New Times

Screen Shot 2018-11-01 at 10.36.28 AMIn 1994 Arts & Communication High School was under construction. Hammers, saws, and pliers show up on the cover of the yearbook, and in a photo that could be a synecdoche for the year, the profoundly creative multi-faceted Mona Lisa just outside of the dance room in the main hallway is captured in progress, a work of art not quite done.

Art in progress was a reality at Arts & Communication in our school’s third year, just as it is with construction looming today.

Marisa Gonzalez was an eleventh grader that year, and one of three students to paint the film mural above room #104 in the front of the school. She and her friends Ian and Aaron “painted it as a project for Spanish class during our Junior year, with the promise to our teacher Susan McKinney we would be practicing our conversational Spanish while we were painting.”

Screen Shot 2018-11-01 at 10.42.14 AMMarisa recalled that “Susan was also my Ohana teacher that year. I remember how easy she was to talk to and coming to her with my ‘boy problems.’ That was probably one of the most refreshing things about the school, feeling like we were in a partnership with the teachers and that they valued our ideas. The teachers created the framework, but as students we were also able to help shape the school into what we wanted it to be. I think Tom Marsh had a lot to do with creating that culture of mutual respect between teachers and students. It was awesome to feel listened to by adults.”

Screen Shot 2018-11-16 at 7.57.57 AMThat respect and connection between staff and students has been a defining trait of Arts & Communication since the beginning, and is still one of the realities valued by the adults and students who make up our school. Rooted in the caring work of our founding mothers and fathers, care and kindness are as important in our history as art and communication.

The 1994-1995 school year marked a turning point for Arts & Communication, with the graduating class the “last of the original test group” who opened the school. Those 78 seniors were a creative bunch, painting, writing, working with clay, making music, and making a difference.

Screen Shot 2018-11-16 at 7.58.20 AM…and sometimes making mischief. Marisa, that muralist, also served on the yearbook staff and recalled “Yearbook was also a blast. I remember working weekends where it was just the yearbook staff and our supervisor Deb Monnier at the school, doing layouts. Back in those days it was all done by hand, cutting and pasting everything into place. Deb let us play music over the PA system (usually the Violent Femmes), and on breaks we would push each other on rolly chairs down the long ramp in the hallway. Deb would always warn us to be careful, and we would jokingly say, ‘Okay, Mom.’”

Screen Shot 2018-11-16 at 7.59.15 AMBut along with that laughter, and humming along to New Times some real learning, and long term skill building, sidled in alongside the silliness. Marisa added: “We loved our yearbook Mom and she taught us a lot. I’m now a graphic designer working on the yearbook that really helped give me a good foundation for my future career path. I had done yearbook in junior high, but there it felt more like the adults were in charge and we were just there to follow directions. With Deb, she let us take charge. It’s always nice as a teenager to have adults trust you. She even let us sneak a few ‘easter eggs’ into the yearbook. Our senior year, a couple of former students, Trevor and Mahlon, came by to visit. They had graduated the year before and were on the yearbook staff previously. Somehow we decided that it would be really funny if we snuck them into the yearbook. So we took their pictures and added them in among the actual seniors. I still giggle when I flip through my old 94/95 yearbook and see them in there.”

As the school evolved, becoming something more than a fledgling program, so too the building was remodeled to meet the growing needs of Arts & Communication. New science labs and a new stage sprang up on campus, the dust and wet paint a part of the school’s life throughout the year.

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Even amidst this hammering and sawing, at Arts & Communication the spirit of creativity flourished. Students photographed their world, performed on stage and off, and produced a yearbook complete with silly photos. 

Arts & Communication served as a place where those students in the silly photos became young adults, where they began to set the trajectory of their lives, lives as diverse and interesting as they were (and are) and colored by the imaginations fostered in classrooms on the evolving C.E. Mason campus.

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A few pictures from the 1995 yearbook, including two graduates from 1994.

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Invited In

“Imagine with me a place where eccentricity is encouraged, where struggles are acknowledged, and people are supported. Imagine a place where people are celebrated for their differences and brought into the fold to collaborate and create something beautiful.” -Isaac Rosenbaum

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His passion around Exhibition Day was profound, as was his exuberant approach to building community. The time since graduation has only added perspective to his inspirational work, and power to his message of hope, care, and the importance of inviting others to share in the community we help to create.

