I’ve had to face some hard news and hard truths these last few months. Two alum students committed suicide, another attempted it and a fourth is swamped with traumas beyond her capacity to hold. These are all people I knew as smiling kids dancing joyfully in my classes, making beautiful music in my concerts and acting with such fun and flair in my plays. They spent years in our loving, supportive community with many caring teachers watching over them and loyal friends by their side. And still, this.
I’ve leaned my whole life to what might be called a naïve notion that people are mostly good, that much of life can be fair, that a good education can cultivate wise choices. “Not so,” the cynics have been shouting to me for years. “People are rotten to the core, the universe is indifferent and we constantly make foolish choices.” Well, yes, but since we are given both the challenge and blessing of choice, it indeed makes a different when a school makes every effort to know each child, to welcome each child, to praise and bless each child, to give each child the tools to know, value and praise their own best selves. It’s not foolproof— humans are too complex and the factors of family, peers, genes, the soul’s journey all enter into the picture — but there are countless testimonies from our alums as to how our school's gifts to them continue echoing and sometimes have helped draw them back from the abyss. That’s also real.
Though I continue to be loyal to the notion that we all— both institutionally and individually— could do a much better job creating and sustaining loving school communities, these alums above force me to look a hard truth in the face. There is no guaranteed inoculation from pain, suffering, depression, disaster. (Indeed, Buddhist teachings have been telling me the same).
And yet. For a while, it seemed vaccination made us immune to Covid and now the variants are sneaking past the guards. But note that vaccination indeed does make a difference as to the severity of the case. From what I understand— and I could be wrong— a positive diagnosis for most vaccinated people (though some exceptions from folks with pre-existing conditions) does not mean a rush to the hospital and respirators. Because of the vaccine, it’s more like a mild flu from which one can recover within a few days. For those without vaccines, it’s a much more serious matter.
So yes, children immersed in supportive, welcoming, effective and loving educational communities are receiving a lifetime vaccine that doesn’t offer full immunity, but makes a difference. A habit of critical thought inoculates them somewhat against crazed conspiracy theories and obvious lies. An education that attends to the social-emotional aspects of learning helps people develop coping strategies when depression or self-doubt sets in. A school committed to social justice teaches people to work beyond their personal pleasures, powers and privileges to contribute to a greater good. A curriculum that pays serious attention to the arts creates people to express the full range of emotion in paints, clay, movements, poems, plays, music, all of which helps steer them away from guns and angry outbursts. A school community built on caring teaches people that we need each other and are available to each other in times of crisis and in times of joy. All these lifetime vaccination that don’t shield us completely from life’s catastrophes, but lessen the impact when they arrive.
When the young woman shared her attempted suicide on Facebook, I immediately found a photo of her at six-year-old playing an instrument and looking into the eyes of her fellow musician with an infectious smile and loving joy. I wrote to her:
"I am so sorry to hear your difficult, difficult news. It was hard for me to connect it with this beautiful, joyful child I knew. But I know she’s still there with you and I hope you keep her by your side as you move forward.”
My attempt at a vaccine booster to lessen the impact.