A World Without Safe Havens
Submitted by: Jennifer McGee, Principal of Atwood Primary School
June 12, 2016
Yesterday, when I woke up, I saw the news. There on the television screen, along the bottom, scrolled: 50 dead, 53 injured. As the morning progressed, more news came out about the venue…a nightclub in Orlando…a safe haven for people who are gay, bi-sexual, transgender.
A safe haven? Is there any such place? Not a nightclub. Not a marathon. Not a theater. Not a workplace. Not a church. Not a school.
The words of Zoe Weil rang in my ears: The World Becomes What You Teach. What is our role, as school administrators, raising children in a world that has no safe haven?
I often quote Randy Pausch from The Last Lecture. In his book he prophetically states: “Are you spending your time on the right things? Because time is all you have.” As I headed out to my garden plot, where I do my best thinking, I thought about our use of time at school. How should we use time to explicitly work to make our world safe?
When I was a child, we used to go for Sunday drives. We would randomly stop at friend’s houses to visit…to share a pie or drop off a loaf of homemade bread…to catch up. Neighbors stopped in to visit us; we stopped in to visit them. Lives weren’t so full. There was time to visit. There was time to get to know our neighbors. I moved in to my new home in August, and ten months later I have not visited a single neighbor.
As school administrators, that is one thing we can do differently. We can insist that our teachers KNOW their students. We can make sure no one goes through our schools anonymously. We can prioritize relationships in the walls and in the halls of our buildings so children do not leave our schools feeling empty, alone, angry and alienated. And for those children who are difficult to bond with…we can create a plan to help them get what they need. As difficult as some of our students are in 2016, we have never had more knowledge about the brain, and we have never had more resources than we have today. Our job is to never look away from a child who needs help. Life is a journey meant to be shared. If our children are isolating, it’s a call for help.
We can teach kindness. If that sounds hollow, I mean it deeply. Although we cannot always control how our students behave…we can ALWAYS control the way we respond to that behavior. Our response to each and every situation should always be kind, humane, and respectful … always leaving students with their dignity. Children are watching…believe me…they are watching. I can always tell, the minute I walk into a classroom, if the teacher models kind interactions…because in those classrooms, the children are also kind. Lead with kindness. Insist on kindness.
We should teach children to value life. All life. Those who connect to the earth are healthier…mind, body and soul. Today’s children can more readily identify the symbols of Target, McDonald’s and Sweet Frog than they can name dandelions, chickadees, blue jays and daffodils. When a child spots a spider making a web, teach them to slow down and admire the work of nature, rather than to thoughtlessly tear apart the web or kill the spider. Connect children to the natural beauty of the world…plants, animals and human beings. There is wonderful variety in all of these species…find and notice and revere the beauty in all of it.
Because insecticides are not used on organic fruits and vegetables, they are often riddled with blemishes and flaws; however the taste and quality of the vegetables are just as sweet as the visually perfect fruits and vegetables. Our schools need to deliberately teach our students to look beyond the superficial and look more deeply into the value of human beings. We need to work very hard to find all of the ways every person can meaningfully contribute, and then honor those contributions. As teachers, every child should receive specific and thoughtful feedback that inspires and moves that child forward.
As our students watch and listen to the adults surrounding them, they should never, ever hear a statement that devalues a contribution. To hear a slur from a coach that a male player needs to “pull up his skirt” or to hear a teacher say a student will “flip hamburgers for a living” is unconscionable. If a trusted adult is using phrases that devalue any component of our population, we are in essence giving carte blanche permission for cruelty, for bullying and for prejudice. Words hurt. We need to use them carefully.
When high school students graduate, I often give them a book called The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence by Gavin de Becker. Perhaps now is the time to actively teach our students to use the gift of their own intuition. Gavin de Becker teaches us: “You have the gift of a brilliant internal guardian that stands ready to warn you of hazards and guide you through risky situations.” So often, we talk ourselves “out” of the feeling when the “hair stands up on the back of our necks”. That feeling is our intuition, and as a nation, we need to start listening. When a neighbor is acting strangely, when a shopper is behaving in an unusual manner, when we feel fear, we need to report. If we are wrong, we are wrong…but if we are right…we could save lives. Homeland security, the local police, and the FBI have not been enough to keep innocent people safe. We all need to actively use our “gift” of fear.
In our schools we are teaching children how to respond to fire drills, but we are also having lock downs, lock outs, and hold in place drills…the time has come. Even Fenway Park had an emergency drill before a ball game last week. We need to start preparing ourselves for the unthinkable.
In summary, however, like Anne Frank, even on the eve of the horrific Orlando mass shootings, “…in spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.” As school leaders if we can ensure every child has an educational journey enshrined in kindness, acceptance, a connection with nature and a respect for life, and if we can promise every adult in our buildings is a positive and healthy role model who is committed to establishing meaningful relationships with students, we will have spent our time on the right things…moving our world to be what we want it to become.