The Setting Out: Marking Beginnings and Honoring Courage

This is the setting out.

The leaving of everything behind.

Leaving the social milieu. The preconceptions.

The definitions. The language. The Narrowed field of vision. The expectations.

No longer expecting relationships, memories, words, or letters to mean what they used to mean. To be, in a word: Open.

~ Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

Endings tend to be more ritualized than beginnings in this field of work. There are great graduation ceremonies full of pomp and circumstance, commencement addresses, and valedictorian speeches. But we don’t often seem to take the time that we should to pause and notice the enormity of beginnings: be it the first day of preschool, kindergarten, or just a new year. But at this time of year, I must tell you that beginnings are critical. They are huge. They are auspicious. They are pregnant with hope and expectation. As students walk into school on the first day, we should recognize the Herculean effort and the tremendous cultivation of courage on the part of students and teachers alike, and the Marianas Trench-like depth of trust required of parents as they hand off their children to “become educated” in our schools and institutions.

This is no small matter.

As a former student who has been through 19 years of formal schooling myself; then, as a school teacher of twenty-three years, a school leader of fifteen years, and as a parent of two teenagers, I am keenly and acutely aware of the thought, emotion and effort that goes into the lead up to this first day of school. This summer, I have spent months working on hiring, budgeting, cleaning and maintenance, curriculum planning, purchasing materials, recruitment and enrollment, negotiating financial aid awards and coalescing a team of teachers who are ready to set the world and their charges alight with the flame of learning. Students have gathered new clothes, reconnected with old friends, perhaps reviewed their times tables, and summoned their strength and determination. And parents have oscillated between the joy and promise of returning to the emptier quieter house, a familiar hallmark of fall, and the terror and sorrow of letting go of, or at least loosening the reins a bit on their most prized and deepest relationships- those with their children.

Courage. This all takes courage, especially here, “at the beginning,” and it should be duly noted and celebrated. Brené Brown says, “Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor – the Latin word for heart.” Courage has to do with cultivating inner strength, from our heart, and using it to propel us outwardly into the world. Courage is a combination of bravery, commitment and willingness to take a risk. We sometimes forget that for teachers, parents and children, summoning this courage requires a huge leap of faith, and it needs and deserves our collective recognition and support.

At Salmonberry School in particular, opening the doors each of the past fifteen years to the island’s children has represented an audaciously ambitious gesture of hope and commitment. As Rabbi Kushner suggests in the lines above, Salmonberry represents a “letting go of preconceptions” about what school is or should be. “What are schools for?” Ron Miller once asked in a book by that title. Is it really primarily about learning a prescribed age-tied set of standardized skills and facts, and assessing students’ progress on norm-referenced standardized tests? Salmonberry School has decided no, schools must be for so much more than that.

Our mission is about each and every day, showing up and wrestling with the existential question, “what does this child, this particular child, in this particular place, and in this moment need of me?” This demands great courage on the part of our educators. There is no “teacher-proof” or scripted curriculum here. Teachers do not have the safety of single-grade-level classrooms, with district approved textbooks, grade-level faculty teams and discipline-based departments where curriculum and procedures are handed to you. You create the world as a Salmonberry teacher. And, as Parker Palmer says, “we teach who we are.” And as Zoe Weill says, “The world becomes what you teach.” Courage.

Salmonberry requires great courage on the part of students. We don’t “do school” like they do it across the street or in more institutionalized settings. This model demands that you bring all of yourself as a learner. There is no hiding in our intimate classrooms. Nowhere is the comfort of anonymity. You are seen. You are heard. You are known, by your friends and by your teachers. You are asked to reflect on yourself and your own learning and to honestly evaluate your effort and progress. You are asked to share your thoughts and feelings. You are immediately thrust into the role of being an integral member of a community who expects you to participate fully. Courage is required.

Salmonberry demands huge courage from its parents. How can you trust a school that’s so unconventional in some ways. Will my child learn without homework, without tests, without grades? Friends and neighbors raise eyebrows and cast aspersions on your decision to “abandon” the public school, the nexus of our island community. This takes courage, real courage. And what if your child has a bad day, or seems to lag behind in her reading? Then what? How do you hang on to your trust and your core belief that the educators at Salmonberry have a handle on this, and that learning will occur beautifully and naturally at its own pace and in its own unique trajectory. And that’s okay!  “Sometimes love means letting go, when all you want to do is to hold on tighter.” Courage.

Today, I want to recognize that when all this courage is mustered by all the members of this learning community at one time; and when in one moment, one single glorious moment when the doors open on September 6. When teachers are ready to embrace kids, even if they are suppressing butterflies in their stomachs; when parents are ready to let go, even perhaps while fighting back tears. And when students enter the buildings with the commitment to be vulnerable, to be present and to fully engage with their friends, their teachers and own learning. This my friends is when magic happens!

I raise a glass of lemonade to you all on this hot mid-August day. And I toast your courage, and the alchemical magic I know it is about to inspire.