During the last round of class meetings, Associate Director for Student Life Jimmy Manyuru and I invited Waynflete juniors and seniors to apply for an opportunity to take on perhaps the most pressing challenge of our time—civic dysfunction.
While our nation faces many urgent challenges right now—including promoting economic opportunity, environmental sustainability, and social justice while avoiding nuclear war—none arguably is as urgent as the need to strengthen our democratic institutions so that we can as a society meet those pressing challenges thoughtfully, effectively, and fairly for the benefit of all.
For the past eight months, a planning team that includes Jimmy, Assistant Head for Student Life Lydia Maier, and me has been developing a cross-community response to this challenge. At the root of the dysfunction are the deep divisions among US citizens along lines of identity and viewpoint, paralyzing divisions that have raised an essential question on which our future as a society depends:
Can we harness the wisdom and power inherent in the great diversity of the American people to revitalize our democracy, mend the social fabric, and live out the true meaning of our nation’s promise of liberty and justice for all?
When you boil it down, what is the distilled essence of the Waynflete experience?
Who are we, what do we value, and how do we live out our values on a daily basis?
What is our core identity as a learning community?
The Waynflete faculty and administration has undertaken the task of answering those questions. While abstract to some, they are vital to those of us who work at the school and to the families who entrust their children to our care. As an independent school, Waynflete gets to choose its approach to education. Families in Southern Maine get to choose whether or not the experience we offer is right for their children.
Greetings, and welcome back from your soggy week. I heard from one trip leader after another, Waynflete teachers, AMC and Chewonki leaders, everyone with whom you came in contact how awesome you all were, despite the weather. By rising to the challenge, you have beautifully illustrated a key lesson in life, which is that the quality of an experience is largely dependent on how you choose to show up for it. You all chose well last week.
As we start the school year together, I have been thinking about an age old debate on the purpose of a formal education. Should our focus as educators be on preparing you to live in the world as it exists, or should we focus on helping you to be change agents, shaping the world into something better.
At Waynflete we have always tried to do both. We want to prepare you for success in college and the fast changing world you will encounter thereafter, but we also want to prepare you to be agents of change.
That is why your teachers emphasize thinking critically and creatively in every class as well as mastering content. We want you to be thinkers.
That is why we support you in doing community service. We strive to cultivate an ethic of caring participation in the world. We want you to be doers.
That is why we work at offering you interesting classes and give you as much choice as possible over what you study. We want you to be engaged learners and know how to take charge of your own education.
That is why we engage you in difficult conversations about pressing social issues. We want you to be aware of what is going on around you and give you opportunities to practice articulating your own ideas and experiences and learning from those of your teachers and peers.
That is why we don’t have bells and why I wait for your attention at assembly rather than yell for it. We want you to pay attention and be ready to do what needs to be done.
That is why we put so much trust in you and expect you live up to it. The world needs responsible, aware, and self-governing citizens.
It’s really good that we focus as a school on both preparing you to thrive in a fast changing world and to be agents of change because there is a lot about our world that needs changing. In fact, improving the world was on the mind of our head of school, Geoff Wagg, when the faculty gathered two weeks ago in this room for the first faculty meeting of the year. He started the meeting by reflecting on the ugly events this summer that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, events that showcased a deep seated bigotry of the worst kind and a frightening animosity that ultimately spilled into violence.
After reflecting on the events at Charlottesville, Geoff played a video for the faculty that I would like to share with you as well. It is an illustrated version of American poet laureate Maya Angelou, whose picture is projected behind me, reading her poem “Human Family.”
You might remember this poem from an Apple ad during the Olympics last summer. Despite the commercialization of her message, I think Maya Angelou’s voice is one to which we should be listening at a time when Charlottesville can and did happen. Her poem expresses a core value around which healthy communities thrive.
As we start a new school year, we won’t have much of an opportunity to affect what happens going forward in Charlottesville, but we do have complete control over what kind of a community we create together at Waynflete. If you show up everyday and do your part in creating the kind of community in which we all want to live, you will develop a habit and a mindset that you will eventually bring with you into the world beyond Waynflete. As you do that, you will automatically become the agents for positive change that the world so desperately needs and that I know you all can be.
