difficult to love, the most difficult to forgive, the most difficult to really see because we feel we know them so well. But as we heard in the reading tonight, love “bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:7-8)

These polished stones seated on this stage tonight have learned together the weight of these words as they have trekked the journey of these four years in community. Their years here while often full of laughter and silliness, coordinated dress up days and themed get togethers, have not always been so simple and this call to love has gotten cloudy and complicated at times, as it does for all of us–yet despite the seemingly enigmatic challenges and the time it may have taken to unwind them, these young people have always abided, they have always found a way to rise above, they have always sought to work it out and I believe that they will continue to do so in their lives even now as they go their separate ways. They will bring that goodness and the understanding that the single story, what we think we know, is never, not even once, the entire story, they’ll bring that to new environments, to new people they have yet to meet because that foundation is strong—because they worked to build it. Because this is the sheen of their polish. And in doing that they will absolutely become “Living Stones” of Christ Episcopal School. They will carry forward the love that was fostered in them and by them and in doing so, I hope, I expect the world will be a better place for it.

As an aside, as our Salutatorian and I discussed speeches this week, she told me my speech would be great as long as I didn’t include any poetry, and I tried not to include any, I really did, but alas, here we are and I am definitely going to quote some poetryJBut it fits, I promise…

Elizabeth Alexander in her poem “Praise Song for the Day” writes the following words that I believe speak to this call to love perfectly and also to the call that I repeat more often than any of my students cares to hear that “words matter”

“We encounter each other in words, words

spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,

words to consider, reconsider…

 

What if the mightiest word is love?

 

Love beyond marital, filial, national,

love that casts a widening pool of light,

love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

 

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,

any thing can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

 

praise song for walking forward in that light”

Each of these young people seated before you have faced at one time or another seemingly insurmountable odds, moments that have forced them to make decisions far beyond the wisdom of their years, moments that presented challenges they may not have felt equipped to face, moments that required courage they didn’t know they possessed, yet here they are tonight on this immense occasion, not simply having survived but having overcome. Having overcome it all together. They are here tonight ready to face what the world will offer them because that offering while sometimes brilliant and generous, will not always be pretty, will not always be kind, will not always be an extension of love. Yet, they will leave here tonight, I hope, with the knowledge and confidence that they have what it takes to meet with adversity, hardship, crisis and to tough it out until the polishing is complete and their sheen has returned only now with more sparkle. They leave here tonight, I hope, with the knowledge that their CES family is always here to shelter, to support, to celebrate, to sing their praises. When I look at this class that is what I see—I see strength, perseverance, and a willingness to melt the skeleton and reshape when necessary. A willingness to extend love and grace—and hopefully that love will cast “a widening pool of light.” You have all taught me so much about what it means to be a human in this world. And for that, I am so grateful to each of you. Your absence here as you move forward will be noticeable and you will most certainly be missed—and not because you ran clubs or helped set up chairs, not because you made good grades or won awards—you will be missed simply because of who you are, because you are a part of this school family.

Just don’t lose sight of the fact that as you greet every new and exciting moment that you have the opportunity to consider and reconsider your words, don’t lose sight that love is the mightiest of those words and that today –every day “any thing can be made, any sentence begun” You guys are walking forward into such bright futures with so much light, but don’t forget that “we all make choices” and that it is your job to bring light with you as well.

Your mark here is indelible, Congratulations Class of 2019. We are so proud of you.”

 

 

phenomenal

 

“Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.”
(excerpted from “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou)

In early December, I received this gorgeous thank you note from a student of mine. The thought behind this handwritten note alone would have been enough to remind me that the weight of my job delves deeper than the daily decision making that occupies so much of my time as principal/teacher. Our young people, my students, lead busy lives that create a constant hum of events, studying, clubs, family life, work and  more. College pressure and the pressures of figuring out who it is they wish to be in this world rests upon their shoulder’s as Atlas’ burden sat upon his. Amid all of this, she escaped her own needs and responsibilities and found the time to write a thank you note.

