“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
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.
His 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.
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.
But 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.
Understanding 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.