In honor of Black History Month, Episcopal English teacher Lisa Pritchard reflected on single-story stereotypes. She recently encouraged Upper School students in Chapel to create their own life story despite what the world expects from them. She also left them with a charge to tell the story of others and eliminate these preconceived notions. Read more.
When the African Heritage Club first approached me to do a chapel talk on the topic of single-story stereotypes during Black History Month, I was, to say the least, a bit, well, confused. I mean, besides the obvious: not only am I white, but I come from a relatively privileged, middle-class, background. Sure, I’m female, which has resulted in some discrimination over the years, but I haven’t really encountered many instances in my life in which I have been on the receiving end of a negative stereotype. What did I have to contribute to this conversation?
I asked Lauren Reed, co-president of the African Heritage Club what her thought process was and she said that she thought I could be pretty objective – okay, true – and creative – I like to think so. Still, that’s a lot of pressure. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that my background as an English teacher is what could serve me here since, as we have learned, it is the prevalence of stories that can be so powerful. And I know stories.
So, I got to thinking. And, while I was initially intimidated and thought I had to come up with this big, powerful piece that covered all of these important angles while also ringing true and allowing you to take away a message that sticks…I couldn’t get it right. Nothing felt authentic. Ultimately, I chose to go with something that is very me. I hope it does justice to the topic and to Black History Month and that the African Heritage Club doesn’t feel I’m being too flippant or that they’ve made a mistake and, if that does happen, it’s not their fault – it’s entirely mine. Either way, I can assure you that I’m being genuine.
In a Ted Talk that we watched in advisory, this statement by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (she’s an amazing author, by the way, you should definitely go read her books) stood out to me: “So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” So, here is the story of the “one thing” or one story that has been told to me over and over again about myself and what I chose to do about it.
Let me begin with one particular story. I went to Centenary College of Louisiana in Shreveport. One of the graduation requirements is to participate in a May “Module,” usually during your junior or senior year, where you focus intensely for three weeks on a topic outside of your major field of study. I was lucky enough to be able to go on the “Greek and Roman Odyssey” module. During the trip, my fellow students and I had a night off to roam around the plaka in Athens when we encountered an elderly Greek gentleman. He was about five feet high and somewhat hunched over. He stared me up and down – twice – and then asked the question that I have been unable to escape since I was around eight years old. In a thick Greek accent came the single word, “Basketball?”
I shook my head, no, and smiled. He returned the smile and we parted ways.
It never fails. At least fifty percent of the time that I meet someone new, the question inevitably arises, Have I played basketball? No. I’m not very good at it, actually. Well, let me back up. I probably could be good at it if I tried, I’ve just never tried. Why? Because everyone assumes I should be playing basketball just because I’m tall. And that’s why I’ve always chaffed against it. Even when I had the chance to try, I refused. Whether it was to prove everyone wrong or because I wanted to be separate from that image they had created of me in their minds, I don’t know, but basketball just wasn’t ever in the cards for me.
I’ve always been tall. I was the little kid who was too tall for the small rides, but not quite big enough for the adult rides. Who people thought was older than she actually was. Who always had trouble finding pants that were long enough and attractive shoes in my size (still do, sometimes). Who was a head taller in group photographs in the yearbook. Who was always at the back of the line or the back of the class. And who was always pushed to play basketball because I would “obviously be good at it.”
Being tall is not only unavoidable for me, but it is also a part of my identity that I am constantly being reminded about. In high school, by the time I was a sophomore, I was already 5’10” and thought I had stopped growing (I hadn’t – for those of you who don’t know, I’m 6’1”.) I and a handful of students had gone on an arts trip to New York City in February. We had split up at one point and were supposed to meet back at a certain location within half an hour. As we were nearing the rendez-vous point I heard – from a city block away, mind you – “I see Lisa’s head!” Apparently, because my head was above the crowd, it served as a good landmark for the rest of the group.
My friends always yelled at me when I wore heels because I was “tall enough already.” I had trouble finding dates who weren’t intimidated by my height. Once, when I was standing on the small team bus to head to a volleyball game, the back of my neck pressed against the ceiling, my friend Blythe – who was and still is 4’9” – exclaimed, “Seriously? You’re that tall? How is that fair? My entire family can be killed by airbags!”
You can imagine that this type of thing can get old pretty fast. But, as I matured, I slowly learned that the “single-story” of my height that everyone seemed determined to throw in my face could actually become an asset. When I had to give up on ballet because I was too tall for the costumes and had to specially order pointe shoes because they didn’t make them in my size, I regrouped and applied those skills to excelling at sports. When I was nervous giving a speech in front of the school or performing in a play, I looked naturally confident and poised because of my height and soon learned to actually adopt that confidence. And, when many women had to fight to be heard in a crowd of men, I was able to look those men in the eye and command their respect.
Most importantly, though, I learned that I have the ability to change the story. I don’t have to listen to and adapt to the story that is being told to me about me – I can make other people listen to the story I have to tell them about myself. And, once I learned that I could shape that story, I realized I could help shape other people’s stories. Because as someone with that privilege and power, it is my responsibility to speak up for the people who don’t have a voice against the single-story stereotype. I am the one who has to say, “Maybe that’s not true” or “Have you asked that person if that story applies to them?” or “Have you considered this alternative instead?”
