November 3rd, 2009
The elementary school I attended as a boy was an interesting contrast to the school I inhabit now. Named after the nation’s recent World War I experience, “Victory” Public School had a large yard that surrounded it, separated from the dangers of the street by a Frost link fence. The large doors facing vaguely in the direction of the south (no street in Guelph manages to head in a simple cardinal direction) were labeled “Girls” and the large doors that faced in the opposite direction were labeled “Boys”. The large doors that faced the west (west north west?) were separated from the children playing “British Bulldog” below by an enormous set of stairs, which to my child’s eye had to rival my adult’s view of the stairs to Lincoln’s monument; needless to say, we never, ever, entered those doors. Perhaps parents mounted those stairs, although I was inclined to believe they were intended for the Queen’s next visit. Every morning we stood and rehearsed the Lord’s Prayer (except one day when I decided that a constitutional challenge was in order, which was swiftly followed by a visit to the Principal’s office), and sang the national anthem, and every Remembrance Day we sang the Anglican hymn, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”.
Perhaps students who attend Victory Public School today experience it just as I did – as a reflection of a society that had not yet forsaken its roots. I highly doubt it. For even in the late sixties, when I had to line up before the “Boys” entrance, the attempt was doomed to fail. Nationalism was dying faster than the soldiers who were thrust into the battle against communism in Vietnam, Christianity was giving way to the glories of love, peace and human rights, and a society divided up by class, rank, age, and sex was being overwhelmed by the freedoms announced some 200 years earlier. And although I have no desire to have our children return to the world of my youth, I am struck by the attempt of our forbears to create a school that was something more than an institution in which we were to learn the 3 “R”s. Victory School was designed to represent to me the full dimensions of the society in which I hoped to become a full-fledged member.
Of course, they had it wrong. They had banked on a future that wasn’t to be. The building’s design was a historic relic. The words of the songs were already being lost in our parents’ memory. But they also had it wrong in so far as they were content to rely upon symbols to reproduce the full dimensions of the life we were to lead. Except once – while I sat in the principal’s office regretting having refused to stand through that morning’s recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. I will never forget how Principal Comfort (a fitting name, as it turns out) managed to address my agnostic tendencies and provided me with a full explanation of why people – himself included- believed in God. He crossed the divide that separated me from his distant position of authority to share his true feelings about the great unknown. In religious terms, I remained unconverted, but what a pivotal moment it was for me, for looking back I realize that he introduced to me the potential depth of the educational experience – what I shall call the “third dimension”.
By the third dimension, I mean the depth of human character that is experienced in authentic moments of shared living. Slowly but surely, I am coming to the realization that a good private school offers this above all else.
When I ask teachers why they want to get involved in extra-curricular (now often called co-curricular) events, they say it is because they enjoy seeing the children they teach in a different dimension. What they often fail to note is that the experience is reciprocal. As much as the teacher discovers a third dimension in the children, who might otherwise appear as occupants of desks in their classroom, so too do the children begin to discover the fullness of the teacher. At our school, teachers are painters, and bicyclists, and social activists, and canoeists, and singers, and marathon runners, and chefs, and our teachers have dreams, and passions, and concerns, and, … lo and behold, they are in fact fully human. Which isn’t to say that teachers should walk into a classroom and pour out their worries or seek to shape our students’ political views. Rather, it is by exposing our students to a rich diversity of authentic learning activities, community service ventures, outdoor experiences and competitive events, that the humanity of our teachers comes out in full view.
And what of that, you might ask? What comes of a child’s exposure to the third dimension? A great deal, I would suggest. If there is one thing that I have learned as a parent, it is that for every lesson I have tried to teach my children, there have been 10 lessons learned that I had not set out to teach. I think that it is bound up in our motto, “Experientia Docet”, or “Experience teaches”. We hire teachers to teach lessons, but we also hire them to be good models – to have minds that probe and wonder, to have hearts that care, to have worthy goals to reach, and to be engaged with the world in which they live. If we, in turn, can allow our teachers to share their minds, hearts, goals and good examples with our students, how much richer our students will be for it. Their vision of a better world is not merely to be nurtured by the literature they read in English classes, the historic figures they encounter in history classes, or the marvels they discover in science labs. People are living to make a better world all around them – the lessons are there for the taking.
And there is more. Schools ideally want children to carry their lessons forward into their adulthood. Schools need to have a very distant goal in mind – not merely our students’ entrance into university, but their future lives as parents, community leaders and contributors to a society that will be as different from our current society as the society that gave birth to Victory Public School. Our classes will provide them with the tools to dissect that future society and to help them reveal the choices that lie beneath the surface of status cars and desirable addresses. The third dimension will help them to make the right choices.
Which brings me to the incident that stirred me to write this blog entry.
I was recently invited to attend a fundraising dinner on behalf of Global Pathways, a school begun recently in the province of Tamil Nadhu, India, by our former Head of School, Barbara Goodwin-Zeibots, our former Head of the Lower School, Barbara Galbraith and generously supported by member of our Board of Directors, Theresa Mersky. The school provides education to local Indian children who would not otherwise have received a formal education. The idea to begin a school in southern India has its roots in a programme that our school has run since Barbara’s time as school head. We send anywhere from 9 to 14 students with two or more teachers to an orphanage near Coimbatore, Families for Children, for three weeks in March each year. It is the sort of programme that changes our students’ lives, forcing them to see the world through eyes much different than their own.
When I first arrived at the dinner I was happy, although not surprised, to find among the 300 guests fellow staff members and parents of students, past and present. They, like me, had been inspired by the selfless actions of these three and wanted, in some way, to emulate their example. What thrilled me the most, though, was to be approached by members of our alumni who, recently graduated from university and trying to make their way in a world short on starting positions, found it within themselves to make a donation and be present at a worthy event. Here was proof that the third dimension had made an impact on our students, and that our students were going to play a part in shaping a better world beyond. It suddenly brought home to me what a different school experience these students had had compared to the one I experienced at Victory Public School. I realized that our lives were entwined in a way that never would have been imaginable for me growing up in a public school. They had experienced the third dimension, and I was given the opportunity to share in their lives once again, on the edge of a wider world stage, where the possibilities for creating a better world seemed so much greater than when we faced one another in a classroom, some six to eight years earlier. It won’t be long before they will be the leaders, and I, in turn, will be inspired to emulate their example, and follow them in building a future that we all want to share.