Wednesday, January 30, 2013

On the Edge

It’s time for the five-year strategic plan at my school. The staff wrote down their personal Post-it reflections about why they teach in general and why they teach in our particular school. Reading the collage of testimonies, I noticed none said “Money” or “Status” or “Career Advancement.” There was a lot of passion involved, for children, for a particular subject, for the craft of teaching. As it should be.

In an effort to reach to the core of our collective identity, small groups grappled with the question of why our particular school exists. Again, the results were impressive— “sending the children as emissaries into a more harmonious, sustainable, peaceful and loving future, helping kids find their particular genius, teaching them self-awareness, other-awareness, independence and interdependence. Giving them the needed tools to think, to imagine, to feel, to care.” In my group, we edged toward the geography of the school as a place on the frontier, on the borders between multiple worlds, on the edge of mainstream thinking.

We are in the midst of building a new Community Center and in one Powerpoint presentation, there was a slide that read “Moving to the Center.” It was meant literally, but some of us felt it metaphorically. The poet e.e. cummings once quipped, “To be nobody but yourself in a world that’s doing its best to make you somebody else, is to fight the hardest battle you are ever going to fight.” That’s as true for institutions as it is for individuals and there are a lot of forces at work out there trying to homogenize and smooth out the rough and gritty characters that authentic schools have grown over the years. Some of it is mindless, some well-meaning, some trying to align “best practices,” but all of it is dangerous. The problem with conformity of any kind is that a puts a stop to thought. It straightjackets the imagination. It closes down the feeling heart.

I’ve lived on the edge most of my life and find it a glorious place to be. Sometimes lonely, often difficult, but always pulsing with something that feels real, that feels authentic, that feels alive. Why wouldn’t everyone want to be there?

If anything approaching a grain of insight has sprouted in this aging brain, I think the answer has something to do with the sheer difficulty, effort and even terror of pitching your tent near the cliff’s edge. Our school mission statement aims to “cultivate the intellectual, imaginative and humanitarian promise of each child,” but it is not easy task to cultivate real thinking, a working imagination and an open, caring heart.

Take thinking. It is hard to form a genuine thought that is not simply echoing what the teacher, preacher or Fox news tells us. It takes lots and lots of reading, writing and occasionally arithmetic joined with a relentless curiosity and probing “Why? How? What? How much? As for imagination, it is easy to dream up interesting ideas and images, but it takes a Herculean effort to put feet on one’s winged vision, be it a piece of art, a piece of music or a social program. And finally, it is all well and good to open one’s heart to love and joy and humor and good fellowship, but that mean’s you’re also vulnerable to loss and grief and pain and despair. That’s scary.

Away from the edge, people cover their thinking with comfortable soundbytes, give over their imagination to the entertainment industry and make sure their heart is well-armored. They become consumers of life, fans of the stars, a hand that holds the remote to keep themselves remote and changes the channel when things get uncomfortable. And who can blame them? It’s hard to think. It takes great effort to imagine. It hurts to feel.

But I still recommend it. Stay close to the edge. 

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