I watched Isaac’s TEDx speech this week and recognized in it the powerful voice for kindness and inclusion that I’d known when he was a student at my high school (or I was a principal at his school) (or we shared a school together).

So often in administration the thousand tasks, the pressing needs, and the unceasing obligations fill our days and run the risk of clouding our vision for creating the best school we can. For me this week, Isaac’s words were a warm wind, blowing those clouds away.

Talking about his school as a “chaotic collaboration” of students celebrating one another, and of each contributing to a greater mosaic of school culture was a reminder of what school can be.

photo-1-8His feelings of belonging, and of creating culture, are something parents, educators, and students themselves want for our kids. We know that at its best, school can be a haven, a place of inspiration, and a grand opportunity to belong and make a difference.

As a school we can’t eliminate the very human cruelty that sometimes infects us all. We can’t make every teenager, or every adult, embrace the better angels of our nature, or always choose the kind word. We are human, all of us, and we stumble sometimes in our interactions with others. At best we can look at these times as opportunities to show ourselves and each other the other very human possibility of forgiveness.

But as a school we can do much to nurture the attributes Isaac mentioned in his talk. We can build in opportunities for our students to tell their own stories, celebrate the people who make up our school, and make it easy to give thanks often and publicly. Schools, busy and bustling, can open their arms to all by choosing to make connecting with each other a priority.

This can happen through big events, like Exhibition Day, or the more subtle instances of kindness that we weave into every day at our schools.

Creating a place where students feel they belong isn’t easy, the important things in life often aren’t, but it is both possible and worth the effort.

That effort is most effective when it involves many, and many different perspectives. As Isaac described in his TEDx Talk, having a student government that wasn’t made up only of extroverts and “typical ASB students,” but involved artists and writers, introverts and dreamers, made it possible for the school to be more welcoming to all.

photo 2But welcoming doesn’t mean glossing over troubles. Isaac mentions being a peer counselor in his last years of high school. As a Peer Active Listener (PAL), he listened to a student who was excluded and bullied, and who considered taking her own life. Describing her loneliness, so common and so profound in our students today, Isaac came to the realization that not only do we all need community, we all need to feel heard and to belong.

Having seen that PALs program he describes, I can attest to the power of students helping students. PALs provided a safe place for students to be heard, and a sensitive ear for anyone going through the challenges of young adulthood. In addition, the students who served as PALs worked closely with adult counselors, and more than once I saw stories, like the one Isaac tells in his TEDx Talk, that were literally life saving. This was a way the school as an institution could support the individuals who made up the student body.

Even if a school doesn’t have a PALs program, students can and should be encouraged to listen to each other, seek help from caring adults, and be aware of the importance of inviting others in.

IMG_6196Understanding the profound need all of us have for belonging can inform the choices we make person by person, classroom by classroom, school by school to welcome each member of our community to participate in making the culture of our school.

I come back to Isaac’s words about community, and join him in imagining “a place where eccentricity is encouraged, where struggles are acknowledged, and people are supported.”

This doesn’t happen by accident or without thoughtful attention to the needs of our kids. As Isaac suggests, “maybe we are the answer to the prayers” of those most in need. Us. Each of us.

I encourage us all to be aware. To imagine the community we want to create, take actions every day to make that community real, and go the extra step to invite in those around us who may feel lost or alone, stressed out or unsure if they can be a piece in that mosaic. They can, and our community will be more beautiful because of them, and us, together.

Springing to Life

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One of the most shocking differences between campus in 1993 and 2018 is the greenhouse. Show photos of the place to current students and staff and jaws drop. “How big is that?” isn’t an uncommon reaction, nor is “Here?” But get past the images of lots of four-square courts, an extra basketball hoop, and powder blue trim on our building and you’ll see something familiar.

Students from 1993 look like they could walk ACMA’s hallways today. Looking at photos of young sculptors, painters, and musicians, the founding mothers and fathers of our school, is a reminder that while hairstyles change, the spirit of creativity is as strong as ever decade after decade.

