Just the Sort of Place for a Surprise

Before the Thanksgiving holiday, I spoke to our weekly Town Meeting of students and faculty about our recent Development Day speakers and how we might think about the remarks they shared with our school community. 

Address to Students and Faculty, Town Meeting (Monday, November 20, 2017): 

A friend of mine who is the head of another boarding school just published a book called Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces dealing with the deepening issue that college campuses in particular—but also independent schools—are having with both ideological conformity and lack of productive dialogue. I know I talk about this a lot, but if a community is to be just, as we would like ours to be—and if “just” means fair, equitable, balanced, and rightly aligned with truth—then a community has to become safe for its members to move in opposition without fearing a threat each to the other.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but I have found myself thinking about this concept, particularly the phrase “safe spaces,” which has accrued a penumbra of political correctness and is often ridiculed because of its misapplication in so many educational settings.   

I thought about it on Friday, November 17, when we had two very different speakers come to the Springs campus: John Merrill, the Secretary of State of Alabama, and the journalist John Archibald, who writes a column for AL.com.  Both had been on television in the days leading up to their visits: John Merrill on CNN refusing to deny his support to Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore despite numerous allegations of his sexual misconduct with minors; Archibald on MSNBC with Rachel Maddow, who wanted to hear his take on whether or not Roy Moore would, nevertheless, win the Senate seat in Alabama.  We were fortunate enough to have their visits as bookends to our day of service, “Development Day.”

When I heard some of the reactions to those talks—lots of very different reactions (some even trying to figure out who “won,” which was an intriguing question I hadn’t anticipated), I thought about what we should do next, how to “debrief.”  We will always have as many different reactions to things presented to us as there are distinct individuals in this concert hall, but if we don’t discuss those reactions then we have no way of knowing how any speaker was received by the community.  So we do this debriefing work in various ways here, including in our advising groups, and in these conversations I find I learn a great deal not just from the responses themselves but also from the fact that there is such a huge range of responses to the same shared experience. John Archibald mentioned that even in situations where something notable happens, and two people see it happen at the same time, each person’s truth about what happened could be miles apart and no less true.

Imagine how much more space for division, how much wider still are the spaces between our truths when we’re not just talking about actions but about words, about what somebody said, which is at its simplest a representation of reality and at its most complex a set of ideas put into lively relationship to one another then allowed to take meaning anywhere it’s willing to go. Each word has a slightly different meaning for each of us depending on the context in which we learned it (correctly or incorrectly), heard it used, used it ourselves, read it in connection with other equally slippery words, and on and on. The possibilities for misunderstanding grow exponentially with every word that goes by.

Dr. Sharon Howell

Dr. Sharon Howell

I hope all of you have read Winnie-the-Pooh, and if you haven’t that you will read it as soon as possible, but there’s a passage in one of the stories when Owl is talking to Pooh about having arrived at a dangerous place, and this wonderful mistake happens (keep in mind that “gorse” means “thorn”):

"It's just the sort of place," Owl explained, "for an Ambush."

"What sort of bush?" whispered Pooh to Piglet. "A gorse-bush?"

"My dear Pooh," said Owl in his superior way, "don't you know what an Ambush is?"

"An Ambush," said Owl, "is a sort of Surprise."

"So is a gorse-bush sometimes," said Pooh.

That’s an extreme version of what happens linguistically every time we talk to each other—you can mishear or misdefine a word and then use it to make a completely new truth.  The French and people who enjoy French philosophy call this slippage “différance”—which is a combination of “difference” and “deferral.” The idea is that meanings conveyed by language never quite come into focus—are always a little beyond our grasp—and are by nature fundamentally different from any objective reality.  

All this is to say that on November 17 we stimulated an absolute festival of différance here at Springs, and I don’t want to lose the opportunity for a collective analysis of what happened—not in terms of the topics that were discussed, though these are rich grounds for analysis and I hope we will confront them all eventually, but in terms of what being willing to tolerate a bit of confusion says about our values as a school.

I want to be clear that to my mind what happened was a precious educational experience, mainly because it was so uncomfortable. You’ll remember that being willing to be uncomfortable is one of Bryan Stevenson’s prescriptions for positive change in our summer all-school read, Just Mercy—alongside “getting proximate” to people, places, and things that are unfamiliar or even scary. Being willing to be uncomfortable is being willing to learn.  

Students, I don’t need to remind you that you are all to some extent or another experiencing actual growing pains in your bodies. Those pains are a useful analogy for the pain that any kind of growth causes us when it is real and significant. That’s why it takes some courage to undertake it.  Our bodies force us to go through it, but our minds and constitutions need to be dragged along sometimes.  The Latin source of the word “education” is “educare,” a combination of “ex-” out, and “ducere,” to lead.  At our very best, we are leading you out—and you are leading each other out—somewhat strenuously (“ducere” has a little pulling in it) into spaces where you will be more vulnerable to being transformed by ideas and observations. That vulnerability and discomfort are conditions of the kind of living that is learning.  

