It was a glorious first day of school. The parents and kids came through the gates of 300 Gaven St. with all the freshness, excitement and nervous anticipation that signals “Time for school!” Even as a kid who disliked school and lived for summer, it still was fun for me those first few days back at school, that moment when we re-gathered with fresh pencils and erasers and books and started up again what could have been— and occasionally was— the grand adventure of learning. But my first day at Harrison School in Roselle, New Jersey was not quite like the opening of The San Francisco School.
To begin with, there was our first staff band (one teacher commented, “29 years at the school and finally I get to play an Orff instrument!”) playing a Philippine Kulintang piece on Orff instruments joined by Korean drums, Thai angklung and Tibetan cymbals. When it was time for the kids to gather, I changed to Bulgarian bagpipe with Sofia on tappan drum and James on accordion. The school admin. team ran a ribbon-cutting ceremony to commemorate the new Community Center and after the deed was done, the parents entered under the bamboo arches of Balinese flags to an old spiritual “So Glad I’m Here.” The kids then followed under the living tunnel of staff singing the same song and for the first time, there was room for parents to witness the rest of this soul-stirring ceremony.
Once everyone was seated, we continued with our school anthem, the old 20’s tunes “Side by Side,” accompanied on ukelele (an instrument that came from Portugal to Hawaii to its current status as the coolest instrument worldwide) by two of our six music interns from Italy and New Zealand. Opening remarks by the head of school that included a short clip commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, then the oldest and youngest ringing the year in on the Balinese gongs, the profound water ceremony with 8 kids from 1st to 8th grade passing the water of knowledge and emptying it again to remember “beginner’s mind,” the Shaker song “Simple Gifts,” the short talk on stewardship followed by the kids dancing with the giant Earth Ball while all chanted “The Earth Day Rap,” and the closing recessional, “Siyahamba, “ a South African song about marching in the name of peace while the kids went off to their classrooms. Hardly your typical opening to school!
But the one the future suggests. Note the presence of music, song and dance at the center, so the words have a triple meaning— an intellectual meaning, an emotional meaning, a physical presence, carried in the breath and bones of the body. Note the convergence of songs and instruments and people from all corners of the world. Note the markedly different styles of music, none of them “ethnic” or “exotic,” all of them now just part of our community songbook, each strumming a different string in the grand possibilities of human thought and feeling. Note the values explicity stated, from caring about social justice to each passing on what they know in a community of learners to taking care of your pencils, your classroom, the earth at large, to living simply side by side. Yes, the kids will learn reading, ’ritin’ and ‘ritmetic, but not just so they can read the newspaper and balance their checkbook. All of it from day one is aimed toward the transcendent purpose of fulfilling the height of their “intellectual, imaginative and humanitarian promise,” as noted in our school mission statement.
And finally, the invitation for the Community Center to represent a place and a paradigm that does what it says— puts community at the center of the whole enterprise. Individual achievement is admirable, fund raising to build a long-needed gym, theater and additional classroom spaces is laudable, developing a relevant, dynamic and effective curriculum is praiseworthy indeed. But none of it means anything without a healthy community at the center. Healthy meaning that each person is valued, what they to offer is valued, how they work together is consciously cultivated, how they play together is encouraged, how they are given voice in decision making is carefully considered, how they talk through the inevitable conflicts is given attention. That’s hard work. And joyful work, especially when we remember to let ourselves play together, dream together, imagine together.
(If you want to see what that level of love looks like, go to: http://youtu.be/ FYD5hm2-mlo. This a song and photo collage from Robin Smith, one of this summer’s Level III students who was part of this intense little community that bonded beyond most people’s experience because of passing their days together playing, singing, dancing. They came to this Orff Course for professional development, but left with their hearts blown wide open by the power of work offered and received in love. They left with great new material and ideas as to how to present it, but more importantly, with each note soaked in the remembrance of this loving community. I imagine when they do these songs with their kids, each of them will be present in the lesson, an invisible community now joined with each person's school community. That's a worthy paradigm for the education our children deserve.)
And so now that the school has a Community Center, the last nail pounded, the last beam painted, we return to the important, difficult and necessary work of putting Community at the Center. The lofty words have been publicly spoken, our good intentions said out loud— now comes the chance to live them in the year ahead. May it be so!