IMG_9306In the second year of Arts & Communication, the creative spirit was very strong.

Jean Pence was the principal of Arts and Communication in 1993, and she remembers “walking into an old elementary school building that was trying to adjust to having high school students roam the halls and occupy the classrooms.” In its second year, this “fledgling program” was busy making art, making meaning, and figuring out what it meant to be someplace different.

“Sometimes we didn’t agree on what our mission was,” Jean remembered. “Sometimes there were struggles among the ninth and tenth grade team members and the eleventh and twelfth grade team members.  Sometimes there were struggles between the staff and the administration. Often there were misconceptions from the larger schools and community about our students. Students were bright and articulate, albeit dressing a bit different.”

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Those differences extended beyond clothing; students at A & C, as it was sometimes called, thought divergently and approached life and school from a different point of view. Playful, creative, and iconoclastic, most were focused on those two defining words: arts and communication.

IMG_9303You see that in the beautiful audacity of the artwork they created: giant sculptures, huge canvases, and lots and lots of poetry. Students wrote, danced, and made art. Music, movies, murals were all a part of life on a campus becoming its own.

By the spring of 1994 some of the most iconic Mona Lisa murals were up in the hallways: the flannel Mona Lisa, the Dog Mona Lisa, and the abstract Mona Lisa that hangs near the Tom Marsh Gallery today. Tom Marsh was teaching in 1993-1994.

IMG_9309During this second year, students were making the school theirs with a prom, open houses, and an end of the year picnic.

The program was growing in the 1993-1994 school year, like the plants in the greenhouse, nurtured by the sun of creativity, the water of hard work, and the constant tending of passionate people who cared deeply about the arts.

Artisan Dances

This post is in praise of the homespun, the handcrafted, the artisan. I’ve been places where high school dances are elaborate affairs, acres of lights, fog machines (that somehow always set off the fire alarm), and a sense of spectacle that rivals a Hollywood production. I once chaperoned a prom in an affluent Southern California community held at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. They brought in a ferris wheel.

DVDWb6sUQAMHBhRThere is certainly something memorable about a spectacle, it’s in the name I suppose, but to tell the truth the best school dances I’ve ever seen have been less about fireworks and more about feeling. These events, the really good ones, aren’t store bought or rented by the hour. They’re built by hand, crafted with creativity, and imagined with an eye to the unexpected.

This fall, one manifestation of the unexpected came in the form of pudding, forty pounds of it.

Being at ACMA means being ready for anything. The unexpected happens so often it can be depended on: a piano in the cafeteria, a visiting llama, a teacher in a kilt? Yep, ACMA. Art everywhere in the hallways, impromptu violin concerts at lunch, and no mascot? ACMA. Silly yearbook photos, the principal in a cannibal movie, kindness as part of the middle school science curriculum? That’s ACMA too.

So on an October morning when my secretary leaned into my office and said: “I’ll be right back. I need to go pick up forty pounds of pudding” I knew enough to simply nod and answer “Great!”

Just outside my door piles of boxes had been accumulating for a couple of weeks: glow sticks, neon paper, and paint splattered posters. This was going to be an ‘80s themed fall dance, and it was going to be, I was assured, totally awesome.

IMG_9044By the end of the week we’d have boxes of apples, bags of popcorn, and enough caramel to satisfy the hundreds of students who would fill our Quonset Hut, courtyard, and hallways that Friday night. Throughout the week I saw rolls of colored paper turn into posters of dancers, checkerboard designs (that I was told would look fantastic underneath the black lights), and a giant boom box.

Every afternoon after the last bell rang, a core of Dance Committee students and a panoply of others spent day after day in the hallways painting, cutting, and preparing for the dance. To the sounds of Duran Duran, Wham, and Madonna they laughed and worked together to come up with what they imagined the 1980s to be.

A week before they’d asked our staff for photos of themselves in the 1980s. The results, which looked like the casting call for a John Hughes movie, were put into a slideshow that ran on a loop on our indoor marquee on the day of the dance.

Decorations continued to emerge: the giant Rubik’s Cube, the banner announcing the GLOW HALLWAY, and the black lights (that the kids were so excited about that the custodian put them in the fixtures outside the library by the Wednesday before the dance).