Last week I heard from some people who thought it was appalling that someone who had just been on CNN refusing to deny support to Roy Moore was coming to speak at Springs—particularly because that support can be read as a tacit approval of what most of us are pretty convinced is criminal behavior toward young girls. What message, they asked, would it send to our 14-year-old girls that we invite and listen to a man who seems to support sexual abuse?  

I get that question. It’s the right one. And what I want to say is this:

When we take the opportunity to listen to a man who is an elected official in this state we all live in, a man who represents you and me in the lawmaking body of Alabama—when we listen to him we are hearing the prevailing will of the people who live here (or at least the people who lived here before 2015, when he was elected to office). That is undeniable reality, and it doesn’t help to ignore it.  So the message I think our willingness to listen to John Merrill sends is that we are taking seriously the reality of our shared life, and allowing it to occupy space and to educate us.  

It is no different when we listen to a columnist from AL.com, who clearly states his biases and editorializes on some of the same facts (about voter registration, for example) but comes up with very different conclusions.  If what you hear from either of these people about voting rights, separation of church and state, gerrymandering, or anything else disgusts, frustrates, or exasperates you, hold on to that reaction—that reaction is the beginning of you being led out into a space of ideas and opposing views.  It is you being made to look at the divisions between people’s truths, and to try and understand what they mean.  It is probably you realizing that you need to be better informed or learn more in order to understand.  It is you being willing to be uncomfortable.  It is learning, and it is what we are all here to do.  

Which brings me back to the idea of “safe spaces.”  The accepted meaning of this term has become “spaces safe from conflict and division, safe from trauma and triggers of trauma, etc.”  There is always going to be a time when we as individuals need this kind of space to be sheltered from harm.  That is very important and I’m not minimizing it.  

But I hope we can think about Springs as a safe space not in this way—not as a space safe FROM discomfort, but as a space where it is safe TO engage in dialectical conversations, safe to be heard, safe to acknowledge and look straight at difference and division.   Springs needs to be a safe space to disagree and learn together about what is arguable, how to recognize the bias we all bring to every encounter and conversation, and to recognize the deep contingency of our own historical moment as well as just how much the “truth” as we think of it is dependent on a dizzying number of contexts and contingencies.  

That’s why it was so bracing when Isaac Zhou '19 reminded us that we were taking the virtues of our own context for granted.  We were like the fish who gets asked by another fish, “How’s the water?” and answers: “What’s water?”  By the way, there is no other school in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, or Louisiana where this illumination could have occurred in precisely this way.  Isaac reminded us of the complete government control of media in China because it has been his lived experience—he reminded us of how fortunate we are to have a free press, open dialogue, and argument in the public square—and how essential it is to our democracy.

Mind you, as I have said, there are things that aren’t arguable, and to argue about them in the public square demeans that space.  As some of you reminded us forcefully in your questions, the facts about and the nature of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse are such things. That is, they are not issues to be debated, but evils to be denied.  I’m going to say more about these things another day, because there is an inescapable reckoning around them going on in this country that we as informed citizens need to be aware of. 

But for now, I want to leave you with a couple of questions to contemplate over Thanksgiving, along with your gratitude and pie (which hopefully will be served to you in giant slices).  I want to ask you about how this Town Meeting space functions. It is one of the only places we gather as a whole school, so:

What if at Town Meeting you heard things that helped you understand the state of the world?  What’s happening in government or science or technology or the arts?

What if at Town Meeting you heard each other’s stories and ideas, and those stories and ideas surprised and amazed and humbled you?

What if at Town Meeting you aired community issues and ended up changing things here for the better?

What if this was just the sort of place for a sort of a Surprise? A brave space? What if we started our weeks together with some collective courage?

Think about it.  I hope you know that being part of Indian Springs is one of the things in my own life that I am most grateful for ... when I look out at your faces I am thankful that this is the very particular school-community where I get to live and work.  So have a very happy Thanksgiving, get some sleep, read Winnie-the-Pooh, and get ready to be brave when you get back.   

Talking, Writing, and Getting Complicated

People do lots of talking in schools. All day long. Talk is the primary mode in which we teach, when we gather in one place.  

But many writers will tell you that you can't really know what you think about something until you've written about it.  

Sure, we think in conversation, and in contemplation, too—and some people would say these are the ways they think best, including, I suppose, Socrates, who thought that the scholarly disputation was the most effective route to understanding. But that's not the kind of random access thinking I mean. I'm talking about thinking that puts concepts and objects into coordinated motion, creating orderly, locomotive meaning out of messy experience. It's not the kind of thinking we can do before we begin writing, and then transcribe faithfully, except in the most aphoristic and unusual circumstances. Instead, synthesizing and drawing conclusions about something bigger than a bumper sticker requires an encounter with actual syntax.  

