I have learned, over and over again, that community is never accidental. Instead, building a sense of place is something that takes a certain focus drawing on all members, little, big or in between. And beyond something good, it is essential, even paramount. The finale of Middlemarch, perhaps, says it best: “There is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.” So, if you want a strong school, you want a strong sense of place in which to hold that school: you want a community. It really is all about the people all working together to create belonging, membership and familiarity.
I often speak about the words we use to describe our school and how important it is to hear them and to see them. Our motto, Not For School But For Life We Learn, dons the door of the Theater and echoes throughout our halls, reminding us that there is no end-game to learning and that the true gift of Spence is the forever appetite for learning long after we have walked away from the Red Doors. Our mission statement offers three words in high relief: purpose, passion and perspective, all values held together as a roadmap for scholarship and for life. There’s a reason why I give every new teacher and staff member a small magnet with our mission statement on it at their first orientation. Sharing these words repeatedly makes for something I call purposeful redundancy, the daily naming of what matters most.
Coming to school every day is all about putting yourself in a larger framework, a place you call school, and no matter if you are 5 or 55, every day offers a hundred opportunities to be part of a world of learning, a community. As you negotiate self and space from early morning until late afternoon or early evening, you not only have the anchorage of purpose and care behind you, but also the shared responsibility to keep those values we hold dear alive and well. All of this doesn’t just happen. Beyond books or buildings, the power of why we are together every day is the life force of our school. Building that community, every day, is what calls for our attention and our care.
“Keeping school,” a phrase capturing that sense of perpetual initiative, means a lot of things, but mostly it means creating a sense of place. For Spence it means the thousands of steps climbed, up and down, every day. It means the lobbies of our buildings serving as town squares, homes for all arrivals and departures, places of many “good mornings” and “have a good nights.” It means the sounds and smells in the early morning coming from our kitchens: is today Pasta Monday or dessert day? It means elevator doors opening to scenes as if in the middle of a play: students working on a project together in the hallway; a teacher and a student huddled over a notebook; students rushing back to their homeroom, laughing. It means alums returning, telling us that while spaces may have changed, the feel is the same and that it is as if they were coming home. It is our Campus Safety team nodding to each of us as we come from the outside, in. It means the hat rakishly put on the bust of Clara Spence in the lobby, the forgotten sweatshirt in the corner of the hallway or the student artwork on every wall throughout. It means, a sense of place.
As parents, we know about a sense of place. We call it home. In many ways schools are homes as well. And together, in that important partnership, we build places, homes and schools, that help young people grow into the promise each of them holds within. Poet Ted Kooser writes about this kind of partnership, and be it about the space between two parents or between a school and a parent, together we do, indeed, keep school and build a sense of place.
Swinging from Parents
The child walks between her father and mother,
holding their hands. She makes the shape of the y
at the end of infancy, and lifts her feet
the way the y pulls up its feet, and swings
like the v in love, between an o and an e
who are strong and steady and as far as she knows
will be there to swing from forever. Sometimes
her father, using his free hand, points to something
and says its name, the way the arm of the r
points into the future at the end of father.
Or the r at the end of forever.
It’s that forever the child puts her trust in, lifting her knees,
swinging her feet out over the world.
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