Tuesday, December 07, 2021

"I Wish I'd Let Him Know He'd Been Seen"

Many years ago, before our school moved to The Center of the Universe, someone entered our old building as we were assembled as a community and walked off with several purses and backpacks. It happened as the parents arrived to pick up their kids at the end of their day. Everyone was gathered together in the classroom, listening, as is our tradition, to the final storybook of the day before singing our goodbye song. Meanwhile, this person was out in the hallway pilfering.

The theft was discovered almost immediately. One parent remembered holding the gate open for a man she hadn't recognized, but since he acted as if he belonged, she had assumed he was a relative or family friend of one of the kids. Upon hearing this, several other parents thought that they too had seen the man who had stolen wallets as we raised our voices together in farewell.

We all felt a sense of violation, particularly those who had lost their property. There was fear and anger, some of it irrationally directed at me. Equally irrational was the tendency of some to broadly blame "the homeless." 

Most urgent, however, was the sense that our children were vulnerable. Although this petty thief hadn't in any way threatened the children, it was hard to not let our concerns go there. And so it was that a few evenings later, we convened as a community to discuss what was to be done. 

There were those who immediately advocated for more locks and a more rigid security system. We talked about our fear. We talked about our anger. And there were those who talked about their sadness. They were sad about our community's loss of innocence. They were sad that it seemed that the solution would mean that our wide open community would become more closed. They were sad that we live in a society that creates petty theft and homelessness just as it creates billionaires. 

At one point, the mother who had held the gate for the thief said, "I wish I'd just smiled at him or said 'Hi' or something. I wish I'd let him know he'd been seen." Her point, of course, was that sneak thievery relies upon not being seen, but we as a community took hold of her notion in a broader sense. Perhaps this was, in part, a failure of our community. There were dozens of us there when it happened, at least one parent for every child. A stranger had come amongst us and not one of us had even greeted him. This thief had counted upon his invisibility and, we all agree, no one should be invisible in our community. 

And that's what we decided to do. We would keep ourselves safe by welcoming everyone, especially strangers into our midst. Instead of locking ourselves in, we committed ourselves, as a community to being over-the-top friendly, to making sure everyone felt seen.

Several weeks later, my father, who had never been to the school before, came to visit. I was going to give him a quick after hours tour of the place, then we were heading up the street for lunch. I hadn't let anyone know that I was expecting him because I figured that by the time he arrived I'd be there all alone, but dad was early. He was escorted into the classroom by a several parents who surrounded him, asking questions and complimenting me, his son. When they left, dad said, "Wow, that was some welcome! Everyone is so friendly!" When I told him that it was all part of our anti-theft policy, he chuckled, "Well, it sure worked!"

I'm remembering this today in the aftermath of another school shooting, another community torn apart, more lives horrifically destroyed. 

Some time after we moved to our new location, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy, a group of parents wanted to make our school more secure. Located in the lower level of an old church building, our space had been intentionally designed from the start for ease of entry, as it should have been. After all, this was originally intended as a space to embrace all, in love, mercy, sanctuary, and compassion.

While I understood, it felt like a failure as we replaced doors, reinforced windows, added locks, and made plans for what we were going to do should the unthinkable happen.

And this is about failure: a uniquely American failure.

An educator from a school near to Oxford High School where the most recent tragedy took place, wrote to me yesterday that there is a lot of talk about installing metal detectors, police patrolling hallways, and other measures that would make her school more like a prison than it already is. Sadly, I know that if she speaks up in favor of alternatives, she will, in the climate of fear, be accused of being insufficiently concerned, of being naive, or worse. It's simply not what traumatized people want to hear.

So we install stronger locks on stronger doors. We enact security measures. We fill our school hallways with armed police. And we grow increasingly wary of strangers, making us less welcoming, less open, and ultimately less connected. It's easy to see how this becomes a downward spiral of distrust, suspicion, fear, and anger.

I don't see how we can end this without devising more common sense gun laws, but I also don't see how we can end this so long as we allow distrust, suspicion, fear, and anger to guide us.

As Mister Roger's mother said to him as a boy when faced with scary things in the news, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." She was, of course, talking about firefighters and nurses and other first responders, but she could just as easily have been talking about those who will not give-in to despair, who will continue to connect through love, mercy, sanctuary, and compassion, despite the horrible news, because to do otherwise is to risk not living at all.

The most important thing in the aftermath of something frightening is not to rush to action, especially action driven by fear, but rather to first give everyone involved, the entire community, a chance to speak, without fear of judgement, and for everyone to try, with their entire being, to listen, to really see one another. Nothing good can come until everyone has had a chance to grieve and that requires a community committed to talking and listening.

"Anything that is human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us to know that we're not alone." ~Mister Rogers

And it is that there are so many of us who feel alone and unseen that is our ultimate failure.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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