Or at least, that's what it requires from me. And we should remember that Socrates believed that the emerging technology of "writing things down" would endanger our ability to remember them.  

Chandni Modi '19 writes in Critical Reading and Analytical Writing class.

Chandni Modi '19 writes in Critical Reading and Analytical Writing class.

I work in an environment—a secondary school—where there is lots of speaking: lots of questions and answers spoken in real time, lots of meetings where we announce and opine and discuss. And discussion has a role to play in education that is crucial and inimitable—conversation at its best can offer the satisfactions of both an art and a sport. The presence of good talk, honest interchange, open dialogue, and robust, civilized debate may be one of the best barometers of a healthy community.  

But we also need to learn to write, and that is most often a non-communal activity—it is how we learn to think for ourselves, as ourselves, individually. Secondary school was where I myself found literature, realized that it was essential to a suitably complex existence, and started to try making some for myself. I started to write in a composition book, and got hooked on the life of the mind. Writing for me meant having the power to bring to life a world where I could make anything do anything, where I could say exactly what I meant, and where there was space for my ideas—indeed, the only thing on that blank page was space for my ideas and imaginings, so I started having more and more of them. I managed to do this in some cases despite a rigorous boarding school schedule of classes (even on Saturdays), sports, and extracurriculars—on rambles in the woods and hours alone in the library. There was even one late spring two-hour detention (for missing required morning chapel) when I discovered William Carlos Williams' Spring and All, about which I eventually wrote part of my dissertation.   

What I knew then, and what I recognize continually anew, is that because the world is complicated, and our feelings about it are complicated, we can't only skim the surface of it and be full human beings. Complication is not chaos, but a species of order.  It's the kind of order our thinking takes as we write sentences that are complex—sentences that fold, crease, and articulate. And as they do that, ideas too become more layered, more substantive, and more characterized by depth. "Complicate" derives from the Latin "complicare," or "to weave together." This is what we do with language when we write. Our loose thinking needs the loom of writing, just as loose threads need an actual loom, to become a sensible fabric we can use.

We don't always catch the weaving maneuvers that writers make to help us reconstruct their logic for ourselves and understand their meanings. But even if we are not conscious of it, the machinery is there, and good writers are using it. When I realized I could also use this machinery to make myself understood, and to take readers to a mental place where they could see what I saw, it was like discovering a super power. I had to practice it in the backyard of countless journals like the X-Men (with similarly catastrophic moments), but it was worth it.  

If we're going to approach the world's complexity and attempt to reflect it in our thinking, we need to be able to write, using all our resources: grasp of syntax, precise vocabulary, prosody (cadence, tone, rhythm), and structure. So let's keep on talking. But let's get writing, too. 

The Town Meeting

Since I've been here at Indian Springs there have been three "Town Meetings" that have fallen outside the ordinary model of announcements and updates from commissioners—with the occasional student reflection. These outliers have resembled more closely, I think, the Town Meetings that used to happen at Springs when students wanted to talk about an issue that mattered to the community.  

The first was held right after the election of President Donald Trump, and it gave us a chance to hear from students directly in what was a very raw moment for many of them. The students who spoke were feeling and thinking such a wide range of feelings and ideas that in order to be a community we needed simply to be together, listening to one another generously.  

I have followed up that meeting with a series of smaller gatherings where those conversations have continued, and these have filled me with much-needed hope. Not long ago I had lunch with a joint meeting of the Springs Young Democrats and Young Republicans; in speaking with their leaders, it is clear they want both to find common ground and to be more informed by coming into contact with differences of opinion. I think many of these colloquies can trace their origins to that Town Meeting in November. 

The second meeting was last week, when Mayor Dewey Wilbanks called us together to discuss the role of privilege in light of recent random acts of disrespect. Dewey framed the conversation as a way to start "unpacking our privilege" and understanding the ways we take for granted our levels of access to the world, and comfort with ourselves in relation to others. 

Spring 2017 Mayor Dewey Wilbanks '17 at a Town Meeting in March

Spring 2017 Mayor Dewey Wilbanks '17 at a Town Meeting in March

I am always very proud of the students who rise and come to the microphone in these forums: It takes lots of courage not only to decide to share a thought, but also to try to fit that thought into the larger discussion in a way that makes sense. While this can certainly be challenging, that day I was impressed with students for trying, and with their classmates for showing them respect in a vulnerable moment.

It also became clear to me that we need to make room for more of these gatherings, so they can be what I have heard they used to be and have the potential to be again: time and space where students engage their intellects and passions, in real time, to address things they care about. So far, every student's attempt to voice complicated and potentially combustible ideas in this public way has been genuine and fervent: two very good things for a student to be.

