As an educator, I’ve long held schools should teach students how to think, not what to think. Such a high wire can prove tough on which to balance, especially with older students when exploring meaty topics. Some of my proudest teaching moments came when, after particularly heavy discussions, students said they couldn’t figure out my exact beliefs about the issue at hand. Having incredible power to influence students, teachers must tread carefully. Quite often, that necessitates adopting as objective stance as one can. I feel this even more strongly as a head of school. It can be hard, both professionally and personally. You can grow frustrated with feeling that on certain subjects you must restrain, even silence yourself.
The shootings in Dallas on July 7, 2016, have me reflecting on this stance. Dallas has been my home since 1990. Any time something extreme happens in your backyard rather than elsewhere, it ignites an ember previously only smoldering. St. John’s Episcopal School has a special relationship with some Dallas officers, as do a few employees in their personal lives. Furthermore, if my family had not been out of town, my daughter likely would have attended the peace march. I probably would have gone with her; my wife and son may have come. Our dinner conversations often become animated about political and social issues. We’ve all agonized over events of the past several years. My wife worries about what it means that for this generation of teens 9/11 is a first memory, the beginning of a grotesque panoply of violence around the world.
It’s not just Dallas. In this country it’s Minneapolis, Baton Rouge, Charleston, Orlando, Baltimore, Ferguson, Staten Island, San Diego, Newtown, assorted schools and universities. Abroad it’s Paris, London, Baghdad, Jakarta, Turkey, Jerusalem, Somalia, Tehran, Norway. As those are just the ones popping into my mind, the list is thus sadly incomplete. The cruel irony is while statistically we live in one of the safest eras ever, we feel quite the opposite. Perhaps our anxiety stems from the random yet not-so-random nature of the violence. The terrorists—and aren’t all these acts of mayhem acts of terror?—seem to strike anywhere at any time, yet with very specific intent. No group seems immune from someone’s bile. Our fear and loathing spike off the charts. Life seems to have reached some sort of tragic singularity, the real world and the worst of the Internet having merged. In such a climate, I derive a weird tinge of gratitude that I still can be shocked.
We also shouldn’t be totally surprised by this happening in Dallas. Yes, we have progressed greatly over the past few decades. The marchers portrayed a diverse mosaic, protestors and police swapped flowers while taking selfies, and we saw a beautiful lovefest at Potter’s House. But we suffer from the same human vices as most areas. We remain a city deeply divided, and not just by the Trinity River. De facto segregation organizes our neighborhoods and public schools and churches and civic organizations. Dallas is called one of America’s gay-friendliest cities, yet homophobia is prevalent. And Dallas is one of the more liberal areas of Texas, where state officials see keeping transgender people in the “right” bathrooms as a top priority. Right now in Dallas—everywhere, I think—the hope is that the love found within the pain endures. Only then will come deeper, more systemic healing—from not just recent events, but also institutionalized wrongs.
Education can provide a balm. For that, we have to rethink its purpose and embrace its possibilities. School can’t be just about measurable outcomes, test scores, securing employment, and international competitiveness. Education needs soul. An education that matters helps young people gradually discern how to lead a life full of meaning and purpose. That’s intensely personal. For many young people today, that means battling injustice. For example, they wisely reject the notion we should—or ever could—be color blind regarding race. Instead, they desire to see empathetically how all our individual differences affect the way we experience the world…and the myriad ways each of us can enrich the world. I’m proud St. John’s Episcopal School strives to be “an inclusive community where the dignity of every human being is respected.”
I still believe schools must walk a fine line. In reality all schools teach two general curricula. One is the explicit curriculum: the subjects, the defined program. The other is the implicit curriculum: the lessons a student discerns through watching adults and the cultural practices. While both matter, the latter has vaster implications. Thus, while we should not overtly proselytize or politicize, we can insist on some basic and universal human values. Ideally, a school encourages us to fly with our higher angels.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers to our massive challenges. My current pain and confusion, combined with ongoing experience, erase any such quixotic fancy. After all, traces of festering rot have plagued humans forever. Still, I believe we can contain their spread. To draw strength these days, I find myself often recalling a story from earlier in my career, when I worked at another school. An administrator and I were dealing with a painful racial incident. As we sat in his office, he began to weep and stammered, “I’m trying so hard to deal with this as the head of the upper school and not as a black man.” Suddenly I had a tiny understanding of race in a way I never had before. As my own tears formed, I said, “You’re the head of upper school and you’re a black man. Don’t try to separate those two things. In fact, I think it’s going to be extra powerful for these kids to see how this incident has affected you in both ways.” He needed that permission not to silence part of himself. Once he had it, he helped us all move forward.
Now I’m giving myself the same permission, even though I’m not sure exactly what it means as a head of school. I suspect it will be much like it was when I worked with students. I won’t preach or make sweeping declarations of truth. But I will ask many very pointed questions. I won’t be as silent. Then maybe together we can figure all this out.