Sunday, June 7, 2020

Praise and Blessing

“One of the main crimes that’s committed is that youth, especially the small little people, are not corroborated for their beauty, for their vision. …(we need to) show them that they’re praiseworthy.”   —Martin Prechtel

Yesterday was the last official day of school, but then today was 8thgrade graduation. Essentially the last of the year’s cycle of ceremonies (minus our final staff meeting next week) and this one with a powerful mission: It’s time to lavish praise on these young people. Not shower them with the “awesome, amazing, going to change the world” clichés that feel got in the moment and then dissolve like snowflakes on warm pavement. Not the list of all their accomplishments. Not the “hard-working student, great friend, creative thinker” list. But honing in on some central image that captures the essence of each student’s spirit.  In under 300 words. 

Not easy to do and therefore, worth doing. And this year, with the added twist of teachers going to the kids’ homes and proclaiming out on the street, sometimes in the presence of applauding neighbors. Many with masks on. I chose the 30 feet apart-mask off option and that felt right for me while still safe for others. 

I know that our weird cycle of celebrations that I helped found are unique to our school and frankly, I’m not trying to convince others to follow suit and do Intery Mintery, the Cookie Jar, the Samba Context, etc. But if I had to choose one that every single school should consider, it would be this level of showing children how well you know them, care for them and are ready to publicly praise them. If this became the norm, schools and teachers might also have to revise their teaching so that when they arrive at this day, they truly have something worthy to say beyond that rainstorm of sound-byte clichés. 

To give a taste of what that’s like, here are the three I had the privilege to speak about this year. The names of been omitted to protect the extraordinary. Enjoy!

First student: I believe that every student has a treasure hidden inside. It’s the student’s job to search for it,  teachers job to help reveal it, and both of them to notice when it pops out from its hiding place. I think I’ve seen glimpses of yours in two different ways.

The first was a spontaneous moment in our Salt Lake City rehearsal. You were warming up on your trumpet and suddenly burst into a flurry of 16thnotes. Powerful, coherent, musical! “What?!” I said, “Where did that come from? Do it again!” I think you yourself were surprised by it and you sent it back into hiding. And that’s okay. There’s a lot that goes on under the surface before your gift is ready to announce itself to the world and you were probably wise to wait. You will need time and lots of dedicated practice to shape it, control it, enlarge it. But I want you to note that it was there. This underground fire ready to give light and warmth to the world. 

The second glimpse came at the end of every music class, as you exited the room and said with all sincerity, “Thank you,” “Why were you thanking me” I wondered. For a fun class? For giving you a special way to connect with your friends? For helping you discover you could play jazz better than you thought you could.? Or were you just being polite? These are all great qualities! But I always felt it as your mature and generous self helping an old man feel appreciated for his efforts— and you succeeded.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the person you are and look forward with excitement to the person you yet might be. And then those 16thnotes fly out fully formed and fiery, I want to be there! And then say to you: Thank you!

Second student: We are all remarkable souls worthy of love and capable of accomplishing great things, but we all will take different paths to do so. And we all will walk down those paths different ways. Some will saunter down it skipping through every task, some will dilly and dally and get distracted and veer off into the woods, some will get discouraged and turn back. 

You have a quality in your stride that I can best describe as fierce determination. You map out the territory, look ahead at the mountain to climb, set your jaw and charge forward right into it— without hesitation and without a pause to ponder if it’s doable. If it’s there, you’ll do it. That’s the quality I’ve so admired over the years watching you practice guitar, work on a xylophone passage, learn your lines in a play, master a dance step, study for the Jazz Jeopardy game. 

You have always been a bit mature for your age. Your favorite food as three-year old was broccoli. Broccoli! I heard you gave a 6thgrade TED talk on why teachers should get paid more. Like I said, a mature thinker ahead of your age. 

Your passion for volleyball fits you well. That eye-on-the-ball attention, that fierce determination to get it over the net or to a classmate, that knees-bent stance ready to run to wherever the ball takes you—these are qualities that will serve you your whole life in whatever you choose to do. 

I’ve admired you from afar all these years and now can’t wait to see what you do with it all. May I suggest President of the School Board? Congratulations!

Third student: The Balinese say there are two roads in life. You can take seven happy steps up to heaven or seven sad steps down to hell. But they both end at the same place.  School can be like that, two paths to learning what you need to know—easy steps up or difficult ones down. In the end, it doesn’t matter which you take—they both finally end up at the same place. But it’s worth noticing which one you’re on. 

During the entire eleven years I’ve known you, it feels like you’ve been on the happy path up— everything appears to come easily and naturally. You play a tricky xylophone passage  like a casual stroll down the street, full of quiet confidence, calm competence, cool capability. But you’re also exuberant. When dancing in my preschool classes, you always put in an extra twirl or expressive flip or exuberant leap. But never in a “look at me!” way—just doing what comes naturally. 

The Balinese also have no word for art. Art is simply doing things well, with care and attention. You are artistic from top to toe, as a dancer who put in the hours after school, a flute player, a visual artist, an actress on stage. But you’re also artistic in the greater sense—whether it be a math project or leading the student body as co-president or contributing a clear idea on a committee, you accomplish it all with care and attention. 

And aiming high! As a three-year old, you tried to answer “What is love?” You twisted your expressive face while thinking and then gave up—the question was too deep and you wanted to do it justice. As a thirteen-year old ,you confessed you still don’t know. Well, who does? But maybe the simplest answer is this: It’s what we—all of us—feel for you. Congratulations!

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