I was a sophomore in high school when I received the only comment I can remember. Never stop writing. I had written a story about my grandfather who always wore sweaters, and whose sweaters I missed. My tenth grade English teacher believed that although we were young, we had life experiences worth writing. Decades later as I attempt a new post, I think fondly of Dr. McLellan who saw me beyond a student in his class.
Recently I was asked to share a story with fellow members of my community at a local event called “Kindness Unites Us.” Knowing the dedication and impact SPARK Kindness has been bringing to Natick for years, I jumped at the opportunity. Reality soon hit, however, as I wondered what I could possibly capture in three to five minutes. Then I thought of Dr. McLellan.
Brainstorming ideas until I found the right one, figuring out how I would combine several months of awesome into minutes, and hours of practice brought a beautiful combination of exhaustion and energy. When December 11th arrived, I was incredibly nervous yet the minute I walked up on stage, I knew I was also ready. It went something like this.
My kindness story is still being written which makes what I’m about to share just the beginning. On our district opening day, Dena Simmons, assistant director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, rocked our world as she shared the power in telling our stories. Deeply inspired by her message, Teresa Carney, principal of Wilson Middle School, challenged us soon after to fill in the following blanks.
These simple but powerful phrases opened the door wider to a culture invested in seeing the people in it. It took one person to ask the question, “What’s your story?” Around the same time I joined our “No Place for Hate” team inspired by an ADL initiative with the goal of decreasing bias and bullying. We met after school several times during the fall to plan a kickoff assembly as one of the requirements to become a “No Place for Hate” school. We decided to take a central theme of seeing each other below the surface and combine it with the power of sharing our stories. We hoped this would decrease judgement and increase respecting each other’s differences. A unique assembly was born.
You are now students at Wilson Middle School and you’re unsure what to expect as you’ve just taken your seats in the auditorium. What you’re about to see is former students and current staff members taking the stage to share their experiences with identity, racism, fear, sadness, courage, moments of self-discovery, and certainly moments of joy. You sit in silence because you’ve never seen an assembly quite like this one. Many of your teachers, with tears in their eyes, will be talking about it for days to come. You watch a video of peers and adults in the building holding signs revealing something you never knew and suddenly, they become real people.
You walk out with the message that you are worth knowing and back in the classroom, you have a chance to share who you are below the surface. If that’s not enough, you now have the opportunity to join our team so you can continue to share your voice and help make decisions on what “No Place for Hate” might look like in our school. Much of this unfinished story rests in your hands. How exciting is that?
I found the audience cheering. Even as we ended an incredibly condensed version of our assembly, they were still engaged in their roles as students ready to take on the world. I asked every person in the room to remember that kindness starts with seeing each other. I thanked Teresa for fostering a culture where people are seen, challenging us all to follow her lead.
Whether sharing our below the surface stories means taking the stage, completing three powerful sentences, writing a paper, making a sign, or creating art, it matters. I’ve learned this fall of the ripple effect that happens when we simply ask. Back in October, I gave students the task of using a platform of their choice to express themselves artistically. I had no idea that in ten minutes one of my fifth graders would sketch two beautiful hands, telling a story of their own. These hands have become the symbol for “No Place for Hate” at Wilson Middle School and I can’t wait to continue sharing our journey.
Dr. McLellan passed away my senior year, losing a battle to cancer I was unaware he was fighting. Devastated, I realized I had never really told him the impact he had made. On graduation day, I decided to write his name on my cap as I knew he would always be that teacher who saw me and I am forever grateful.