It won’t solve the ravages of war, the terrors of climate change or even life’s persistent disappointments, but hey, wouldn’t it be nice if we felt welcomed heartily everywhere we go? Wouldn’t it be pleasurable to have time said aside to be given a proper goodbye and a heartfelt thanks and appreciation when we leave a community? It’s so simple and yet it seems to be so seldom done.
But not at the school where I work. We pay attention to these things. Today we bid a ceremonial farewell to 12 staff members and last week, a ritual goodbye to 30 8th graders. Doesn’t matter how old you are, how many years you’ve put in, what you’ve done— everyone is deserving of this moment. And not in a sarcastic roasting kind of way or token gold-watch kind of way and also not in a clichéd maudlin “we’re going to miss you sooooo much! You are soooo amazing!” kind of way, but in an imaginative, artistic, poetic kind of way. From assembling a cardboard sculpture with each piece representing an aspect of someone’s genius to singing songs with words changed to suit that person to publicly proposing marriage to a colleague as a lifelong work partner even as they know they have to go because of their real husband. It’s an art form unto itself and everyone is refreshed when it is done both imaginatively and emotionally. As I said to my colleague James (for those who know James, you can predict he did the cardboard sculpture for a beloved long-time staff member), “You diffused the intensity of the moment with just the right touch of humor without sacrificing the sincerity.”
Many of the one-year folks also spoke about how quickly and thoroughly they felt welcomed on Day 1 and it just kept getting better. There were the personal welcomes, the habits of our socially intelligently staff to initiate conversations with new folks or visitors, and also the ritual welcomes, expressed clearly and honed from decades of practice in the ritual opening ceremonies that welcome kids, parents and teachers alike. That’s my territory. I could probably use some work on the informal, personal connections, but I’ve loved helping to craft the ceremonial large group welcomes replete with symbolic gestures, images, icons and always songs and music and even dance.
And equally in the closing ceremonies, all the different ways to bid farewell and acknowledge that a little life has been lived between the first hello and the last goodbye and it’s worthy of recognition, celebration, time taken out to admire and appreciate and show gratitude that it happened.
It works. Like I said, it doesn’t solve everything. We have our fair share of betrayals, plots around the water cooler, midnight assassinations and the swampy muck of not feeling valued or appreciated—by our students, our colleagues, the parents, the administration, the culture at large. It’s no Disneyland where I work, all the difficulties of the human incarnation scrubbed clean, all the harsh notes taken out, all the smiles pasted on. But by creating a formal ritual culture and an informal atmosphere of welcome and appreciation, of hellos and goodbyes, we often get it right in ways most workplaces haven’t ever even dreamed of. That’s something.
Now I await the call from my daughter to zip up to Portland to welcome my grandson to this life. Later in the summer, I will officiate the memorial service in Michigan for my mother-in-law. Hellos and goodbyes, from the daily morning greetings to the carpool check-off, from the first breath of life to the last, it all asks the same. Welcome me with love and excitement. Say goodbye with grief and gratitude. It will be messy in-between, but these two goalposts will frame the field and help us learn how to play the game.