And over these many years with that now-faded Post-it or dog-eared laminated card, I’ve learned that the “how” of discourse and engagement matters most of the time more than the “what.” My conduct, the way I behave in a meeting, is as pivotal as my argument or purpose. I remember, too, how thankful I was for thinking about conduct and purpose ahead of a difficult meeting with a parent when, on my way home, I found the accidently dropped notes that this same parent had taken the time to write but had not used at our meeting. It made me glad that the aligning of purpose with conduct in words such as listening and understanding held true on both sides of that conversation. These two words have never let me down.
I’m thinking even more about all of this in today’s public discourse, whether on the stage, on a blog, or in a tweet or a text message. I’ve never felt the need for a counter-narrative about public engagement more than I do now. Current currency for discourse seems to fall into the land of spoiled Rumpelstiltskin antics or knock-’em-down ad hominem, and apparently we have invested truth in the moniker “reality” before the word TV. This, everything seems to shout, is how people engage. Tethered to anger, our discourse has moved from the land of dignity to that of demagoguery. And anger, as poet Jane Kenyon says, is “the inner arsonist” with a match. It burns fast and leaves nothing.
And as a woman and an educator in a girls school, I want to be very careful about one thing as I write this. Conduct is never to be confused with politeness, acquiescence or, heaven forbid, voicelessness. Conduct is not about agreement; it’s about holding dignity and offering respect. Conduct is about your personal integrity, which is always about strength, power and voice. My mother, who almost always got everything right when teaching me how to walk in this world, missed once in this very arena and confused respectful engagement with silence. She once said to me, “If your grandmother says the sky is polka dotted, it’s polka dotted.” I knew as I heard these words that something was off in this calculus, but I didn’t quite know how to solve for it. Luckily, my grandmother never called my hand on that dot-patterned sky, and, even better, I had many strong women, including my own mother and grandmother, in my life for models on how to navigate those big giants of truth, respect and engagement.
Our students learn about engagement from the get-go. Models abound, and strong discourse becomes the centering medium that stretches from age 5 to 18. I have watched over and over again at our Lower School Community Time as the youngest in our School learn how to engage in public, how to stand up, take the microphone and claim their voice. I remember one time, in particular, when a dancer came to perform for the girls and, once finished, asked whether anyone had any questions. One Kindergartener raised her hand high and stepped up to the microphone with assurance. “I have a dog,” she exclaimed, looking at the dancer directly and standing very tall. Her classmate behind her raised her hand as well. “I have a dog, too,” she said proudly. Both of them sat down, looked at one another and nodded. Job well done. Sometimes the “how” is even more important than the “what.”