I also would have been moved by her simply mentioning of how grateful she is for the introduction she received to poetry in my class last year…for the opportunity to explore her new found passion fully in her writing (instead of forcing her to maintain the plan I had set out for the class). Students often come to my classroom with only negative feelings toward poetry. Once they are immersed in it, once they have the freedom to find their own meaning, once they venture into writing their own stories poetically, doors open, confidence blooms, they become writers.

But, what struck me most was the line that is underlined: “Thank you for being a strong female leader I can look up too [sic]” Well, it would be easy to forget this responsibility in the busy days of the school week. One could quickly become numb to the rest, to the fact that the kids are always watching. One could lose sight of the example we set just by being ourselves. Across this nation there are heaps off female high school principals–I am the product of an extremely impressive one, after all. But at my small school, the only leadership that has ever presided over the high school has been male. I know that I felt a small victory in breaking that barrier and assuming this position but I don’t think I realized until I read this note the impact that my students (especially my girls) felt by witnessing that changeover and the days that followed.

It has become increasingly important to me to uphold that responsibility, that honor with the dignity it deserves. I don’t necessarily do my job any differently or better than I would have before; I do, however, act with intentionality and a mindfulness of what my words and actions create. I feel an extraordinary  duty to exemplify that a leader can have an empathic heart and also enforce rules and enact change. I am more keenly aware that it is ever-important for me to display that a good leader has vision for the future and creates plans to achieve that vision but without sacrificing the heart of the institution. Honestly, every leader should be conscious of these qualities. But, I am also cognizant of the need to demonstrate that a woman is equal to that task. It is imperative that I use my voice wisely and not be afraid to assert it just because I fear being seen as noisy or abrasive. When I speak for the good of my students and the good of the school, I am working toward bettering learning opportunities and I should not cower from that because of possible perception. Because when it comes down to it, the reverse, the depiction of female leadership as always needing to be told what to do, of always waiting and never acting, of being quieted rather than elevated, is a far more dangerous example to set.

I am blessed to work in an institution that values my voice and my brain and so the confidence I am fighting is more from what the world around me has said for my lifetime rather than what is actually being enacted around me. Breaking that common societal narrative for the girls in my school has become paramount. My hope is that they will seek leadership roles in their lives, as many already have, and that they will assume those positions with grace and confidence because they are more than equal to the task and no one has ever made them think or feel otherwise.

So, these days, I am willing to walk the line a bit more. I am working to own the confidence it takes to do that. I keep this note with me all of the time as a reminder of purpose when the job feels too much…like another path would be easier. Ease isn’t always better; simplicity can also bring emptiness. The task is hard, the job demanding (seemingly impossible at times), but I am up for it…

“’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.”

 

(Day 58–tomorrow is king cake day!!! I would expect a super early post because I am anticipating king cake for breakfast and maybe again on the parade route!)

things unseen

Invisible. Elusive. Concealed. Disguised. Obscured. Masked. Buried. Veiled. Guarded.

If teaching kids has taught me anything, it is that the behavior we witness in the people who share our space, often reflects a dishonest version of their story. Humans harbor all kinds of achy-ness on the inside that they are too fragile to allow themselves to share. The vulnerability required to reveal the truth frightens away the confidence needed and some behavior, foreign to the heart of the transgressor, acts as a repellent  instead.

It would be easy to judge simply based on actions…a kid sleeping in class, sass given instead of respect, responsibilities falling by the wayside would all seem to be punishable offenses. It would be easy to command…demand better, but what if the kid is simply not capable of more in that moment? What if something is happening in their life (a problem at home, an issue with health, worries over identity) that they don’t know how to deal with and this is their literal best? What if instead of fussing, we peeled away the layers with questions…softened the exterior with concern and a safe place to speak up…remembered that our kids are humans and even though they are young, that doesn’t diminish the weight of their worry. How might that transform their classroom and school experience? How might being truly seen and heard reconstruct what school has always been? How might taking a moment to pause and think more about the kid than our hurt feelings allow for an interaction that might change the trajectory of that kid’s life?

The impact of our words, not solely teachers but all of us, and our decisions and the way we care about those around us bears significance beyond our comprehension. I mean, think about it. Consider a moment when someone stopped to notice the truth of your situation–took the time to see beneath your mask and defenses–and then gave of themselves as they worked to uplift you. Consider a moment when someone saw your worth and told you. Consider how those moments have shaped the course of your existence…and theirs.

