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Our call to action

Affirming young people’s curiosity, and their convictions
Wednesday, August 30, 2017
 
above: Head of School Ralph L. Wales opens the faculty and staff meetings, August 30, 2017
 
Dear Parents,

This morning I had the honor and privilege of opening Gordon’s 108th year as the full faculty and staff convened for the first time.

This is a primary moment for me as the educational leader of the school. I have everyone’s relatively uncluttered attention. We are open and alert, expectant in posture and focused forward. 

I chose my words especially carefully. As I did, I thought of how, in the nation’s capital and on the streets of Charlottesville and other American towns and cities, there have been repeated expressions of values that are so deeply counter to the beliefs we—Gordon parents and educators—work so hard to model for children.

What I shared with the professional community, and with you now, I believe is essential as we center ourselves to begin the school year next week.

Last December, a few weeks after the election, in an article entitled Taking a position, I wrote:

Racism, sexism, and any other form of bigotry have no place in a school that genuinely seeks to allow children to feel recognized, valued, and motivated to learn. Meanness and ignorance are not welcome here, even when they approach our doors cynically disguised as 'alternative points of view' or 'personal beliefs.'

Any institution responsible for raising young people should clearly state a similar position when events call our nation's values into question. 

Yet more than any single statement, I am proudest of our school’s long-standing practice of resisting racism and being well-prepared for the inevitability of periodic and persistent open expression of racist ideology. 

We condemn these violent, ugly actions and lament the confused responses of our political leaders and do so without hesitation. But as we do, I remind us that for nearly twenty years now, Gordon has taken an explicit position and provided direct instruction about the centrality of systemic racism in the fabric of our nation’s past and present. 

Gordon graduates leave knowing that the racial challenges of today have been present for centuries and happen, sadly, again and again. This is why, at the close of the second sentence of our two-sentence mission statement, we define “successful students” as young adolescents who carry “a drive for positive societal impact.” 

Every day, regardless of the news, this is our call to action.

This morning, we reviewed our mission and the principles that follow it. I encouraged our faculty to continue to craft lessons that put race, among other identities, “on the table” as history, culture and current events are discussed, with sensitivity, of course, to the developmental needs of the children. 

We are so fortunate that our school has the unique capacity to immediately incorporate and teach into these events, not as special focuses or pop-up lessons but as a part of our ongoing consideration of how racism—whether systemic or revealed in the moment—impacts young people.

This responsiveness was what Gordon's Board had in mind in 1999 when they framed eleven positions on the role of race in elementary and middle school education. The fifth of these positions is this:

The value of a Gordon education is frequently connected to research-based knowledge that a child’s fundamental way of knowing, thinking, and feeling is developed by age eight. Our strategic initiatives around diversity and, in this case, racial diversity are designed so that during one’s earliest school experience, comfort with difference is captured as a foundational aspect of a child’s view of the world and their place in it. What we make natural for children in their earliest years will become natural and stay with them into adulthood.

I remind us as well that in 2008, as we worked to meet lofty intentions such as these, the Board drafted and approved a Statement on Inclusivity that concludes with this commitment:

Gordon’s emphasis on inclusivity, an evolving process, is essential to its mission to prepare students for active citizenship in the world.

All of us—those who are employed and teach here and those who send their children here—are proud that Gordon’s definition of “academic excellence” recognizes that there will never be a conclusion to this work (“an evolving process”) and that scholarship and citizenship are inextricably intertwined. 

After nearly twenty years of implementing and sustaining these intentions in both institutional and classroom practice, we have learned that these considerations must always be central to the schoolwide curriculum and board strategy, if, by graduation, we are to call our children “well educated” and “prepared.” 

Let us remember that this work cannot be pursued if a school seeks to avoid controversy or conflict. Throughout these years of good, focused persistence, we continue to be asked why we prioritize race when some suggest that we live in “a post-racial America." So, too, we listen sensitively to people's well-intentioned desire to keep children "colorblind.” 

We have then explained how ours continues to be a vividly race-conscious society, and that to teach children to ignore race would demand that our students, faculty, and families remain “color mute". In effect, we would be taking the position that talk of race is taboo on our campus. 

There has never been a more important time for our school to defend, protect, and pursue all its principal values and beliefs including the paramount need to be sure our students graduate with an advanced degree in racial literacy—the capacity to bring the lens of race into discussion in their schools and all the places they value in their lives. 
 
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above: eighth graders at the Civil Rights Memorial outside the Southern Poverty Law Center, one stop on Gordon's annual Civil Rights Trip, February 2017
 

In just a few days, our school will be deep into a mix of engagement we cherish: joyful, meaningful, purposeful work that never wavers in its commitment to the ideas and ideals that three-year-olds innocently share and embody, and that fourteen-year-olds still feel and embrace as they ready themselves for the world beyond our campus. 

Four-year-olds talk about race. Research proves this. When they are told not to talk about it, they learn to keep their conversations secret. And thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds take their thoughts and feelings underground if they learn that school is not a safe place to discuss things that consume their focus. Race, sexual orientation, religious faith and values all swim fluidly in the mind of an adolescent, whether we deliver lessons related to these topics or not. Our mission and practice legitimize young people’s curiosity, their questions, and their convictions.

For all these reasons and more, we head to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama and the Civil Rights Memorial in neighboring Montgomery in a student’s final few months at Gordon. For the next generation of American citizens, it is just the right bridge to cross. 

And, notably, our children never feel this to be a path of despair. Instead, without exception, it confirms in these young hearts and minds the validity of the dream found in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words engraved in granite at the memorial: “Until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

As we come together on our campus next Wednesday, let us remain alert to all features and facets of our purpose, especially ones that were established long before today’s troubling times. As the inspirational words in our board-approved Founding Purpose proclaims, we once again responsibly embrace this commitment:

We prepare our students to enter an increasingly complex and diverse world with skillful awareness, unwavering hope and the capacity to advocate confidently for justice.

When we define and practice education in this way—especially at this elementary place in our children’s lives—we are doing the work that must always remain central regardless of the sway of the times.
 
Ralph L. Wales
Head of School
 
 
Many resources on race, parenting and education, including several articles by Gordon authors, are at www.gordonschool.org/resources

Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, an internationally recognized expert on racial identity development and former President of Spelman College, an historically black women’s college in Atlanta, Georgia, will be speaking at Gordon School on November 9th at 6:30 p.m. All are welcome; RSVP at www.gordonschool.org/btatum

This year, Dr. Tatum’s seminal and still highly relevant piece on race
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria and Other Conversations on Race is being re-issued to celebrate the twentieth year of its publication. In 2010, Dr. Tatum was the keynote speaker at Gordon’s Centennial Professional Development symposium where she discussed her book Can We Talk About Race? And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation.

Dr. Tatum’s engagement with Gordon goes back to 1998 as Gordon began its commitment to advancing a racially diverse community. In that year, Ralph Wales invited her to come to speak to the independent school community in Rhode Island. 

Dr. Tatum’s recent presentation at the TedX conference at Stanford University can be seen online

 

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