“I can’t tell that we are gonna be friends…”

We are comforted and consoled by the humans we choose. We are challenged and evolved by the humans we don’t.

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You want to make friends. We all do. Every new environment you enter…a classroom, the quad, your dorm…you will be asking yourself…

“Who will I sit with? Walk with? Eat with?”

I don’t want to be alone.

We are gonna be friends Sherri

It is a funny phenomenon of fate that you are most likely to be friends with your firsts.

First roommate.

First person you sit next to.

First day of class.

Most likely to (not?) be friends?
Most likely to (not?) be friends?

But after the relief of finding someone (anyone) to walk with begins to wear off…you will begin to look around and wonder…would I be happier in that group? With that friend?

So begins the self-selection process.

The Sorority.

The Ultimate Frisbee team.

The college radio station.

Over the next four years, you will begin to identify your niche friendship brand.

Nama-friends
Nama-friends “The Divine in me finds a friend in you.”

In contrast, your potluck of friends after your freshmen year, will be a hodgepodge of utter accidents and actual affinities. The faraway freshmen dorm cohort who marches in solidarity the 15 minute hike to the main campus. Versus the specificity of “I saw you lugging your telescope toward the arboretum at dusk and look! I brought mine too! What model is yours? The view is great from The Hill of Three Oaks.”

We are gonna be friends - net

My advice? Seek this balance between the odd and the intended friend for the remainder of your time. We are comforted and consoled by the humans we choose. We are challenged and evolved by the humans we don’t.

We are gonna be friends - hair

My previous post was a tribute to my first friend at Carleton College. Ours was begun by proximity and sustained by affinity. Had we not been randomly settled on 4th Burton, we never would have found each other. I may have never learned the wisdom of trails, knitting, and New England liberalism. She may have never had another opportunity to love a Midwestern Bible belt holy roller. Our gravity changed each other. Swung us on other trajectories we wouldn’t have chosen as our old selves but would never regret as our new selves.

We are gonna be friends hijab

Friendships in a major key can be a great consolation. These friendships are of our choosing. They affirm our impulses. Mirror ourselves back to us with complimentary variations.

We are gonna be friends - bike

But B7 Flat is beautiful. Dissonance and the comradery in minor chords haunts us long after the luxury of major tones has faded.

Some friendships are obvious and inevitable. Some affections are immediate. Some folks resonate with us from the first note.

And then…there are the others.

We are gonna be friends - deck

May you befriend the other. May you forever change each other.

Owed to Chloe…

America meets in the classroom. We need cultural diplomats like Chloe who serve as a bridge between.

Ain’t no mountain high enough to sing the praises of my girl, Chloe. As a tiny tribute to the way she has let her light (and our lights) shine, I wanted to make visible the often invisible act of the recommendation letter. 

This is about her…but its also about us, America.

This song of praise.

This song of freedom.

I am writing in support of Chloe Hill’s application for your scholarship. I can say with utter certainty, Chloe has done more to shape me as a teacher and as a person than any other student I have ever encountered. She is a compassionate, deep thinking, and justice minded human being.

Justice Minded Human Being
Justice Minded Human Being

Over the last four years, Chloe has been an integral part of a Signature Program at our school entitled “Community Development and Global Citizenship.” This program is open to all students who attend our school. Chloe opted in early and will be a part of the first graduating cohort of Signature students.  Even more importantly, though, is that through her participation she has shaped this program for all students who will come after it.

To illustrate how and why, I need to tell you two stories. One is a story of collective transformation. The other is a story of personal transformation.

With mentor and spiritual sister Katara West.
With mentor and spiritual sister Katara West.

Leadership II is a required course for students in their Junior year of the Signature Program. This collaborative class allows students to create projects that benefit their local and global communities. Chloe’s project, “Growing Global” was aimed at teaching elementary school students about empathy and cultural awareness. How can students work together on projects, though, if they don’t trust each other? It wasn’t long in this seating-chart-free class before a pattern began to emerge: Self-segregation. Black students on one side. White students on the other. Only a smattering of outliers as the bridge between.

Having taught in public schools for a decade I have come to realize that schools reflect the schisms of the societies in which they are embedded. I usually see it as my role to help students see this pattern, question it, understand it, and decide how they should act to address it. For the first time, though, I watched as the students within the class began to navigate this journey naturally on their own. One person at the center of this social evolution was Chloe Hill.

Chloe and #Squad

A day that students now simply refer to as “the class” began with an impromptu spoken word performance. Students having memorized poetry for English classes began to recite for the Leadership class. Quickly, other students began to recite other works. Then came Chloe with a piece that addressed the systemic inequalities of tracking students into segregated AP classes. Though it has been written by another student in another state, its resonance in our class was immediate. What ensued was a breakthrough moment where students of all colors began to confess long held family prejudices disrupted by the relationships in the class.  They asked questions of one another related to their experience of race in America.