This world is hard enough without us judging each other on exteriors and assumptions alone, you know? Let’s wade past the shallows and into the deeper water as we work to heighten our humanity, as we work to build trust that allows for vulnerable moments (honest moments), when we can just be ourselves and live into the truth of our lives without the cover. When we don’t have to fear condemnation for simply being who we are, and as a result we can honor our true selves. When our self worth is upheld because we are seen and not just respected, but loved and treated as such. Wouldn’t that be something?

(just a poetic gift– “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar)

(Day 52!! King cake is getting harder to resist the closer it gets to the end of this journey!!)

sermonizing

Every so often on a Monday, I have the opportunity to address my entire high school student body. I take that privilege seriously and use it as an opportunity to find new ways to remind my kids that we are in fact a community rather than some cold institution and as such each member has a responsibility to be a decent and kind human being. Without that standard being upheld, we devolve into just a building with people working side by side rather than together…without that, we lose our heartbeat, and the vibrance of who we have always intended to be as a school withers.

We are a small school, so these moments of sermonizing are rather cozy occasions–no microphone needed, just me talking and interacting with 120 kids seated side by side on the floor in front of me. Part of me recognizes that I have usurped a time typically reserved for announcements simply to yield an extra opportunity to teach now that my new position has reduced my class load. (But I am okay with this) I have taught at this high school since the second year of its existence when it only consisted of two grades, 9th and 10th…when I was the English department…when we were only 20 students big. In those early days, it was evident that there was something special about this school we called home…a school where learning for learning’s sake was embraced before grades and test scores…where the operating principle of “be kind, be kind, be kind” centered us everyday…where we were as much a family as a student and faculty body…where cliques were shunned and acceptance of all, required. Most importantly…acceptance of all. Every single kid, no matter their uniqueness was accepted for exactly who they were in that moment and they were given the grace to change as they grew over time. It wasn’t perfect all the time, but it felt ideal at its core.

As we have grown in size, slowly but steadily, it would be easy to move farther away from that beginning…to rise far enough above the core that we forget it is our foundation.

I can’t let that happen.

I have poured too much into this place and I treasure our first few classes of kids who knew this and embodied this and, truly created this bedrock, to walk away from it or to cheat it in any way. Honestly, the main reason I applied to be Head of the High School (having had zero inclination toward administration before) was to preserve the heartbeat of this school…to make sure a stranger didn’t arrive who might not get it…who might unwittingly stray from our purpose and who we are meant to be.

So, here I am. Stealing time on a Monday to reinforce these values in myriad ways. This week, we spoke about judgement…about how what we see of others is sometimes the eighth layer of the wall they have built in order to protect who they really are from being hurt…about how instead of judging others and walking away, maybe we could ask some questions to grind away the layers…about how we can extend each other some grace because sometimes life is hard and a little compassion goes a long way…about how it is not our job to judge, but that it is our job to love, to accept, to uplift the members of our community.

Did they hear any of this? Hard to say, really. But if even one kid walked away with new understanding and with the ambition to act on it, then I’ve done okay…then, the example will be set and spread…then, the time was well spent…then, our little school will continue to strive toward being the community of learners we were created to be, to become.

And hopefully, the tiny community will begin to influence the community at large. Teenagers are pretty remarkable humans. If anyone can begin to change this world for the better, it is them.

(Day 45–I still cannot believe there have been this many daily blogs in a row…two weeks away from king cake!! I cannot wait!!)

in defense (part one)

I have had to learn not to be surprised by the audacity of judgement on my choice of not just teaching high school students, but also judgment because I love doing so. I have so many answers for these cleverly disguised insults so frequently slung my way. But the essence of my argument centers around the fact that high school kids possess an energy and a light and a potential for goodness that is simply waiting to be identified and shaped…simply waiting for an opportunity to express itself in the world in some meaningful way. The ability to mask this goodness in attitude and impetuous actions seems to be a trademark of the teenage population. It is the teacher’s job to see through this facade straight to the truth that sometimes the kid herself is blind to. It is the teacher’s job to encourage the student to recognize and harness their potential, to be a guide along the way, and to stand back in awe as the kid takes flight. I gladly shoulder the responsibility of forming part of the village who will shape these young people. I take that duty on as a bit of a sacred act because I know with faulty steering, the ship will lose its way, be drawn off course. And that sometimes, even the most precise guidance and mapping isn’t enough. But the opportunity to try…the opportunity to make that difference blesses me each and every day that I get up and go to work.