On Thursday my cafeteria lead came into the office to purchase tickets to the dance for two students who were having some trouble affording them. So very ACMA.

The pudding arrived, in four pound pouches two to a box (for anyone curious how forty pounds of pudding arrives, as I was). I found out that the pudding was destined for dixie cups, to be covered with crumbled Oreos and planted with a gummy worm. I’m not sure how that fit into the ‘80s, but still… homemade fun.

IMG_9049Friday after school the hallways moon walked back in time. The decorations that had been piling up in the office found their proper places around campus, a fleet of tables appeared in the courtyard (to be manned by parent volunteers who would serve caramel apples, popcorn, and worm cups), and the DJ set up in the Quonset Hut.

But dancing at a dance is just one part of the experience at our little school. As those Men Without Hats remind us, “You can dance if you want to…” Some don’t. They’re still friends of mine, and at ACMA we have a quiet room set aside for board games and to serve as a haven for those of us who need an island of quiet on a night of reveling. It’s the Lionel Ritchie to the evening’s Quiet Riot, and at every dance our game room is a popular choice. Some only stay for a round or two of Apples to Apples; some hunker down over an evening of laughter and Jenga.

Then Friday night arrived, and with it students in ‘80s wear that would have made Cindi Lauper proud. Asymmetrical, neon, and bedazzled, the outfits took me back to my own high school years (when an ‘80s dance was simply called a dance). As with the decorations and planning for the dance itself, the students had brought creativity and their own interpretation to what they were wearing, and the results were fantastic.

IMG_9045And occasionally unexpected, like the student who arrived in armor and said: “‘80s dance? You mean 1380s, right?”

Walking around that night I was struck by the overwhelming quality of everything. The ‘80s outfits were put together with care, whimsy, and (it looked to someone who was there during the Reagan administration) historical research. The decorations were thoughtful, well done, and had been formed by the hands of scores of students.

And that was it: the students owned this dance.

As they had with last year’s May the Fourth extravaganza (with a stunning Darth Maul in full makeup) and the epic winter formal (complete with a life size cutout of one of our math teachers dressed as a gondolier), ACMA students had created something marvelous.

Plus, pudding.

“tappity-click”

“September 8th, 1992. The Grand opening of CE Mason Arts and Communication high school. Approximately one hundred and fifty high school students came that anxious Monday morning expecting something different than the ordinary run of the mill (preppy) high school that most of us have more or less attended in utter boredom. Our expectations set a high standard for the CE Mason staff, and we all wondered if it could be met. As the year progressed, there were many doubts as to the flexibility and quality of our school, and there were some who gave it up and returned to their home schools. But there were also some new faces around the middle of the year who had heard about our school and decided to give it a try.”        -from the 1992-1993 yearbook

Students willing to try “something different.” It’s a hallmark of Arts & Communication Magnet Academy, as it has been since before ACMA was ACMA.

Screen Shot 2018-10-30 at 10.03.49 AMIn the fall of 1992 our little art school burst into existence with a flash of color. While the school kept the C.E. Mason name on the curve above the front doorway and the powder blue trim around the building, inside the hallways resonated with teenage voices and the classrooms became places where students created art.

Those students, so very many of them sporting flannel shirts and mischievous smiles, drew, wrote, and worked with clay. They painted, made music, and a lived life unconventionally.

Peek inside that first yearbook, its cover adorned with an incongruous dragon, and you’ll see faces that look like they could belong to students today, students at pottery wheels, students laughing in wainscoted hallways, students mugging in the courtyard beneath a basketball hoop.

Screen Shot 2018-11-01 at 9.41.36 AMMixed in with the student mug shots, which aren’t divided by grade level and are not quite in alphabetical order, you’ll find photos of Humphrey Bogart, Charlie Chaplin, and Barbara Streisand, artistically mature tastes in stark juxtaposition to the playfully sophomoric senior quotes.

And so much flannel.

That yearbook dedicated three pages to student poetry, and even more to student artwork. One poem captures the spirit of the times, the longing of the creative soul, and the tools a poet took to her craft in 1992.

