Unlikely Legacies

I taught English for a dozen years, leading students through “Hamlet,” “The Odyssey,” and great books by Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. I poured over numberless essays, carefully commenting on brilliant points and comma splices. I wrestled with the best way to teach “Huck Finn” and tortured myself to find ways to help students connect with “Heart of Darkness.” My legacy, however, was SCUD.

I found out about it when a former student emailed me and said that her son, now a freshman at the high school where I’d taught her, was getting excited to participate in Spring Clean-Up Day, S-C-U-D.

I blinked a couple of times. Had it been long enough ago that my student could have a high school student? And then, how in the world could SCUD still be going on?

The activity was designed on a lark, sprung from a conversation with students in the leadership class I was teaching, and meant to build community as we worked side by side to polish up a well-worn school. Tired of seeing a dingy wall outside our classroom, a stadium in need of painting, and grounds nearing Conradian lushness from lack of care, my students and I batted around the idea of hitting “pause” on standard education and inviting everyone, adult and student, to join forces to make a difference.

We did some persuading, were supported by a principal who embraced unconventionality, and started talking with students and teachers. The more people thought about the possibilities the more excited they got and the more creative their ideas became. Could we power wash? Why not? A dad had a power washer. Could we put in trees? Why not? A mom worked at a nursery. Could we mobilize every student in the school? Could we get every teacher to join in? Could we really get everyone to work side by side for a whole school day? Could we see a change? Why not?

The reasons “why not” were legion, of course, but fueled by the exuberance of youth our plan went forward. A board member heard what we were doing …and volunteered his barbecue to help make everyone lunch. Someone asked if this was okay by education code. The principal assured him that any student who would prefer to be in a classroom receiving instruction on that day would be. As it turned out, all three students who wanted to stay in, or whose parents wanted them to, did.

We were finding an answer to our greater question: Could we, as a school, suspend disbelief and really take a day away from classes for a different kind of education, one of collaboration, community building, hands on work, and unity in pursuing a common cause? And the answer was yes.

I moved to California after two Spring Clean-Up Days, my energies turned toward new teaching enterprises, and I’ll confess that I didn’t think much about SCUD until I got that email. As educators the lasting differences that we make aren’t always what we think they’ll be. They might be a great lesson or the introduction of a concept in class, but just as likely they might be the kindness we show each other over time, or the connection we make through a club or activity, or even a kooky idea with a silly name that somehow lasts.

The longevity to SCUD reminds me to be purposeful in my work with students, teachers, and families. As each of us strive to make a difference and make our school the best it can be for everyone, and for the future, it’s important to remember that we never know what our legacy will be. I’m proud mine involves power washers.

scud

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