My job isn’t an easy one. But even in its most frustrating moments, it brings me inordinate joy.

I guess my main question is…who wouldn’t want to have this kind of impact?

(Day 30!!! That seems amazing to me!)

transformative

High school students enter my school everyday with their own individual sets of “stuff.” It would be naive to demand or command that they adhere to some delusional set of unreal expectations that implies that perfection is the only allowable outcome–constant, never wavering hard work, attentiveness, dedication, positivity, even-keel temperament, and a zeal for the subject matter. These kids, though, are teenagers and their most important job in the moment really doesn’t have anything to do with getting into college or taking on leadership roles in clubs or pleasing me. Their most important job has everything to do with figuring out who they’re going to be in this world, what kind of person they will become. If I narrow-mindedly assume that my class should always be their first priority, I have lost sight of the fact that these students are living complete and complex lives. If I can’t extend a little grace toward them, with the understanding that they will have good days and bad because in fact they are human beings, then I’ve missed the point.

In her poem “Kindness,” Naomi Shihab Nye writes these words:

“Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.”

She is writing about empathy’s integral role in kindness. She is writing about the sort of transformative moment that empathy creates as it brings  sincerity and  weight to common niceties. Nye seems to imply that in order for kindness to live into its potential, for it to truly be meaningful, we must see ourselves in the situations of others. We must recognize the common ground of humanity in everyone we encounter. We must see our sameness in order to be able to nurture each other through our differences. We must understand that someone else’s misfortune could be our own.

In that awareness, we not only become truly kind, but we also transform ourselves into better human beings. We are able to creep out of our shell of selfishness in search of ways to help those in need around us…even the people we don’t necessarily know because we have paused to imagine life through their eyes. We are able to shift out of our own biases to see the truth of the people around us rather than our assumptions about them…assumptions that imprison and inhibit our true kindness potential.

This is what I attempt to achieve in my classroom. I work really hard to see beyond the moment and to understand what is causing the moment. Is the student tired, overwhelmed, going through a hard time…what is the reason for the behavior? In doing this, I’m working to pause before rushing to judgement. I am working to give them the benefit of the doubt.

I was recently reminded by my friend Sara Ahmed of the benefit of the “soft start” in classrooms. This is a brief period of time at the start of a class where students are actively engaged in an activity that interests them but isn’t necessarily course work.  So, this week, I have placed magazines, adult coloring books, books of poetry, QR codes for a Padlet full of links to interesting articles, writing prompts and more on the tables of my classroom. The kids come in, sit down anywhere they are comfortable and work on whichever activity they feel best suits them that day. Part of why I offered this, outside of the fact that it is just good practice, I was sort of struck by the realization that our kids go from class to class with sometimes stark contrast in subject matter and we expect them to immediately switch gears without much pause. The soft start allows kids to decompress a bit and to transition so that when it comes time to work on coursework, they are better prepared and mentally ready to focus. My students this week have said that at first they thought the “soft start” was silly and a little fluffy. After a couple of days though they realized that it was really helping them–they felt like they were thinking better in class because they had that moment to quiet themselves and find their focus. I loved this!! However, if I stood harshly by the idea of working bell to bell, if I ignored the needs of my students, we would have missed out on this transformative.

It was a kindness. I saw myself in the way we ask them to “do school” and understood that there could be a better way. I recognize that there are people out there who think that because of my level of empathy, I am too soft on my kids. There are people who feel like I am not preparing them for the real world. On the contrary, I feel like I am preparing them to become leaders in the world I want to live in. A world filled with sincere kindnesses. An empathic world.