Finally, these meetings should be opportunities to approach together what is on our minds, and to go beyond shallow mention of fundamental questions (e.g., what should a respectful community look like?) to a place of deeper collective understanding. And as a happy byproduct, we will know each other better. We're fortunate that we get to do this—we have command of our time in ways other institutions do not. So, students: Care, try hard, and bring your whole self to the trying—be genuine and fervent. If you'll do that, I promise we’ll continue to expand the time, space, and substance of Town Meetings to make more room for your voices in deeper conversation.


The Idealist

As an idealist in an independent school, I spend much of my time feeling impatient.  

It is idealistic impatience, born of the certainty that there is more to be done to serve our students than we can ever do, well enough, in the time we have—and the simultaneous certainty that we are obliged to keep trying, because it can be done. What I mean is, we can make education better not just for our kids but for the world of kids out there, and we could do it faster if we tried harder and were braver about it. The faster we do it, the more kids will have a chance to see what they can accomplish. The more kids will have transformative educations.

The rest of my time I spend feeling extraordinarily lucky to be part of an endeavor where there is almost endless possibility for innovation, and where the chief goal is an ancient one: to guide young women and men as they try to find freedom, meaning, and joy in their lives.                     

I came to secondary school leadership in 2014, having spent many years at Harvard University as an academic dean, faculty member, and senior administrator. Living side-by-side with hundreds of students each year, I came to understand them very well, and to admire them immensely. Over the years, though, I also became more and more concerned with what I was observing in these super-achieving students, and in our capacity to educate them. These were some of the most “successful” students in the world, but they were struggling profoundly.                      

How could we help them to be braver? To be more willing to make mistakes, and take risks? Not just to learn what they thought we wanted them to know, but to go after things, to take initiative, to take detours? They needed to know one another and themselves better—how both to reflect and to truly converse, not just to network—to talk about important things with each other without agendas or mediating devices. To truly achieve their potential, they needed to be less anxious and abstracted, and more able to be fully present in their lives.                        

We needed, in short, a way to help them expand what they understood to be excellent. Harry Lewis’s 2007 book Excellence without a Soul had a whole chapter on the Harvard residential system, and how we were failing to help students understand education not as a series of transactions that would lead to credentials, but as something much more mysterious and profound. Since then, many books have pointed to risk-aversion and lack of intellectual and emotional range—as well as cupidity and cynicism—as significant problems that schools and colleges are not addressing.*  

But as it turns out, I decided that I needed to start working with students earlier: during those teenage years that are arguably the most transformative.

Which is how, a couple of years later, I landed here at Indian Springs, a school that has confounded my expectations in life-changing ways. It is easy to talk about a transformative educational experience—where students express and cultivate their individuality, act freely, learn through experience, learn skills to serve vital and authentic ends, make the most of opportunities as they present themselves, and become intimately acquainted with a changing world. These are John Dewey’s great forces against transactional education—and they are still guideposts for us as we try to do what we know should be done in our schools.                 

Indian Springs School Head of School Dr. Sharon Howell

Indian Springs School Head of School Dr. Sharon Howell

The challenge is to figure out how not only to talk about, but actually to create that transformative experience, and then to make it known as a better version of excellence. I think it’s urgent for Springs to be truly committed to doing this, and committed to trying things on the way, failing, and trying again, precisely as we hope students will do.

We need to teach students how to see each other as multidimensional people, how to seek out and respect one another’s stories, how to have fun together, how to be healthy and independent, and how to look beyond themselves while also looking deeply into their own experiences to understand and contextualize them. We need to know ourselves honestly in the context of the world—to understand what it means to be a progressive boarding school in Birmingham, Alabama—and not be afraid to claim our crucial importance. We need to know that our greatest power lies in people—and not just in the individual excellence of students and teachers, but in the collective power that is possible when we truly listen to one another and are brave enough to work together equitably.

For me, being here in Birmingham at this particular historical crossroad feels like a precious opportunity. Here, as across our country, the divisions among us are in a new kind of relief, and that means that we have a new chance to address them. I want us to take full educational advantage of being close to these real misunderstandings and apparent fault lines—to see them and speak to them in the spirit of bridging and healing them. How exciting to have the chance to teach students not only how to evaluate the barrages of stimuli they constantly encounter so they can get the world in facts and truths, but also to find common ground with one another and understand their actions and relations through deep mutual knowledge.

We have the chance to do that here.               

I am still impatient for the future in which all of what we do at school is urgent, relevant, transformative, and empowering. I also know my incredible luck in being able to help shape a school such as Springs. There may be more to be done than we can ever do, but there is no greater privilege than to try.


*See William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep; Kevin Carey, The End of College; and Mark Edmundson, Why Teach?, among others.