Thursday, November 5, 2015

School: No Place for Fear

All hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.

--John Lennon

Earlier this week, the City of Houston voted down a standing city ordinance aimed at protecting the civil rights of many of its citizens, most notably transgender people. At the heart of the vote was what has become the undignified threshold question that trans people face: What bathroom do they use?

Houston, like many other big cities such as Dallas and San Antonio, once honored the extensive research about (and the American Medical Association's recognition of) the complex issue of gender identity--that some people have a legitimate mental and emotional disconnect from their biological sex, and identify more closely with the opposite gender. This recognition enabled trans people to legally use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify.

But some Houstonians--fearful that such an ordinance would enable male predators to accost women in public restrooms--succeeded in repealing it, chiefly through a well-crafted television campaign that stoked terror and fear in the hearts of voters. [N.B. Neither Dallas nor San Antonio has reported incidents of such violence toward women in public restrooms.]

I cite this recent news not to promote a political "agenda"--I believe that respecting people for who they are is a simple matter of honoring human dignity and has no place in politics.

But there is one destructive reality that resides at the core of the example above: Fear is alive and well in our world.

Fear divides us. It perpetuates a simplistic, binary worldview--good/bad, black/white, liberal/conservative, us/them. Our schools should be focused squarely on the goal of eradicating such irrational fears, helping students to understand that the world is a place with endless possibilities and no limitations.

Fear is the enemy of innovation, of reasonable risk-taking. If I try and fail, then I'm no good.

Fear is what keeps us wed to educational practices that are valueless, like administering vapid, state-mandated standardized tests and training kids to crave the approval of others by giving letter grades. If I don't score well on the test or get good grades, I will not get into a good school. I won't live a good life.

Fear keeps us from truly getting to know other people and forming strong relationships. If I hang out with the brainiacs, then the cool kids won't like me. 

We are lucky at High Meadows. Our teachers know that fear is what holds us back from being our best selves.

They lovingly push children beyond their comfort zone, whether it's sitting with someone new or climbing one branch higher on the chicken tree.

They actively address when kids make "mean mistakes"--name-calling, social exclusion--helping them to feel and express empathy and self-forgiveness.

Our teachers openly encourage students to try something new, from a preschooler pouring milk by herself to an eighth grader presenting a project in front of the entire school. And if that preschooler spills the milk or the eighth grader misspells a few words in his presentation, that's OK. Our teachers will guide them to clean up their own (minor) messes, coach them, and let them try again until they are successful. And the students learn that they don't need to be afraid of making mistakes.

We are the models for our children. They take their cues from us. If we act with fear, they learn to be fearful. As parents and educators who want our children to be their best selves--happy, well-adjusted, fearless people--let's set a higher bar. We can embrace the power of nurture, inquiry, forgiveness, and love. Our children will take notice. And they won't be afraid anymore.