(Day 18)

voice

Since the surgery on my inner ear, a negative pressure has developed. What might this mean? Well, thankfully, it doesn’t make me dizzy, but I hear every inhale and exhale I take no matter how shallow. My heartbeat pounds my eardrum causing vibrations deep in my ear (we won’t even talk about the cacophony in my head when I am running–all breath and pounding). There are several more elevated internal sounds that would shake even the most serene soul, but only one feels like a burden. Every word I utter reverberates, echoing loudly inside my head. If I didn’t talk for a living, this might not be such a big deal, but I spend my days talking to teachers, kids, colleagues, parents, etc. Sometimes I can just ignore it, but other times the distraction is overwhelming and I am rendered exhausted by the effort of just attempting to hold a simple conversation. In crowded or noisy places where I really cannot trust my own sense of the volume of my speech, I think twice before talking, wondering for a moment if what I have to say is really worth the exertion.

It’s in those moments, that I am so grateful to have the outlet of writing–to know who I am as a writer, to know how to use my voice in that way, and to know I have the confidence to do so. So many young people, though, come to my classroom having been told they can’t write, will never be able to write, are failures as writers (because that is what an F translates to) and their confidence is shattered. I imagine that for these students, writing feels about as comfortable as holding a conversation does for me right now. I also imagine that mustering the courage to put the words on the page, no matter how few actually make it there, is absolutely draining.

For many of my students, their first writing goal is just to work on their confidence because so much of me knows that they will never be able to learn and to grow as writers if they believe they can’t.  But confidence, it seems, takes trust. And so, my first goal as their teacher is often to build that trust. To prove to them in my methods and in my words that I’m present and my only hope is to encourage and support, to listen and assist, and to offer opportunities for revision and growth. Trust also comes because with the choice and freedom they have to define and develop their writing, they know I respect them as thinkers, as individuals. They know I believe that who they are matters enough to allow it to shape their assignments.

It takes time, developing that trust and building confidence, and sometimes it doesn’t happen in a single school year. But, it is always worth the effort because witnessing the moment a young person finally realizes and owns their voice as a writer, is one of the greatest gifts a teacher of writers can receive. There is a vibrance that is indescribable–the words have a greater texture on the page because they’ve been imbued with authority and style and every so often, nuance and grace. There is a vibrance that is indescribable—the smile that creeps across the face of the writer whose heart and mind are finally at peace with one another. There is a vibrance that is indescribable—in the face of a kid who is finally hearing commentary that recognizes not only their skill as a writer, but more importantly, its worth…their worth.

Those are the moments I was terrified to miss when I left full time teaching to become a principal who only teaches a couple of classes. How could I walk away from such incredible moments? Well, it took me some time, but I finally realized that I actually was creating the same moment only in different context.

I am always yammering on to students (and anyone else who will listen) that three things are most important to me for our students at all times:

  1. That everyday–I mean every single day–students come to school and feel free to be themselves–exactly who they are without the mask of who they think they are supposed to be. And that they feel this freedom because they feel accepted.
  2. That at some point in their educational careers at my high school they feel truly engaged in their learning. That may not be an everyday, every class event. I understand this, but I want them seeking engagement rather than just teacher or parent pleasing…rather than just working for a grade.
  3. That my kids leave this school knowing the import and weight of their voice and knowing how to use it for good in this world–and that they have the confidence and the skills to do just that.

All of these are integral to our success as a high school and, in my opinion, to the educational and future successes of our students. School shouldn’t be about just checking off skills and courses; it shouldn’t be about just getting a diploma or into college. School should also be about learning what it means to be an effective, productive citizen in this world. And if I’m being honest, I think that has everything to do with accepting yourself, seeking engagement, and using your voice for good. And again, if I’m being honest, when I see my kids standing up and using their voices in a purposeful way, with confidence, it is just as vibrant as it was in the writing classroom…just as meaningful…just as significant.

I suppose I should start listening to my own advice when it comes to this ear situation…accept, engage, speak up anyway.

(Day 5 done! This daily writing thing has been far tougher than I expected and I suspect my dog is tired of me spending so much time on my computer at night instead of scratching behind her ears, but the challenge has me moving through the world with the eyes of a writer in a far more intentional way. Grateful.)