Thursday, June 21, 2012

Lessons From My Tribe

Our seniors graduated this week.  They've been a tough class, to put it mildly.  They're a crazy and dysfunctional bunch, loyal to a fault, their own tribe.  And as a tribe they bid farewell to us and our school's community on Tuesday.  One of the girls in this group -- brilliant, kind, writes beautifully -- has cerebral palsy and has walked with crutches as long as we have known her.  Happily, my school is the sort of place where this didn't have any noticeable effect on the way her peers treated her, and they have always taken her slower gait and sometimes awkward movements as nothing more than unremarkable characteristics of hers.  For her part, she is not shy about discussing her CP, but never casts herself as a victim.  She was voted one of the student speakers for graduation, and one remark she made struck me so strongly, I jotted it down.  She said to us all, "Moments of vulnerability are a sign of your incredible strength."

One of the miracles of teaching in one place for a number of years is that you get to watch kids grow up, change, evolve.  Last summer, this particular girl had an operation (one in a line of many over the course of her life) that helped to straighten out her legs.  All year she's been working intensively to become less reliant on her crutches, and has a goal of not needing them at all a year from now.  Tuesday, each of the students walked across the stage to collect their diplomas, and when it was her moment, a friend sitting next to her stood with her so as to give support and balance.  But instead of taking her arm, this girl said aloud, "One second."  She stood without the support of her friend or crutches, found her balance, and then she walked.  She walked across the stage and into the arms of our principal.  I wept.  It was utterly beautiful.  A true graduation.

Just a few days previous to this she and I were talking about being liked, and being loved.  I was reminded once again that being loved is all that humans really want, what we crave on such a fundamental level that we often cannot name it, this deep and insistent hunger within us.  And if I feel like this as an adult, how much more urgent and wild must this craving be within children?  It is everything.

My principal retired in January.  I miss him incredibly and all the time.  I miss his daily influence in my life, and am forever grateful for what he taught me over the past many years.  Ultimately what I learned from him is this: love children.  What this means is: see them as the individuals they are, forgive them again and again, hug them, love them, love them.  And he embodied this more than anyone I've ever known.  Each year during graduation, at least one of the student speakers inevitably cites their evidence for his unconditional love by describing his morning routine of standing outside the school and hugging every child as they enter the building.  Even when it's raining or snowing, they say, he stands outside and hugs us -- who else does that?

I remember a conversation I had with our college advisor (another amazing person I admire and respect to no end) about how she has the patience to deal with all the juniors and seniors as they apply for college; they miss deadlines, ignore her advice, wait until the last minute, expect miracles...  And through it all she patiently guides them along, getting every last one into college.  She explained to me that when she first took the job so many years back, our principal said to her, "Pretend every child is your child."  This is the love that is needed to make sure every student makes it.  It is a sacrificial, devoted, patient, maternal love.

Several years ago a particularly belligerent and unruly boy was admitted into the seventh grade.  He spent most of that year hanging out in the hallway, alternately ignoring or cursing at teachers who tried to usher him back into class.  This went on for a whole year -- a child's growth is often so slow it is seemingly undetectable without time lapse photography.  This week he completed his tenth grade year, and was proud to show me his report cards all year long, boasting mostly passing grades.  He is an engaged and active student because he was unconditionally loved by our community year after year.  Two years from now he will walk across the stage to take up his own diploma, and spot in the greater world.  And if all goes according to plan, he will be patient, kind, and forgiving because that is what we taught him.

I firmly believe this should be every educator's philosophy.  Surely it is mine -- taught to me by my school, my own tribe.

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