Saturday, April 30, 2016


We’ve been working hard at my school getting ready for the party of the Half-Century! 50 years since The San Francisco School was founded! Amidst many jobs, I had the honor of giving the closing talk. Which I will exactly 10 hours from now. And here it is:

“Near the end of this gathering celebrating 50 years of an extraordinary community, my job is to ask the question: “What does it all mean? What are the details of this vision that has made us who we are? How did we do what we did? ”

So I turn to the three daughters of the Sofia, the Goddess of Wisdom. Faith. Hope. Charity.

FAITH: The first is faith in the beauty, dignity, delight and intelligence of children. Faith that they are worthy of love, that they are overflowing with possibility, that they have genius in every corner of human endeavor. But you can never just feel this general faith in children in an abstract way. You have to get to know each and every child.

And that’s one thing you can say with conviction about this school. We know our children. When I meet you alums, my first impulse is to tell you the story about you that I remember, the one that made you memorable, some of which I pass on to the kids I’m now teaching. Every kid knows that Phoebe Lockwood wrote the first two verses on the Casey Jones song-sheet and that Josh Russell didn’t like my Hound Dog song and that Michael Canaveral beat me in the Cookie Jar. I remember that Micky Walsh stepped on my new shoes to get them dirty and that Brittney Soracco reprimanded Laura in the middle of the play for stepping on her line,  that Trulise hiked Pt. Reyes chanting “James, my James” and 10,000 more stories. And some of these stories carried a key to unlocking a child’s character. 

There is in the soul of a child an impenetrable secret that is gradually revealed as it develops.— Maria Montessori

That’s the great excitement of being a teacher. To believe firmly in each child’s soul secret and set to work helping them discover it, helping to reveal it. Everyone is capable of rigorous thought and loving kindness, everyone is artistic and musical and athletic. Everyone. No exceptions. Our job? To help them discover precisely how they’re intelligent, to celebrate the particular nature of their genius.

That takes a lot of time and patience. Some kids come in in full bloom and stay fragrant their whole time. Some take 3 or 7 or all 11 years to finally burst into blossom. And some come to flower after they leave here. When it happens doesn’t matter. What matters is the faith that it will happen, a faith made real by constant care and watering. And look how it has paid off! Here you are, such beautiful, caring people raising the next generation that will carry the work forward.

Next is HOPE. We celebrate the kids for who they are and who they can become. We also celebrate the teachers in the same way. We let them teach to their passion in the way that fits who they are. We create jobs that fit their unique talent and interests, as we did for Solveig, our librarian/ naturalist. We create job shares that let James, Sofia and myself balance our teaching of kids with the teaching of teachers worldwide. We let Molly keep her job while spending a year and a half with her newborn child. You don’t have to go to Finland to find such humane practices, it’s happening right here.

And it pays off. You attract a passionate and dedicated staff, whose unspoken motto is “Whatever it takes” regardless of time, salary or job description. The number of staff who have stayed here for 20, 30, 40 years is remarkable. It makes for an inspiring place to work. It feeds one’s hope.

Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.  –Vaclav Havel

That’s how we did what we did. We knew certain things felt right and stuck with our vision. We trusted our instincts about what made sense. And we were given the power to be at the dead center of important decision-making. It wasn’t always clean or efficient, but it was real and always with the needs of the children at heart. If we made a poor choice, it was our mistake and we knew how to fix it. We sat around the peanut table with our own agenda, talked while Karen knitted and Sally tapped her pencil and Terry jiggled a restless leg brimming with excitement.

We did so much knowing so little. We were the auctioneers, the mystery Walkathon runners, the fundraisers, the stage builders, the ditch-diggers, the bake-salers, the U-haul drivers, the curriculum creators, the ceremony inventors, the camping cookers and naturalists and hike leaders. We opened our doors to all ideas, but met each with a healthy skepticism. We didn’t need other schools to tell us what we should do or educational bureaucrats or lawyers or health inspectors. We gave the necessary coins to Caesar to keep the school open, but always knew where God was, our instincts about what children need and how to give it to them, our sense of what a healthy community looks and sounds and feels like. I think that trust in our own way of doing things is what has brought us here and what will carry us forward through the next 50 years.

Finally, CHARITY. I would like to rename this daughter, CARE. We are teaching the children to care. To care for materials, to care for themselves, to care for each other. And that’s where social change starts. By being the change you want to see in the world.

But that’s not where it stops. If these kids are worthy, then so are those kids. If these kids feel welcomed and like they belong, it can’t be complete until those kids feel the same. It’s the right of every child to be nurtured, celebrated, educated, loved, but we know that not all receive their due.

We always were a product of our time. While many were celebrating Desert Storm, we gathered in the music room and sang for peace. We gathered there again after 9/11 and made Tibetan prayer flags to hang all over the school. In the middle of a morning meeting, I ran into Terry’s office and wept in his arms when Bush was re-elected. We cried at Martin Luther King ceremonies. We cared and weren’t afraid to show it.

Here is a hard truth. This school is a bit of a paradise, but it comes with a high price-tag. It’s a privilege to be independent of narrow bureaucracy and to get to choose the change we want to be. Instead of guilt, our charge is to use that privilege responsibly, on behalf of kids and people everywhere. That means actively moving outside of our little circle of community to help out and impact folks outside our gates and though there’s always so much more we can do, we have kept that charge alive the whole of the 50 years. Our commitment to social justice has never been so strong, so clear, so effective in helping kids see what an enormous task it is to care for the world and to take their first steps in a lifetime commitment.

Faith. Hope. Care. Worthy words to live by. But there’s a few more.

If we’re to really build a school around the way children really are, it has to be fun! It should be joyful and full of color and music and celebration. The first thing that should strike people when they walk through these gates is how happy the children are, busily doing things that are seriously fun. How much they enjoy their work and their play and how happy they are to do it together. (Here I show slides of happy, expressive, exuberant children at work and play.)

And what about the future? Of the country and the planet, there’s plenty to worry about. But of the school and what these kids can offer for hope and healing, well, look at these kids. Strong. Confident. Determined. Joyful.  (Another slide)

And that together part, that traveling along Side By Side, is the piece that completes the whole puzzle. How amazing it is to see each other again and feel the full beauty of who we are, who we’ve been and who we’ve yet to become. We’re not quite as ragged as we used to be, but I hope we’re still funny and happy to keep traveling this glorious path together, walking along long, dappled grass picking the silver and golden apples, side by side.”

(And that’s when we stand up and sing the old jazz standard, Side by Side.)

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