When you become a parent, you immediately learn how to worry.
You have been entrusted with the most awesome responsibility possible-- caring for a living human and preparing that human for life. There are so many things we want to make sure our children have, but more important, there are so many things we want them to be. The Pew Research Center surveyed parents last year and the number one thing parents wanted their children to be was responsible. Number two was hard working, and number three was helpful to others. Also up there were: empathy” creativity and curiosity.
Obviously schools do not take the lead in developing these attributes, parents do. We take the lead on tasks like literacy and numeracy, but schools also contribute to identity formation because school is the laboratory where children and adolescents experiment with who they wish to be. This is especially true for schools like Grace that were developed in the context of the Episcopal tradition and have missions that extend beyond school skills. We give time and focus to being as well as knowing. (We do not have a monopoly on this-- other schools and faith traditions that do this as well.)
Last summer, I read a series of books that spoke to how people can grow to be responsible, hard working, helpful, empathetic, creative and curious. “The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough, points to how much we take the Wright brothers for granted these days. Yes, they had the genius moment, but that is not what made them succeed where all others had previously failed. People do not realize that three years after Kitty Hawk few knew that humans had flown. How did they succeed after they had their moment of creative genius? Hard work! As one of the witnesses said of them, "It wasn't luck that made them fly; it was hard work and common sense. They put their whole heart and soul into an idea and they had the faith."
You do not learn to work hard doing things that are boring or disconnected from your life. You learn about the pay-off of hard work by striving for a goal that excites you every day. At schools like Grace, we give students the chance to stick with things until they are done. The Wright brothers were the epitome of project-based learners. Life flies by (no pun intended) very rapidly and modern kids are acculturated to instant gratification. Schools, by contrast, are counter-cultural in this area, and provide students with learning experiences that stretch out over months or years and end in excellence and achievement.
The other secret to the Wright brothers’ success was they way they learned from each other and other people. Good schools are not just about me. Good schools are where students learn the power of we. How then do we best work together?
Another of my informative summer reads was one by GCS class of ’75 alumnus David Brooks, “The Road to Character.” Brooks talked about two different kinds of virtues: Résumé Virtues and Eulogy Virtues. Brooks says that Résumé Virtues are the me things, the skills you bring to the marketplace, but when the time of reckoning comes they are not that important. It is the we things, the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful, that make the difference. As Jackie Robinson said, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” The people that Brooks writes about, like Dwight Eisenhower and Dorothy Day, accomplished great things because their first focus was on how they could affect the lives of others - how they could accomplish great things with and for others.
Our strength as a school is in the way we help each other. Beginning in the fall, we made the theme for the faculty this year caring and sharing. If we focus on how we can care and share, we will build a powerful community of learners. It does not work to only do our bit. It works when we care and share and extend beyond ourselves.
Ta-Nehesi Coats book, “Between the World and Me” is a sobering and eye-opening story that leads each of us to ask, “Where have we helped something bad happen, by ignoring injustice, by sitting silence in the face of prejudice, of not realizing that by our inaction we are acting?” It is not enough for me to say, I am a nice person or I don't do those things. If we are not actively working toward creating social justice and fostering anti-racism in this community, then we are part of the problem.
Even if we are not the bully, if we are not the anti-bully then we are on the side of bullies. True empathy is when we learn to understand not only what we feel, but also what others who have a different experience feel, and then build our actions around that understanding. The diversity of the school population and the freedom to raise questions makes school a perfect place to help children learn empathy, and from that, how to become agents of social justice instead of passive recipients. I go back to sharing and caring, hard work and faith, which help us be actively engaged in building empathy in our students. People who are broadly empathetic are best equipped to be creative problem solvers. Building empathy then, is a key attribute if we want our students to be creative thinkers and helpful to others.
In the end, I want go back to Orville and Wilbur Wright. They only wanted one thing: to bring flight to humanity. Wilbur is quoted as saying, “If I were to give a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, ‘Pick out a good mother and father and begin life in Ohio.’” Our mission as parents and teachers should be to create that virtual “Ohio” by building the structures and programs that give students the opportunity to develop into people whose lives have an impact on others, and who are genuinely we people.