Ode to a Cheetah

1246330100_mSo a strange thing happened to me this week. All of a sudden one night I found myself added to a closed group for people from my Elementary/Jr. High school. I’ve seen such groups and have been added to them before, and they usually go nowhere. This one was different. It seemed to have exploded a little bit and has completely taken over my Facebook feed, as well as my attention, as pictures and memories followed by endless streams of comments are constantly popping up. It has sent me into a place of reflection, and is reminding of just how formational my (and I think hundreds of others) experience at Clara Barton Open School was. The question that I’ve been wondering about as streams of pictures and memories flood my feed is “what was it about that school that made it so much more than just a school?” For me it’s this: Clara Barton Open School was a place that wasn’t just concerned about making us good students. It was placed that seemed to be concerned about making us good people.

I remember every February taking significant time for Black History Month where we learned the importance of the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. before taking time to learn about MLK in school was a thing. Looking back on it now I was not just learning facts about his life- I was learning important lessons about this thing called white privilege in a nonjudgemental yet deeply formational way. That made me a better person. I remember Chris Jaglo taking time for our entire class to choose one rock star to be from the “We Are the World” song and doing a video wherein we lip-synched that song (I think I got Huey Lewis). It was a goofy little project that brought us some awareness about world hunger issues, but even more so, it connected our class in such a way that said “everybody here matters”. I remember having emotional meltdowns on occasion (which I now know to have been the beginnings of what would become a lifelong battle, albeit a relatively minor one, with anxiety and depression), and I was never shamed, guilted or marginalized, but was appropriately held accountable in a context of care and compassion. I remember being behind my grade level in reading (as those stupid “benchmark” tests revealed- remember those things? God, I hated those), but never feeling “stupid” about it because there was something in the multigrade class structure coupled with the spirit of our teachers that made it normal and okay for students to be all over the map academically. I remember an inspiring and compassionate gym teacher whose departure saddened me but also inspired me as she headed off to amazing new adventures (in the most literal sense of the words), and whom I don’t think any of us knew then just how badass she was. Though I had delusions of one day being a professional athlete, it was at Barton that I discovered my love for this thing called the stage through shows like an odd musical of sorts about science (no idea what it was called- I just remember being Thomas Edison), “Shenandoah” and “Really Rosie” (although I’m still a little bitter that they wouldn’t let me play the role of Really Rosie). I remember playing “Yellow Submarine” with classroom instruments in such a way that would make Jimmy Fallon proud. I remember going on camping retreats and learning about caring for our earth before such institutionalized learning was a thing. I remember the (what I know now to be rare) experience of calling my teachers by their first names, because the faculty at Barton knew that true respect was not going to come by holding authority over us to control us, but by using authority to come under us to lift us up and empower us. And that is what they did, and in so doing, they made me feel safe.

Because, you see, most of all what I remember about Clara Barton Open School was that I felt safe- not just physically safe, but emotionally, spiritually, academically and socially safe. What I knew and felt when I walked through those old heavy doors every morning was that no matter what, this was a place where I was noticed, known, cared for and loved. That is not to say that nothing bad ever happened once inside those doors. It is to say that when bad things did happen, I knew I would be cared for and loved through it. It seems to me that the faculty there did not see their job as merely to teach me. They did do that and did it well, but they also saw their job as to notice me, know me, care for me and love me, and then to create that culture throughout the entire school. And it worked. I think the reason that Facebook group kind of took off this week was that those of us who were there did not merely learn there, we were shaped there. I have lived and worked in Church-World for 18 years now and I’m realizing this week that much of what I do in trying to create an authentic, inclusive, loving and formational community in Church-World stems from my experience at Clara Barton Open School. I don’t know if that spirit still exists there- I hope it does- but now being older and having children of my own, I can honestly say that Clara Barton Open School, at least for a time, was one hell of a special place.

It is my deepest hope and prayer for children today, mine and all children across the globe, that they get even a taste of the experience I had the blessing of feasting on year after year at Clara Barton Open School. So thank you all who were there. You helped shape me. Peace, shalom, salaam, and go Cheetahs.

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