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I can hear that typewriter clicking in our unnamed poet’s bedroom. See her rolling up the paper, taking it out of the machine, and submitting it to the yearbook editors. That poetic sensibility is as real in 2018 as it was a quarter century ago.

IMG_9203Today, looking back at Arts and Communication in its first year means pouring through slides, bags of them. To do this as well as possible, yesterday some intrepid ACMA photography students found a slide projector, learned how to load it, and set up shop in my office, projecting on a blank wall.

As they clicked through the images, clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk, they marveled at the differences on campus (there was a second basketball hoop!), puzzled whose room was shown in the the photos (Ms. Chapman and Ms. Fanning’s rooms were once combined as the library), and laughed at the abundance of plaid shirts. So. Much. Flannel.

In a week or so we’ll put together a grand slideshow (literally slides, clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk) at lunch to look back at the early 90s. If it goes well, we could add a sequel with the stack of slides from 1998 and 1999.

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But in its first year, Arts and Communication at C.E. Mason was finding its voice, a voice filled with wit and whimsy. It knew it didn’t want to be an “ordinary run of the mill (preppy) high school” but just how it would get there was still blank space on a map.

Screen Shot 2018-10-30 at 10.03.33 AMIn the 1992-1993 school year the portables were still used by other district programs, and A&C students still shared space with community school and CEYP. They were together, however, at the opening of a journey whose possibility stretched forward like something out of Tolkien. That they would be unconventional, there was no doubt. What that would look like …just wait and see.

When graduation arrived in June of 1993 it was announced with a red, white, and blue banner touting Arts & Communications (the first use of an ampersand I’ve seen in the school’s name, and the unusual plural of the second descriptor). About twenty seniors crossed the stage that year, in front of a quilt hung on the wall.

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They smiled for cameras, hugged one another, and left their mark on the DNA of our school. These founding mothers and fathers, the first to jump into the unknown that would become ACMA, prepared the way for every student since who has taken a deep breath, looked out at the world through artistic eyes, and decided they wanted “something different.”

A Yellow Bathrobe

Halloween. It’s a tough topic in some quarters in education. I’ve worked at schools where it was one of the worst days of the year for administrators like me, confiscating Jason’s carving knife, counseling pregnant nuns, and persuading the masses that togas might not be a fantastic idea at school.

At one high school I followed a fellow in a full gorilla suit on a merry chase that led through and then off campus, ending in the parking lot of a run down apartment complex. When he was unmasked, like something out of a Scooby Doo cartoon, it turned out that he was a senior we’d expelled who was wanted by the police.

Don’t get me started on ninjas.

It doesn’t help that off the shelf costumes marketed to appeal to teens often carry the word “naughty” in their description: nurse, superhero, witch. For the fellows, gore, drag, or innuendo. A principal I once worked for used to say “I’d rather come in and work on Christmas day than deal with this Halloween nonsense.” Behind closed doors he did not use the word “nonsense.”

halloweenvideothumbAs a principal I’ve always tried to appeal to common sense. A student once helped me with a video to underscore the importance of the no mask policy.

I’ve always tried to encourage homemade and clever over store bought raunch, and still, the water polo player covered in Hulk green body paint and wearing only a purple speedo…

Ah, Halloween.

So then I got to ACMA.

Folks told me that at our creative school Halloween was a national holiday.

I found out it is.

And getting ready for this year’s parade of creativity my office staff, my wife, and my kids all told me that as the principal I had to dress up.

As a substitute? I offered. No.

A petty bureaucrat? Nope.

Then one day in September when I’d tweeted some photos of student art, a couple of my staff spotted a painting and said that they had the answer.

Halloween

The coffee wielding human staring down the …something fantastic and wild, they said, needed to be my costume.

Halloween arrived, face painted and trailing a cape.

I met it wearing a yellow bathrobe and sipping coffee from a green mug.

IMG_9235We started the day, as we had the year before, with music from Harry Potter, a recognizable and magical theme, played over the intercom. Walking the hallways was an adventure in color and creativity. A giant camera, David Bowie, and an amazing handcrafted wolf laughed alongside Dorothy, Toto, and one of the most elegant green faced witches I’d ever seen.

