We had another marvelous Opening Ceremony at The San Francisco School. One hour of song, ritual, speech and music. In the “Earth Day Rap” part, the 4thand 5thgrade teachers talked about stewardship of the planet, starting with the little things—"recycle, bicycle, don’t you drive by yourself.” Next up was a song called “Gonna Build Me a Mountain” (it’s on my Boom Chick a Boom CD if you’re curious!) and I gave this talk as a preface. The opening about the bicycle was picking up from the teacher talking about riding his bike to school.
If you ride your bike in San Francisco, you might notice there are a lot of hills. This is good! It’s hard to ride up them and that makes us strong. It’s also fun to ride down them, to feel the wind in our face, to coast without pedaling. But you can’t get to the downhill without the uphill. In biking and in life. And sometimes the road is just flat and that’s good too. Like here on Gaven Street.
But don’t be fooled. There’s actually an enormous mountain here. Its address is 300 Gaven St. It’s a mountain that people have been building for 54 years. We’re standing on it today as a gift from the teachers, students and parents of the past, which includes as long ago as 1966 and as recently as last year. Anything that’s good about this most remarkable place came from the hard, hard work, the vision, the wise choices that those who came before us made. Also the foolish choices— we probably learned the most from them!
Standing here before you, I want to salute all of these people. Every single one. And I know almost all of them! I grew up with them and am still growing up with them. Kids who I taught are as old as 50+ and the results are in—we did good work.
Our job is to keep building that mountain beyond what they were able to do. To work hard with clear vision so that people 50 years from now might thank and remember us. To savor and enjoy who we are now and consider who we are not yet.
Martin Luther King said in one of his speeches that he had climbed to the top of the mountain and seen the Promised Land. That’s one of the benefits of mountain climbing. We can see further than what’s right at our feet and get a bigger perspective about who we are and why we’re here. And I can say that I also have climbed to the top of the mountain here on Gaven Street and I, too, have seen the Promised Land. It turns out that it’s not far away like some shining Oz, but right here, right now, right where we are and with all the people sitting next to you. This is Heaven. It really is. I’m here to testify that there is no heaven finer than this.
But Heaven is not a place, it’s not a noun. It is a verb, a work in progress, a place we make in our hearts by how we live and how we live together. And this is important to understand: There is no Heaven without Hell. We make Hell by all the ways we suffer when we misunderstand each other, disappoint each other, betray each other, treat each other less kindly that we should. And of course we will do all of that. We will wound and we will be wounded. We will hurt and we will be hurt. That’s just how things are in this life. No escaping that.
How we react to those hurts and wounds is the key, the way to make Heaven from Hell. How we apologize, to ourselves and others, how we forgive, ourselves and others, is what can turn sorrow to joy. We can begin to heal those wounds every time we choose kindness over cruelty, knowledge over ignorance, caring over indifference, courageous conversation over malicious gossip. If we are to choose—and there’s always a choice—let’s go with our better selves.
Here’s the truth. Everyone in this room is a beautiful, luminous being capable of loving and worthy of being loved. Everyone has the possibility to do great things, be they small or big. Everyone deserves a loving welcome and a sense of belonging. Everyone matters. Each of us have come to this earth as a question— how can we use our gifts to heal and help and give something the world needs? Each of us is necessary. Let’s not forget that.
Kids, you are so lucky to be surrounded by teachers who love you more than you can imagine. They love you before they even meet you and then they love you for real when they get to know you and find out what specifically there is to love. Please show them. Your teachers work so hard to bring out your genius, who stay up at night worrying about you and thinking how to make you happy by giving you the things you need. Not the things you think you want —like Gameboy or candy— but the things you deeply need.
Kids, don’t waste a minute of your time here. You need to work hard to discover your genius. Pay attention. Listen to these teachers who work so hard for you. Step up to the challenge of each class and don’t make us teachers have to sing and dance to get your attention. Be respectful, to yourself, the teachers and your classmates and above all, be kind. It costs so little and the reward is so great.
I confess that I was not a good student. I didn’t like school and it didn’t like me. Then I chose to be a teacher dedicated to making school more fun, more celebratory, more soulful. I wanted to help make a school like the one I wished I had gone to. And this is that place. As they say, it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.
So here on the first day of this new year, let’s resolve to build a mountain that we can look back on when we gather again in June and feel proud about what we did. Here’s the double truth: “Only one person can do it and that person is YOU!” and it’s most fun if we do it together, “Side by side.” Here’s the mountain you build by yourself (do motions to “mountain, mountain, build a mountain”)and here’s how you do it together (as above with partner).Let’s sing this song like we mean it and build a year that is worthy of the word Heaven. Off we go!! (Sing song: “Gonna Build Me a Mountain.”)