As we head toward our annual celebration of Thanksgiving, gratitude and gratefulness become routine topics of conversation. We have talked about it in our chapel services and in the classrooms. Certainly, it might be a topic around dinner tables at home as well. When asked what they might be thankful for, our students name people, places, and things of great value. Family, friends, pets, material possessions, and our school are often mentioned in the list they recite. Frequently overlooked, however, are the intangible things that bring meaning to our daily lives. The kind words spoken by a friend…the invitation to join a group or a game…the listening ear of a trusted colleague or friend…an encouraging note that affirms our worth as human beings…a phone call that comes at just the right time to say simply “hello”–all examples of actions that speak to the heart. These intangibles, for me, are what top my gratitude list.
At St. Michael’s, we do so much more than teach academics. We create community. We celebrate diversity. We honor the dignity of everyone. We extend a hand of greeting and welcome, making this a school where everyone can find a place and everyone knows your name. That is not always easy, but it is part of ongoing lesson plans, remembering that kindness gets you everywhere, remembering that the intangibles make the biggest difference. Unfortunately, our students see too many examples outside of school that demonstrate the exact opposite. Jokes that bring a laugh at the expense of a person or particular group, or social-media postings that marginalize people different from ourselves. Angry rhetoric and violence that have catastrophic outcomes. Sadly, we do not need to look far to see that our country is becoming increasingly polarized. The trenches between us grow deeper and wider by the day. All of this is on full display in the news, on social media, and in movies and cable shows that seem to have no boundaries. Our students see much of this. It becomes their model. It is hard to find something to be thankful for around that type of behavior.
Author Brené Brown suggests a better way in her most recent book, Braving the Wilderness. Speaking to an assembled group of educators at an Episcopal school conference in Houston this fall, Brown focused on four practices that might just help us to find our way back toward stronger connections and cultivating a greater sense of belonging. The first suggests that we move in closer to those we dislike or to those who might have opposing viewpoints. Rather than remaining at a distance, when we move closer, listen well, and attempt to understand viewpoints different from our own, it is more likely that respect and acceptance can grow. Second, Brown suggests that we speak the truth but in a civil way. We do not have to accept or agree with false or groundless arguments, but we can be civil and respectful in disagreeing. Third, she encourages readers to move outside of comfort zones and get to know strangers. Shake hands, make contact, and picture them as potential friends rather than enemies across a divide. Finally, Brown calls for strong backs, soft fronts, and wild hearts. As we push to be part of the solution, we will be part of bringing communities closer together, modeling civility for others who may be watching, young or old.
Belonging is a human need. Maybe, just maybe, if more people committed to move closer, listen more, and speak in a civil manner while attempting to understand and accept those that are different, our children would see a model for community that celebrates our common humanity, even through our differences. For that, we could all be truly grateful this Thanksgiving, and our world would be a far better place. As we all know, children watch our every move, and big ears hear everything.
Head of School