Wednesday, September 6, 2017


Enthusiasm. “Possessed by a god (theos), inspired.” Well, here it is, my granddaughter’s before- school photo. Turns out that today was the first day of school, as it was cancelled yesterday due to extreme heat in Portland. And so here she is, ready for the adventure that lies ahead.

Me, I got a haircut yesterday and got my teeth cleaned today and cut my fingernails, all little acts of renewal. But nothing to match Zadie’s unabashed excitement about becoming a bonafide student. While at the dentist, my hygienist was surprised by my post about school having the power to shut down Zadie’s exuberance. She felt we all survived it and are much more influenced by our parents.

Well, it’s true that we may be more resilient that I sometimes think and that home shapes us much deeper and truer than school. And yet. We are actually at school for as many, if not more, waking hours in our childhood than we are at home. And because it’s a place where flawed human beings gather, we’re in danger of being neglected, bullied, betrayed, ignored, chastised, punished, disdained, excluded by teachers and fellow students alike. We also have the possibility of being cared for, valued, protected, celebrated, praised, appreciated, loved, included by teachers and fellow students alike. And naturally, it will certainly be a mixture of all of the above.

But it is school as an institution that can fail us or uplift us, a place with values and practices and expectations and ideas and ideals that can raise the bar high and organize itself to aid our efforts to leap over it or not. And yes, we are resilient creatures who can survive it all, but some for sure are damaged beyond their capacity to heal and sometimes its no one’s fault and sometimes it’s the wrong mission statement and sometimes the right talk with no walk to support it. That’s where my life's work comes in.

But this I believe to be true. The 5-year old who comes to their first day of school with that ear-to-ear smile and arms up in unabashed excitement and enthusiasm deserves everything we can do to keep that intact. But far too many leave 13 years later with their shoulders slumped, their cynicism sharpened, their curiosity dampened, their eager fire to learn and know reduced to “Will this be on the test?” Some of it is the natural process of aging— it’s not easy to keep that 5-year-old sense of wonder lit at 18. But far too much is the way schools substitute right answers for provocative questions, sort and judge and label kids rather than celebrate and admire them, leave no room for the theos to dwell and thus, kill enthusiasm.

So my wish for Zadie is that she leave at 12th grade (and again at college) like the kid in this picture, not raising her arms happy to finally leave school because it was so deadly and boring, but happy to meet the next phase of her unquenchable enthusiasm for life and learning and thankful for the way school encouraged her. I want Theos still by her side and in her heart.

I didn’t get to talk to Zadie today, but the word from my daughter was that “she learned how to hold a pencil.” Great start! Off she goes!

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