Students looked at each other not with judgment but genuine compassion…and none of it would have ever happened without Chloe. The ripple effect of that class has effected the trajectory of ALL who witnessed it. There were students who changed career paths. Students who changed political parties. Students who began to believe that ignorance is not inevitable. Students who began to trust one another in a new way. Students who began to hope for more in their class…and their country.

“I didn’t say it would be funny…”

On another day, months later, Chloe and I were reviewing for an AP HUG exam. We stood in front of a hanging wall map of America and spoke about where we’d visited, where we had family, what regions of our country were calling to us.

“I’ve always felt drawn to the South,” Chloe said.

I had a different confession.

“I’m scared of the South.”

Chloe was surprised…so was I. I had never named this fear before. Didn’t realize it was there. Began to examine it.

It wasn’t until this conversation with Chloe that I realized my aversion to the South was about the racism that I feared would bowl me over. I went on to explain that I wasn’t afraid of the black people, but the white people of the South.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wasn’t afraid of “them out there” I was afraid of “me in here.” I was afraid of my own part being from a privileged class. I didn’t think I was strong enough to face the history of cruelty and oppression that the South has come to symbolize.

But standing in front of America, arms linked with Chloe’s, I was suddenly emboldened…

“I’m scared of the South…but I’d go there with you.”

And I will. To visit her at Bennett. To visit her classmates in Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi. I will go south to face America. To face myself.

Right on Time

This is Chloe’s power. She somehow makes us face that which we fear and emboldens us to move towards it, not alone, but in community. With conviction. With the knowledge that we are braver together.

America meets in the classroom. Chloe has been a vital part in helping her fellow students…and her teachers not just BRACE for this meeting but EMBRACE it.  Chloe is a bridge between. She stands between divides of race, gender identity, and generations. She is a cultural diplomat who has a rare ability to question systems of inequality while compassionately confessing her own fears and vulnerabilities.

Meeting America

I feel truly privileged to have had Chloe as a student and whatever influence I may have had in her life, she has and will continue to shape the trajectory of mine.  America needs the lessons and leadership that students like Chloe offer. I have no doubt that just as she has challenged her classmates to face the social divides that keep us a part, she will do this for all the classes, communities, and countries of which she is a part.

I would happily answer any other questions you have about this remarkable person.

The People vs “Some People” – Transitional Democracy in the Classroom…

“I feel as though some people in this classroom get heard more than other people.”

Jordan makes this declaration after the class has collectively spent three weeks writing, revising, and justifying a syllabus for a “Leadership” course. Many of these students have been in class together since their freshmen year. They have moved through a “Community Development and Global Citizenship” course their sophomore year, so it seemed a logical progression for this junior year leadership course that everything, even the syllabus, be determined for the students, by the students.

When they submitted their drafts electronically, I color coded each group’s proposal so that as we wove it together, the tapestry that emerged refracted the multiplicity of their view points and voices.

Syllabus

After all of this, after the “collab-abus” was signed into law by (apparent) mutual agreement, I sat at the front of the room basking in the presumption of egalitarian victory, assumed it must be a communal emotion, and asked:

“How are you all feeling right now?”

Empowered?

Triumphant?

Grateful to your benevolent teacher?

Any of these responses would do.

Instead…

“…some people…”

In moments such as these, when our intent and our outcomes seem so disparate, it is easy to fall back on defense mechanisms. Righteous Indignation is one of my favorites. In my first five years of teaching, this would have undoubtedly been my response. I might have defended “some people,” insisting that this was the ultimate example of irony brought forth be teenage self-involvement.

Instead of asserting this accusation must be false, I considered that it might be true and asked…

“What do the rest of you think of that?”

What emerged was a conversation that rocked not just me, but all the students in the class to their core. One student in particular, Gabby, put herself in the middle of it all and asked…

“You mean… ‘some people’ like me?”

If it please the court, let us consider the case of The People vs Gabby.

Gabby is the quintessential “good student.” She is always eager to participate, loves group work, is prepared for any Socratic Seminar, and is happy to share her thoughts on everything. She’s… a lot like me. In fact, her freshmen year she transferred into my Honors English class because “Everyone is always talking about you and I feel like we have the same personality and I know I’m just going to love it in here.” Be still my heart.

VS.

Jordan, on the other hand, at the end of her sophomore year told me she WOULD NOT be signing up for the Leadership class because, “I feel like you have favorites.” Be still my righteous indignation. Jordan frequently finds herself in the role of hard truth telling, speaking what others are muttering under their breaths but do not have the courage or freedom to say. Jordan will raise her hand (I will brace myself) and she will say it for them.

You may have guessed…Gabby is white, Jordan is black. “The People” vs “Some People.”

If you’re asking yourself “Well why should that matter?”

Umm…because we’re in America, and it matters.

If you want further proof, let’s talk about the self-segregation of the leadership class itself.

I stopped creating seating charts for my Signature students about three years ago. What emerged, over and over, was a fascinating study in “why are all the ____ kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” Sometimes our lines of identity are not externally visible. Other times we wear them in our sportswear, head coverings, skin tones. Students (read humans) if left to choose, too easily settle and sort into this stratified cultural gravity.

