My grandmother was Swedish. She came to the United States when she was sixteen and had her name Americanized from Selda to Zelda.
My other grandmother was the first child born in a little town in the heart of the Canadian plains, the daughter of immigrants from England who struck out to a new land before the First World War. My great grandfather returned to fight at Vimy Ridge as a part of the Canadian Corps.
I grew up hearing their stories.
My own red hair, redder as a child than it is today, reminded those on my father’s side of the family of my great grandmother’s fiery locks, which according to family legend she used to attract customers to her father’s London barbershop by sitting on the steps out front as a child.
My mom liked to say that my stubbornness, like her own, came from Grandma Zelda, a righteous Swede who always said that a Norwegian was nothing but a Swede with his brains kicked out. Later in life when she found a branch of Norwegian in her family tree, family stories have it that she said “Well maybe that’s why I’m so stubborn.”
My folks showed me old photos of Abby and Father, that London barber and his wife, who were early members of the Salvation Army. They were positively Victorian, and look back at me from the old photos with expressions I recognize in my own family and myself.
A painting by my grandmother, finished with a little help from my Uncle Rod, a gifted artist, of her childhood home in Sweden hangs in my parents’ guest room. I’ve stayed in that room with my own kids and showed them the scene from my grandmother’s memory.
All of their stories inform my story. Who I am is, in part, a continuation of who they were.
I thought about that after a wonderful conversation two gifted teachers and I shared about the importance of culture last week.
As an educator I know the importance of creating an accepting and welcoming school, and I’ve had the great fortune to be a part of more than one school community where students know that they can be themselves, and know they are valued and cared for who they are.
I love that I get to go to work every day at a school where plush ears, tails, and horns are a regular part of the established dress, where a student in a top hat or a unicorn onesie is a student, not a student seen as acting out. I’m proud to be a part of a community where skirts aren’t limited to those born biologically female, and where the study body values, as they say, “hearts, not parts.”
We rightly celebrate individuality and nobly honor differences, even as we encourage the choices each of us make every day to be the people we want to be. We are actively in the business of making culture, school culture.
…but this is different than honoring the cultures each of us carry with us.
All of those wonderfully welcoming and inclusive attitudes; the value placed on kindness; the celebration of artistic spirits, not just works of art; and the belief that everyone can become who they want to be …and then change their mind …and then change their mind again, all of those attitudes, it struck me, were not about the same sort of culture I’d been talking about with my teachers.
They had been talking about countries, traditions, and heritage.
If my history includes a London barbershop and a Swedish painting, then what about the stories that each of us bring to our creative collective present? If I am not only defined by the choices I make for myself, but also by the rich cultural heritage that I’m right to honor and embrace, then isn’t part of creating a welcoming school community also developing ways for each of us to share our own family’s stories as well as writing our own?
That was what my teachers had been talking about. Like me, their family stories and cultural heritages were foundational to who they are. What might we do, they asked, to invite, articulate, and celebrate our students’ family stories? What could we as a school do to give the artistic souls who fill our school both the invitation and encouragement to share their cultures with each other?
For anyone noticing, I’ve used more than a couple of questions in this post …so far. That’s not clever rhetoric; it’s that I’m still figuring this out. Being the principal doesn’t mean you always have the right answers. Done right, it often means you try to ask the right questions.
I took some of my questions to Sho Shigeoka, a sage in the realm of equity and honoring cultures, cornering her at a district meeting with the swirl of thoughts I’d been wrestling with throughout the week.
She smiled at me and said: “Ask the kids.”
I walk the halls every lunch, sit in on classes often, and chat with students all the time, but I’ll confess that in that moment with Sho I couldn’t remember a single time this year when heritage came up as a topic of discussion.
“Gather a group,” Sho said patiently. “Ask them how they think they could celebrate their stories.”
Over the next few months I look forward to hearing my students (and staff too) answer those questions. I’m excited to work with those two caring teachers who started this line of thought and the diverse and creative students to find ways for each of us to share who we are.
This post promises to be the first of a few looking forward and joining others to look back on family, culture, and the stories of our lives. I want to help create a healthy school culture for all of us that honors the cultures each of us. It’s time to start asking, and time to start listening.