I look forward to our year together. Thank you for listening. Advising in next.
After an eloquent introduction on a snowy April morning by long-serving Waynflete English teacher Lorry Stillman, Richard Blanco, the 2012 presidential inaugural poet, mused to a packed Franklin Theater, “They say that every poet is in some way writing the same poem all their life. There is some central obsession to which that body of work always refers back. For me that obsession comes down to one word: home.” For the next hour, Mr. Blanco told stories and read poems that spoke to his lifelong search to understand the many dimensions of his identity and to integrate them into a profound sense of home.
A great school, like a great poet, might also be said to be animated by a central obsession, to which all of its work tends to refer back. For Waynflete, that obsession is manifest in our ongoing effort to create a dynamic learning community by inviting diverse and motivated young people and adults to share their life stories, to be in dialogue, and to learn from one another.
The recent gathering for the second annual New England Youth Identity Summit (NEYIS) was the latest iteration of that central obsession. The Summit attracted over 300 young people, their teachers, and their parents from across Maine and New England for an evening of powerful performances, a full day of mostly student-led workshops, and Richard Blanco’s inspiring reading, all focused on a central theme: the power of stories. The Summit was co-sponsored by Waynflete and Maine Seeds of Peace, an organization dedicated to promoting understanding and justice through dialogue.
The Power of Stories
Franklin Theater was filled to capacity on Friday evening as the audience settled in to enjoy an eclectic range of performances, each of which tapped the power of the expressive arts to create a shared emotional experience and to be an inspiration for dialogue. Eugene Butler, a Seeds of Peace senior counselor and emcee for the evening, began with a medley of original spoken word pieces about his coming-of-age experiences of race in America—a performance met with the first of many standing ovations throughout the evening. The set list included a Shakespeare scene performed by Maine’s own Theater Ensemble of Color, the Sudanese dance group Sudo Girls, Seeds of Peace student vocalists and poets, and a featured finale entitled “Do you See Me?” by Maine Inside Out, a theater group comprised of young people from Long Creek Youth Development Center.
“What an amazing evening of sharing. It showed so many young people at their best,” said Tim Wilson, who directs the Maine Seeds program. Sarah Brajtbord, U.S.-Based Program Manager at Seeds, echoed Tim’s sentiments. “It was a beautiful evening of storytelling, expression, reflection, and sharing from all of Maine’s communities. The vibrancy of the evening performances clearly inspired the deep conversations and learnings that happened the next day.” Tessy Seward, Maine Inside Out’s co-founder, added, “Our participants were so moved by the other performances and were thrilled to be a part of a community of artists and activists. MIO hopes to host some of the other performers for training and future collaboration. It was an honor to be included in this powerful showcase of socially inspired art.”
On Saturday morning, as snow fell steadily outside, students were actively drawing one another’s stories to the surface through highly participatory dialogue sessions, each focused on a specific aspect of student experience. Student Summit planners had partnered with local youth groups on session planning , which made for a compelling array of over thirty workshops that also brought adults, educators, and community leaders into the conversations. Collaborations with the Telling Room, Youth Engagement Partners, NAMI’s Youth Advisory Council, King Fellows, Maine Youth Court, MIST (Muslim Interscholastic Tournament), NPR’s Maine Youth Voices, Preble Street Resource, and Skew-ME (a nonprofit supporting learning differences) helped to craft open-ended spaces for ideas to be both presented and challenged in the kinds of conversations that are too often avoided.
In the Waynflete student-led workshop about starting racial awareness groups in schools,student leaders grappled with just how difficult community dialogue can be. Reflecting back on that session, one participant remarked, “I learned how to not be afraid to speak or stand up for something that I am passionate about and how to support others when they are being treated wrongly. These conversations need to occur more often and need to make people conscious and uncomfortable. The Summit should definitely happen again.”
In addition to Mr. Blanco, keynotes included a student dialogue with Portland’s Chief of Police, activist Nicole Maines (whose story is highlighted in the book Becoming Nicole) speaking about her experience as a transgender student, and a panel facilitated by Maine Law School’s Dean Danielle Conway on the emerging Black Lives Matter movement on high school and university campuses. Workshops addressed a wide variety of topics, from “The Dance of Activism and Self-Care” to “Stamping Out Stigma,” which provided resources for helping students access critical mental health supports in a stressful world. “Talking about it makes it easier to cope,” said one student, while another was clearly “inspired by the honesty of all the participants who shared.”
