“You are going to speak about a graduating 8th grader in front of 400 people and capture the essence of their character in two minutes. Go! (P.S. You can’t use the words ‘awesome, amazing or cool.’)”
This the task set to nine teachers at The San Francisco School and may I say they were awesome, amazing and cool! Oops, no I can’t say that. Okay, they did an impressive job trying to reduce the complexity of a human being to a two-minute snapshot without reducing the complexity of a human being. They tried to zero in on a central image and decorate it with stories, quotes, metaphors, images that helped illuminate what a student had shown of themselves so far. 14-year olds, like all of us, but perhaps a bit more, are a work-in-progress, enough life behind them to get some clues as to how they might contribute and which light they’ll bend toward, but just in the seedling stage of beginning to sprout.
I almost titled this “Mission Accomplished” to recognize that these thirty souls did indeed embody so much of what we hoped they would. Our school mission to “cultivate and celebrate the intellectual, imaginative and humanitarian promise of each child” was evident not only in the talks about the children, but in the performances they shared the day before. Our hope to promote “mutual respect and embrace diversity” came through all year in the way they cared for each other and let each other mostly be who they are (with the usual taunts and teases of the 13-year old). Our goal to inspire and keep alive “a passion for learning” also was clear in their work all year and their excitement about what lies ahead.
But what was most inspiring was the way the kids embodied and the speakers captured all the different ways one can be beautiful and successful in this world. I had four very different children to speak about—one who liked to contribute from the background, cleaning up after class, working quietly, efficiently and effectively, not seeking the spotlight. Another who loved to be on center stage and clearly belonged there. Another who had a trickster energy and was off to the side stirring things up in holy mischief. Another ready to shine her light whenever the occasion called for it and enchant us with song. In the narrow world where the adults demand all obedient workers or all prima donnas, all nose-to-the-grindstone habits or all thinking-out-of-the-box, all these styles become an either/or and children feel like they’ve fallen short.
While we have certain standards and clear aspirations for our students— we prefer speaking out about social justice over keeping silent, we encourage self-expression over self-repression, we value thinking over blind acceptance— we recognize that there are a thousand ways to embody these qualities in hundreds of different colors and shades and no two alike. So our challenge was to frame each child’s inevitably unique character in the light of them being precisely who they have to be at this moment and finding the beauty in it. And that’s exactly what we did.
Truly, school is so much wider than the narrow task of growing future workers who can read and write. It is the place to deeply observe the whole glory and catastrophe of the human being and equally the place to grow kids more to the glory side. It begins and ends with knowing the child, giving them opportunities to be known and begin to know themselves, let them know you see them and feel them and admire them and encourage them and begin every act of striving for self-betterment from the foundation of self-acceptance about how each one is put together.
The world should be happy knowing that we have released thirty smart, caring, talented and beautiful souls to begin their next four-years of evolving yet higher and deeper. May their next schools know them and value them and love them as much as we have.