What We Share: These Three Things
Brian Thomas, Assistant Head of School, led a team of faculty to create an internal newsletter, by teachers and for teachers. Faculty and staff regularly receive these “Every Child, Every Day” newsletters and, through them, have been able to gain new insight into fresh, innovative pedagogy, teaching styles, and, perhaps more importantly, each other. The newsletters have been an important way to maintain connection, especially during the pandemic. As Mr. Thomas approaches the end of his time here at MICDS, he took the opportunity of the last issue for this academic year to share his thoughts with his colleagues, and now, we’d like to share them with you.
Dear MICDS Faculty and Staff,
This letter represents our final Every Child, Every Day. It also is the final time writing to you all as a group. I must admit, I am uncharacteristically struggling with a loss of something to say as I come to terms with how to capture what I have seen in my five years in Saint Louis.
Since I often think in picture fragments, bits of sound, and phrases that repeat – imagistically, if you will – the picture that comes to mind is of the end of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life; he gives a powerful summing up of his life’s work on April 3, 1968, the day before he died. Everybody remembers the prophetic:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
“And I don’t mind.
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”
Of the many beautiful ideas that come from King in arguably his most prescient speech, the images that jump out to me in King’s culminating ideas resound with knowing almost for certain his destiny, is about OUR longevity in this field, OUR life’s work as educators (faculty and staff), and ultimately OUR promised land, or OUR end in mind. Finally, where do the children fit into our thinking?
Like King, we have been rocked by how the world continues to accelerate towards some unknown present and even more so into a future that seems uncertain. How might the gift of our collective longevity in this field provide hope to those who will come after us?
As a little boy, I remember seeing King’s speech over and over again two days later and for the following weeks afterwards—that snippet, that tiny bit—that foretold his future with us and, in many ways, ours, too. Reading King’s last speech, but even more, hearing that remarkable power and cadence still lifts me and thrills me to my core. After all, it is what launched me on my journey as a teacher. I suspect many of you, especially those who have led long and distinguished careers, went into working at a school as a way to make a difference in the lives of children and their families. Indeed, many of you have inspiringly devoted your careers and your lives to THIS place—to MICDS. Because of its rich history to embolden people who actively “resolve to stand for what is good and right,” MICDS stands like a redwood in the midst of the independent school forested landscape. We are a mature school that has been and continues to be a beacon for and of Plato’s “The Good,” in our own way. Our long-tenured colleagues, those who are here, those who came before us, and those who will come after, keep this hope ever moving forward.
Will is something that we tend to eschew or gloss over in our work together. What has called us to this work? We do not talk about religion or God’s will, or even the universal intent. But if you scratch the surface of most of the people at MICDS, they will have a similar story. I felt an “urge” or a “strong pull” to work at MICDS or in other schools. To be pulled in a direction to work in a place does connote a “calling.” Think about this, we could work almost anywhere else and perhaps get more sleep and maybe even better compensation. Yet, we don’t. We stay. Why? Because of that strong pull, that urge, or a calling to be HERE and not any place else. MICDS practically thrums with this animating force. Walking the halls from one end of campus to the other, what I notice is a rapt attention on and in community, focused and filigreed concentration as if some precious wire or material connected each to each, along with a clear-eyed sense of wonder to be in each other’s presence. We are in its awe. Just before the founding of Mary Institute, William Greenleaf Eliot knew this call, this fierce urgency of now, and wrote about it. In reading his writing at the time, particularly in reading a letter he wrote to a donor he was cultivating to contribute to founding the school, Eliot—another preacher of particular power and reputation—writes:
“But our case is peculiar, –for while we are waiting, an empire will have grown up, and ignorance and vice will have taken such hold that it cannot be shaken…”
“St. Louis will become a City of which our children will be justly proud. The many will not do it. The money lovers do not think of it; and the religious are too much engaged with “sects” to care for man. The few must do the work of the many, or nothing worth doing will be done.”
In this context, what Eliot dares to launch is our very work today to build and sustain something great. Before MI, CDS, or MICDS was a glimmer in Eliot’s eye, he knew that we all would be animated to do this work together, for the good of our great city and region, for the good of each other, and for the good of children who are entrusted in our care. We are the FEW. Those who know of our good and often quiet work are proud, as I am, of all of us.
We build it every day. That is King’s version of the Promised Land. What have we glimpsed that we have not yet achieved? What is that state of being and knowing that would allow us to stop striving for it once it is attained? What students do we serve well? What students must we do an even better job of tending to as we strive to get better and be better every day?
Sometimes just asking the questions of ourselves is good enough. I’ll hazard an answer as to what our shared promised land is and where it resides. Our community is our promised land, of course. Yet, our true promised land is our purpose, and it beats in all of our hearts. It’s the last thing we hear before we go to bed, and it’s the first thing we feel as we awake each morning. It is separate and different for each of us, but when we hold it and know it, it is what binds us tight to each other.
An example of this vivifying purpose that is different, and that we share, came in a response from a mother of an 8th grader who I spoke to the other day at Deer Creek Cafe. She was saying goodbye to me but actually thanking the school, in essence, you all, for the work that you do every single day with her son. She said emphatically that:
“We never ever considered another school because of the way students at MICDS—and the school itself—grapples with hard yet compelling issues. You all do this hard job with a sense of pride and sense of self, giving yourselves over to what is being asked in that moment; it’s truly inspiring to see. These moments that students also witness and participate in create character—not in a religious way with doctrine and dos and don’ts, but with the kinds of ever sophisticated choices that the school offers—whether it’s what to eat for lunch, the types of real-world projects students get to do, or whether a transgression against the school community will be tolerated. Our kids see this. They learn from what you do. They are proud of the school because of what they see from all of you.
“And, it is the faculty who create the conditions here that sharpens and hones and refines character with these challenges and ever sophisticated choices. And, it is from a sense of character that you find, they find purpose.”
Inspired, I left the cafe knowing exactly what I wanted to tell you, exactly what I wanted to say.
We do refine our purpose, our promised land, in each interaction we have with a student and with each other. We also have been called here together to do great, good work, which continues on. And, those of us who have been lucky enough to call MICDS home, whether it’s five years or 45 years, we have been ennobled by the sheer transformation of the lives sustained and uplifted—every day.