The gathering closed with a final speak out session facilitated by guest artists Eric Axelman and Oliver Arias, of the bicultural hip hop group Funk Underground. As the day drew to a celebratory close, one student remarked, “I want people to know that, as I have learned, it is okay to struggle. Practicing self-acceptance is a radical act that helps us to connect with others.”
No Higher Calling
Given the alarming fraying of today’s social fabric, it is hard to imagine a more important undertaking for a school than teaching not only tolerance of those with different backgrounds and viewpoints but also how to tap the life-affirming wisdom and power inherent in such diversity. In thanking faculty and staff whose hard work throughout the year was key to the Summit’s success, Head of School Geoff Wagg said, “The Summit provided a meaningful outlet for all the angst that is bottled up inside. You provided a safe space that made dialogue possible on a whole range of difficult social topics. You empowered our students to do something productive. There is no higher calling than to give our students—and many beyond the walls of Waynflete—a voice and the power to make a difference in our world.”
The lead organizers of the Summit were Lydia Maier, Waynflete’s Director of Student Affairs, and Jimmy Manyuru, the Associate Director. In her welcoming remarks, Lydia conjured a central image from Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem One Today: “One light, waking up rooftops, under each one a story.” Building on that image, Lydia invited the audience “to share what we believe, what we fear, what we wish for” and warned them that doing so is “no easy undertaking.” She thanked Summit attendees “for showing up to share your piece of our collective story.”
Our hope is that participants left the Summit inspired to keep showing up and sharing their pieces of our collective story, with the curiosity to listen deeply to others and the courage to be changed by the conversation. In so doing, we can all contribute to mending the social fabric—a healing upon which so much else depends.
The next New England Youth Identity Summit will be held at Waynflete on April 6-7, 2018.
Waynflete Organizing Committee:
Lydia Maier, Director of Student Affairs
Jimmy Manyuru, Associate Director of Student Affairs
Juanita Nichols, Director of Community Relations and Diversity
Rand Ardell, Director of Marketing and Communications
Within his foundational essay “On Fairy-Stories” J.R.R. Tolkien isolates Faërie, the Perilous Realm or Shadowy Marches wherein fairies discover their being, and he describes three faces by which fairy-stories may be recognized: the Mystical, the Magical, and the Mirror (looking toward the Supernatural, Nature or Mankind). Myself being a backward and doubtful being, skeptical at the best of times, arrogant when it serves, I nevertheless allow Tolkien’s entrancing spell, releasing my own words, deploying poetic phantoms and a few robotic puzzles. At the same time, applying just a tad more tangibility on a winter’s morning (school has been cancelled), I throw another log on the fire and grip more tightly my shepherd’s plaid—the great Scottish wrap shouldered by actual shepherds and dreamers wandering into and out of antiquity. Any pastoral people off the veldt, steppes or deserts would own such a shawl formed of animal skins or local fabric, and before a later day brought dyes to such homespun these woven wraps carried simple, unfussed colors. This particular morning, the undyed black wool and white wool of the ancient “check”—checkerboard pattern—seems straight out of Faërie, since I readily drift away as I hold it, and scale seems entirely within my control. I am only echoing Tolkien as I note that effect; he has told me this morning in his essay that stories “in the fairy-tale setting…open a door on Other Time, and if we pass through, though only for a moment, we stand outside our own time, outside Time itself, maybe.” But as I turn back from the stove, I find myself confronting the ghost of Robert Burns. Morning coffee helps the effect, but indeed I have slipped into spaces calloused and venerable, back to earlier ages—dust and the canyons carved by actual bookworms, flakes of paper, wood smoke and threads of wool.
I recognize fresh expression of a point I saw years before, the separate powers of blackness and whiteness. Tolkien of course put a set of colors to work in his Lord of the Rings. What is important this morning, as I ponder old stories, is the mythology or public “reality” based in hopes, expectations and convenience. The great philologist (word-origin hero) Tolkien was not sympathetic as people such as publishers found all-too-handy boxes into which they might pack his work. He certainly should be alarmed at my particular views, folded as I am in my black-and-white plaid.