At the onset of this conversation about whose voices are heard, one half of the room (predominantly white) sat gaping while the other half (predominantly African-American) sat nodding.

But…because we’re in America (and because we’re talking about Millennials), race is also not the ONLY thing that matters in this scenario. This was also about the tyranny of the extrovert. The hand-waver. The stream of consciousness live-Tweeter. Ours is not a culture of good listening. The introverts too, regardless of skin tone, were ALSO feeling marginalized.

So when Jordan called us on our “some people”-ness, it could have been interpreted as a the ultimate #fail.

That is, if you don’t have a context for transitional democracy.

One of my favorite people and teachers often jokes that the classroom even at its best is a study in “Benign Dictatorship.” That is, no matter how inclusive and responsive the teacher is to the needs of the students, the teacher is still the central force driving the politics and governance of the class. A one party system.

I remember when I took the course “Conflict Analysis and Resolution” for my Masters, it was a shocking realization that democracy, at least initially, can be more chaotic, conflictual, and even violent than dictatorship.  All those voices, opinions, and directions from all those citizens makes for a noisy society. Despotism is much more ordered. Neat. None of the untidiness of dissent to clutter up the place.

Rule of law, it turns out, creates the conditions for dissonance…but also the conditions for eventual (if only occasional) harmony.

But before the harmony, comes the tears.

After class, as I counseled Gabby, as we considered how we could have so unintentionally silenced so many, the solution was elegant:

Listen.

So we did.

To Jordan. (Who I thanked for speaking up and asked to tell me more).

To the introverts. (Who consequently started an initiative called “Hear my Voice.”)

To the people.

It is a great squandering of opportunity that we do not understand public American classrooms as the ultimate space to witness democracy transforming itself…again and again.

If we stop listening during the tune-up, confuse the dissonance with disaster, we slip out before the reflective pause, and miss the orchestral triumph to follow.

Tomorrow…the people’s opus.

(NOTE: To read Gabby’s Reflection on this moment, click HERE. It became her college essay)

“People like you” can learn to listen, too. – By Sig-Senior Gabby Kopf

“Some people never listen… some people never let others talk… some people ruin the class for everyone.”

I took a breath and said, “Some people like me?”

“Gabby it’s not just you, it’s people like you.”

People like you.

For all my life I have been eager to show the world what I can do. I’ve always realized I behaved this way: a showoff, a know it all, a bulldozer, especially in class. However, until that day in Leadership class, I never realized how it could affect my classmates and friends.

Leadership II is a mandatory class for completion of Arundel’s Global Signature Program, which is a collection of classes and activities focused on community development and global citizenship. This program has been my home, a place for me to grow and learn about the world around me.

Class constitution...

That day in class we were collectively writing a syllabus to outline what we wanted to accomplish for the year. The students’ voices were finally being heard, or should I say a few students’ voices; only I and few others were actively participating in the conversation. To me, the majority of my peers appeared more or less uninterested. Our signature classes have always been a place of trust, comfort, and warmth so the cold feeling from many lively students was puzzling. Why didn’t the classroom vibe feel the same as before?

Mrs. Dziedzic stopped the lesson and asked the entire class what was wrong.
Kaitlin, a classmate who looked particularly apathetic, raised her hand and began letting out her frustrations about “some people” in the class. As I listened to her describe her feelings I felt more and more attacked. She was talking directly about me. The rest of the class joined in to address how they felt voiceless in a class that was meant to hear them. I felt so ashamed.

I couldn’t help but cry because I took that class in hopes of becoming a better leader, someone strong and successful without being overpowering, and I had become just the opposite. When I realized peoples’ perception of me differed from how I saw myself, I
knew I needed to adjust how I act in class .

When I went to Mrs. Dziedzic after class I asked, “What can I do to change?”

“Simple. Just listen.”

Just listening...

I went back to class the next day with a new mindset. I just sat and listened, but more than that, I listened for the right reasons. I found myself listening to understand, instead of just listening to reply. There was a huge difference that I never truly understood until Kaitlyn gave me the opportunity to be vulnerable, which facilitated my perceptions about what it means to be voiceless. This allowed me to become a more empathetic community member, and consequently, a better leader.

As I began to participate in class again with new purpose, I formed much stronger relationships with my friends in the class. Kaitlyn was courageous and spoke for those who felt voiceless, and no longer rolls her eyes when I speak. I stepped out of my comfort zone in order to better our class, and that laid the foundation for very strong friendships.

As I go on to form new relationships in my life; I will remember the way Kaitlyn felt about “Some People.”

Lifting us up...

Now I actively try to understand what people are saying. Being a good listener and proactive member of discussion does not only just apply to the classroom, but also as a co-worker, or a friend, or even a daughter. While there will always be situations in which our failures make us susceptible to self-doubt, it is important to make these moments generate motivation for personal growth. Moments like this inspire me to make each “failure” count.

The above guest blog was written by Gabby Kopf, a senior in the Community Development and Global Citizenship Program at Arundel High School in Maryland. She wrote it as her college admission essay…and she better get in.