I started visiting classrooms. In one the Morton Salt Girl, Taako, and Bob Ross sat next to a Royal Guard from the Tower of London, a vampire with real fangs, and Little Red Riding Hood. Incredible.

I spotted two avocados, a giraffe, and a biker in black pleather. More than the usual plush ears and tails giggled through the hallways, rubbing shoulders with pirates, cowboys, and Bilbo Baggins.

Two matching Waldos asked if I wanted to play hide and seek.

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Perhaps the most striking thing about Halloween at ACMA is the overwhelming creativity on display. These are wildly artistic students with talent to match their imaginations. The best costumes are always homemade, clever, and rooted in fun. Simple or complicated, big or subtle, this celebration of art is, at its best, a window into our collective soul.

As I strolled my radio crackled and I got the call that a history teacher, who would later arrive as a mummy, was held up in traffic. I had a chance to cover his AP US History class for a few minutes.

I unlocked the door and as students filed in, steampunk, cub scout, and zombie, there was the artist of my inspiration painting herself. It brought me no end of joy that she, and her peers, recognized my costume without explanation.

Magical things happen at our little school, sometimes on Halloween.

Problems of Practice

It’s not an easy job. No one said it would be. For those of us in public school administration, however, the job is one worth doing and worth doing well.

This is my twenty-fifth year in education, about half of those as an assistant principal and then principal, and while the overwhelming majority of the work is positive, connecting with kids, getting to know families, and supporting caring teachers, there is a stressful side too (I suppose there is in any meaningful work) and I couldn’t have stayed at it -through the tears, raised voices, tension, and stress- if I hadn’t worked with supportive people and honestly believed that I had the possibility of making a difference.

Being a site administrator means being a good steward of the school, a supporter of the staff and students, and a person willing to have the difficult conversations to help the school function best.

Those are often conversations held solo, one at a time, door closed, emotions high. When they end, however they end, principals and assistant principals are left to take a deep breath and get about the business of whatever comes next.

Sometimes, in those most fortunate and often rare times, there’s a colleague able to escape the rush of obligations that define our worlds and listen for a bit. Principals and assistant principals who have been in the business know the value of these kindred spirits and recognize the challenges of making time to support one another.

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It’s this reality that makes me most appreciate a commitment the administrators in my district are making this year to build time for us to pause from our daily work long enough to share some “problems of practice.”

At our monthly principals meetings we take time midway through the morning to break into groups and talk. One of us poses a question, a real one, that is weighing on our mind. The issues might be school culture related, about safety, or about academics. The common denominator is that as a principal we don’t have the answer. Not yet, anyway.

There’s a structure to our discussion, based on the consultancy protocol developed by the School Reform Initiative. It’s a thorough process that involves a group of half a dozen administrators.

One of us takes about ten minutes to introduce a dilemma we’re struggling with, asking a question to the rest of the group to help focus the conversation to come. For another five minutes the group asks clarifying questions, doing their best to understand nuances of the problem at hand. As administrators we want information before we make decisions, and this back and forth provides it.

We then shift to probing questions, hoping to prompt the original questioner to think about the issue in a new way. Next, the process shifts into a curious conversation between the group during which the original questioner is an observer, taking notes, but not participating in the discussion. Having been both a participant and an presenter this year, I can say that it’s a part of the process that is transformative. To hear peers puzzling through the issue, the same issue vexing one of us in real time, is powerful and can lead to real insights. The process ends with a reporting out, the presenter reflecting aloud insights and appreciation. In the course of an hour or so real movement can take place.

But even more than technique, this time we spend leaning in and listening, being vulnerable (and truly so) with each other, and focusing our attention (attention so often fragmented by diverse demands and unexpected stresses), focusing our attention on helping each other, this time is important because it reminds us that we are not alone. We are more than bureaucracy and we are facing problems that may just have a solution, even if we haven’t been able to see it on our own.

Getting to those solutions alone can seem impossible. I suppose sometimes it might be. But in the company of colleagues, the stress of our meaningful work feels more likely to form a diamond than remain a lump of coal.

It’s not an easy job, but with the perspective, encouragement, and support of others, it’s a job we may yet do well.