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Thoughts for Summer: Aspirations, Not Requirements

This is Deborah Meier's last Bridging Differences post before she begins a well-deserved summer break. She will return to the blog in September.

Dear Todd,

I visited two schools in Boston last week. One, the Green Academy, just finished its second year, and the staff half laughingly told me that, best of all, "they survived." The other, Mission Hill, always leaves me elated—as well as worried. Enjoying "the moment" while also imagining what dangers lurk is a good and bad habit of mine!

The geographic move Mission Hill was forced into makes some of its aspirations harder to achieve—such as remaining a racially and economically integrated school. As one of the few in Boston, I realize how little that is valued by those "in charge" and how much it is valued by the staff and families at Mission Hill.

Fortunately, the recent Supreme Court decision on affirmative action keeps that dream alive, which given the Court's recent history was hardly to be expected. (You have to enjoy even half-victories!) But it remains a "dream" too often "deferred" (in the words of Langston Hughes).

So, too, the dream of the "common school"—the public center for both adults and children as part of the concept of "successful" schooling. (Actually, I still believe it can exist alongside of carefully designed choice.) The hallmark of public schools, often forgotten by charters and private schools, is that their purpose cannot only be the private good of its particular students. It must include the wider public good. And since not all of us have the same concept of what constitutes the "public good," it's a rather tricky notion.

As I read your short paragraph description of the goals you hold for Odyssey I wondered whether it is possible for schools to spell out what constitutes being "aware of injustice." What happens when my views differ from "yours"—the teacher's, the school's? How can we be both forthright and "neutral"? Is there another, better word than "neutral" for what our stance must be? How do we respond to a child's efforts to remain loyal to their parents' ideals and respectful of ours, too, when they clash?

How can we be respectful to each and every family, community, and child while also, possibly, disagreeing deeply with their sometimes offensive (to us) views? Views that cut deeply into our own beliefs? Do we do this by avoiding situations where we might discover each other's differences? Or do we do this by restricting— as best we can—who is attracted to our school and tell those who "mistakenly" chose us, "you can always leave"?

There is no entirely "successful" solution to this dilemma, but we need to struggle with it. That's one danger of our even trying to define "success"—because it can never be a finished task. We need to keep questioning ourselves and tackling more difficult goals as we go. Survival may be as good as it gets the first year! (At our new high school in New York City in 1985 the adults hit upon Haim Ginott's "It's not our job to make you happy, it's our job to make you strong" to get through the first year.)

So, my advice. Which you didn't ask for. Add to your goals for students some aspirations that cannot be the basis for graduation, but are perhaps just as important. And maybe, being aware of injustice and acting upon it should be an aspiration, but not a graduation requirement?

One of my aspirations, for example, is that we help our students find a vocation that brings them such deep interest and joy that it helps them get through some of the inevitable painful life experiences. In the study of Central Park East's graduates by David Bensman, many students thanked us for having brought music into their lives, especially playing an instrument (including their voice). A few actually pursued it as a career, but many found joy and solace in their musical accomplishments. My love of a good narrative story has certainly played such a role in my life. For my mother, gardening was where she could "lose herself" digging into the damp soil, clipping the dead buds, and wondering what might need attention next.

These "private" avocations—which we sometimes even get paid for—have a cumulatively positive impact on the public at large. Probably. But even if they didn't, we owe it to all children to treasure their private "passions" as well. Even if we can't "demand" such goals in our graduation requirements we can organize school life in ways that enhance such purposes.

As you know, thinking deeply about the habits of mind, work, and heart that make democracy easier to sustain and expand is never ending. But we surely know that we cannot develop such habits without practice! Creating schools where democratic habits can flourish through frequent practice requires some dramatic rethinking of both democracy and schooling! We have a right to view democracy as an agreed-upon public good.

I'm excited to listen and observe as you launch your school, and as you pull out of your visits to good and interesting schools throughout the nation some "lessons" for us all. Hmmm—I think one too-often-overlooked quality of good schools is that they make life seem more interesting.

As I often say to friends, boredom is the true menace of most schools I know, and a not unimportant quality of life itself that good schooling hopefully reduces. It's a disease that kills our noblest goals! (Students write notes in class, whisper to the friend in the next desk, doddle, or engage in wonderful day dreams to overcome it; and that's not always a bad habit!)

Have a good summer, Todd, and all those others who are still reading Bridging Differences—and include some time for day dreaming. And daydream about the kind of loose umbrella organization that can be created—of allies on behalf of public education for democracy.

Deborah

P.S. Before signing off for the summer I can't fail to mention two recently published books—both of which include something written by me! The New American High School, by Theodore Sizer, and Public Education Under Siege, edited by Michael Katz and Mike Rose. And to remind you why it's worth it all, you might buy Next Up at Fenway, by Steve Marantz which reads like a novel but, I can attest, is true to Fenway High School in Boston. And keep up with my thoughts a deborahmeier.com.


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