Leaving a Mark

April 26, 2017 in Inside SWS

I visited my daughter last weekend, as she finishes her first year of college at my alma mater (I have to remember it is now HER college, too). Predictably, as I enter the small New England town and see the vista across the green where the stately library towers, a few tears roll down my cheeks. And the last stanza of Dear Old Dartmouth rings in my head:

They have the still North in their soul, the hill winds in their breath, And the granite of New Hampshire is made part of them ‘til death.

For me, this place is one of those institutions that David Brooks recently described as “thick,” and leaves a mark on you, perhaps for life. I imagine we can all point to at least one place — a school, a church, a summer camp, a community organization — a piece of which we carry in our memories and hearts long past our engagement there.

Brooks notes the salient characteristics of “thick” institutions that set them apart. Among these are:

  • It becomes a part of your identity, and wholly engages you: head, hands, heart, and soul
  • Your relationship with it is transformational, not transactional
  • It offers a shared culture of traditions, music, language, and place
  • There is a distinct “moral ecology” that calls us to be our best selves and work in service toward a common, higher goal
  • Its idiosyncratic nature provides strong, often unspoken bonds among people who may not have been there at the same time (read Eurythmy and Michaelmas)

Is this sounding familiar? In my conversations with SWS students, parents, faculty, alumni, and colleagues at Waldorf schools across the country, it is resoundingly clear — these are THICK institutions, where in Brook’s words, “there’s an intimacy and identity borne out of common love.”

I would add another distinctive attribute to Brooks’ list, which I think may be unique to Waldorf schools, and is certainly a vital aspect of SWS. That is the importance of story. I don’t mean the fairy tales, fables, or myths our children experience, but rather human story — our stories. The thickness of our school and community is deeply connected to and strengthened by our willingness to create, share, and celebrate our human experience, here and elsewhere.

Writer Neil Gaiman, in his foreword to All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown, a collection of stories edited by Catherine Burns about courage in the face of uncertainty, speaks to the compelling reasons why we share stories with one another about our human journeys. “Honesty matters. Vulnerability matters. Being open about who you were at a moment in time when you were in a difficult or an impossible place matters more than anything… Because we all have stories. Or perhaps, because we are, as humans, already an assemblage of stories. And the gulf that exists between us as people is that when we look at each other we might see faces, skin color, gender, race, or attitudes, but we don’t see, we can’t see, the stories. And once we hear each other’s stories we realize that the things we see as dividing us are, all too often, illusions, falsehoods: that the walls between us are in truth no thicker than scenery.”

The walls are not thick; rather the institution, what we might call our living spiritual vessel, is. Our culture, our music, our traditions, our mission, and the sharing of our human vulnerability… as members of this community our stories are what connect us long past our time here together. And often when I walk onto campus as the sun is rising and the stillness of the early morning hangs peacefully in the air, tears fall. This school has left its mark on me.

Happy spring!

PS Please join us for “Parenting with Identity in Mind” on Monday, May 8 at 7:00 p.m. at the High School Campus. Rosetta Lee, nationally acclaimed diversity trainer and speaker, will share how we can instill positive self-identity in our children and coach them to be positive influences on others’ identities, creating inclusive communities that help all to succeed.