The blackness of Tolkien’s Ring-Wraiths and the overly simple darkness of the Evil Side is simply too gratuitous, and it brings impact, right to today. No matter how cute his hobbits, how levelheaded his wizard, Blackness and its relatives instead might well bring a glorious color of life, warmth and enlightenment—we readers of all interests must continue to remind ourselves. Tolkien may have been naive to imagine he was simply building his own, private new cosmos, but he appears not to have cared who was in and who was left out. Of course, the native South African had been prompted by devastating world wars to narrow his sense of the world itself. I pull up short, an array of wordy powerhouses whispering in the corner, and Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Ralph Ellison and Robert Burns pull me toward the traditionary True Thomas Rymour.
Actually, Tolkien knew Rymour well, spelling him out as “True Thomas the Rhymer”, meeting more contemporary awarenesses of 1930s Britain. Rymour (let’s call him) had the gift of prophecy in popular European folk songs and stories from the Middle or earlier centuries. A comfort to agrarian folk but co-opted by military strategists to precipitate favored battle outcomes, Rymour like Arthur or Merlin found he had other lives. As I have discovered, he continues to our later day, but in order to recognize his influence it helps to repose with a range of other stories, including those of Arthur, Merlin, Frodo and Gandalf. But the most crucial mythical personality, and another reason that I begin to lose patience with J.R.R. Tolkien no matter his genius, is a more unsettling if more undeniable presence: a striking female figure standing to the side, shouldering her own mantle of magical colors, out of Robert Burns’s poem “The Vision”: Coila.
As I note, settled in my Scottish black-and-white plaid, books and phantoms all around me, Coila was the ethereal spirit or voyaging being (aka wight) who suddenly formed in front of the poet when he was most discouraged, winter of early 1785. At that time, Burns was impoverished, desolate, cold, his own plaid was full of holes and he was ready to give up writing songs and poetry and find a paying job. Expressing something of Thomas Rymour, Coila traveled over the seas to manifest in the poet’s cottage, insisting on attention (despite rats and the winter wind) in order that the poet might maintain his central, most personal hopes, that he should trust that his rhyming ought to continue, and that he was in a marvelous place to take up a more “universal plan” which she knew was central to all art and human enterprise. She even braced her argument with mention of Scottish heroes of the past.
As I have come to discover, as James Augustus Henry Murray knew and accepted in a way that perhaps Tolkien would not (another philologist, Murray was primary editor of TheOxford English Dictionary), and others might refuse to imagine—the magical soul Coila was black.
Robert Burns held to myth because of the harsh social realities of his own day, so he had better not go admitting to be anti-British, anti-European, “anti-civilization”. Instead, the quintessential Scotsman stepped along barely known, faintly visualized Shadowy Marches (as Tolkien might identify them); that is, he kept to the edges, among the folk and their naming traditions, many of them desperately poor. As we can now begin to see more fully, visiting spirit Coila was herself a devoted being whose hope for the futures of all (that universal plan) might resonate and shine and, with the necessary help of Burns and his artistic heirs, pull European culture and history out of a long, slow moral decline around race and class, even color, and perhaps even raise up slaves of his day, oppressed African Americans and Anglo-Africans, as well as Africa itself (with some especial shout-out for those from Senegal and Gambia, home turf for the model for Coila), as she reached out and raised up one destitute poet. To understand her full meaning, and just how James A. H. Murray came to know as much as he did, we had better thank black thought leaders of later days for opening white eyes, but we must also rediscover the daring wight True Thomas Rymour and his entrancing power and foresight. Wrapped in the venerable black-and-white of my plaid I may have to pay a visit to the 1936 John Hoy of Ethiopia, to his quaintly jocular journalist creator Robinson MacLean (enthusiast for Emperor Haile Selassie) as well as to MacLean’s fascist adversary Evelyn Waugh—prescient as he spoke for Italy on the eve of World War II. The continuation—that is, details—of this story I call Seeking Phillis, or The Empress Revealed. Another log on the fire, in retirement this morning and down the road, I take them all on.