So, if you take away nothing else, I want you to remember two things: first, don’t let the story you’re told about yourself limit you. Don’t let the world tell you that because you got that one bad grade on a test you’re a failure or because you came from a different background than everyone else around you, you can’t succeed: write your own story and make everyone else listen to you. Because you matter. Your story matters.
And second, once you’re comfortable with telling your own story, start telling other people’s stories and make sure their perspectives are heard. And this is the part where I am going to get cheesy and preachy, but it’s genuinely how I feel. For those of us who are at an advantage there is an obligation to help those less privileged. We need to be raising each other up, not tearing each other down to make ourselves feel better. Listen to people’s stories and tell them. Spread the word. Eliminate the single-story stereotype. Or, at the very least, make people think about it once in a while. And whether you have to whisper it or yell it or write it or use humor, keep telling it and maybe someone, somewhere will hear it and understand it and they will start to do the same.
When Lt. General Jay Silveria spoke to U.S. Air Force Academy cadets and staff on September 28, 2017, he used the phrase “power of diversity” to embolden the Academy to treat everyone with dignity and respect no matter their background, gender, skin color, or race. Silveria referenced his comments against the backdrop of high-profile racial tensions across the country and reminded the cadets about the Academy’s diversity where people come from all backgrounds, races, upbringings, genders, walks of life, and parts of the country. “The power of that diversity comes together and makes us that much more powerful,” Silveria said.
This speech about diversity resonates with my experience in attending different kinds of elementary and secondary schools. I have been a white student in a mostly African American school district in Jackson, Mississippi, and I have also attended mostly white Episcopal schools in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Having studied the long struggles of desegregation, my experiences in these various schools cause me to question why there is such a divide in our education system for equal educational opportunity, regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic standing, sex, gender, and academic ability.
Why do we hear of the values of diversity? What are the many educational benefits to learning in diverse classrooms? A report from The Century Foundation by Amy Stuart Wells, Lauren Fox, and Diana Cordova-Cobo reveals, “Students who attend colleges and universities with more racially and ethnically diverse student bodies are said to be exposed to a wider array of experiences, outlooks, and ideas that can potentially enhance the education of all students.” At all levels of education, from preschool to doctoral studies, diverse classrooms produce academic benefits, such as learning how to work cooperatively with people from different backgrounds, encouraging creativity, and promoting deeper learning with critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
Beyond cognitive benefits, there are also civic and socio-emotional benefits to racially and socioeconomically diverse schools, according to research by The Century Foundation. When peers are exposed to different backgrounds, students are more likely to engage in cross-cultural dialogue leading to deeper understanding about other races and cultures. Outside the classroom, diverse educational environments prepare students to function in the real world to become global citizens. Eileen Kugler writes, “Our nation's workforce is becoming more diverse and will continue to do so. Our students must learn how to interact with people different from them--whether as leader, staff, seller, or buyer.” Diversity is important in preparing students for future successes as well as allowing students to better understand the people, places, and events both near and far away from them.
Learning more about the importance of diversity in education can create openings for people to make individual choices to build relationships with others. The challenges of achieving diversity in schools are difficult, but the rewards are numerous. By allowing students to experience diversity through education, they too will learn about the power of diversity.
Mary Emerson Owen
Mary Emerson Owen is an Honors Diploma candidate at the Episcopal School of Baton Rouge. She is a high school senior who enjoys running on her school’s cross country team, visual art, and spending time with friends and family. Her thesis revolves around the importance of diversity in education, also referencing how diversity has grown and changed in her personal life, the Episcopal School of Baton Rouge, and the city of Baton Rouge through a historical perspective.
The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.
Because I’m a trained scientist, and more specifically an environmental scientist, when I hear the word ‘community’ I think of an ecological community. In an ecological community, living species are interacting with each other both with like species and different species. For example, in a grasslands community, grasses and shrubs provide food for the grasshopper and the rabbit. However, these animals move around and take only what they need to ensure that the grasses can survive. These species are also interacting with nonliving things like the water, air, and soil. All in all, this community is bound together by the network of influences that species have on one another. They live in this perfect balance, so that everyone can thrive. I want to focus on just that, how we are ‘bound together’ in this network and how our actions influence other species and affect this balance. In other words, what we put into our community, and what we take out of our community.
What we take out of our community:
Growing up, I was a part of a small tight-knit community in the center of San Antonio, Texas. My area was called Alamo Heights (Heights for short). It was here where I learned to ride a bike, throw a softball, and make mistakes, tons of mistakes. Heights was a safe place where I was never afraid to be myself. Alamo Heights created this environment of love and support for everyone, so I never felt like it wasn’t okay to be me. It’s important to know, also, that 90% of the students I started school with when I was four years old in kindergarten, I eventually graduated with senior year. So everyone knew everyone. And everyone’s parents knew everyone. Which is sometimes a good thing, and sometimes a bad thing. However, over the years, my family grew from just five people, to a hundred. My friends’ parents became my parents, their brothers became my brothers, and I could go to them for comfort, love and support.
Sometimes, though, our community isn’t always like this. Sometimes a community can be seen as a place of discrimination and hate. Last year, as I was reading news articles and browsing social media, I came across an article about a student who had been bullied at Alamo Heights. He was a sophomore at the time, and the bullying became so bad, that he ended up taking his own life. When I read this, and heard of what the other students were doing to this kid, I was appalled. All I could think was, this is NOT the community I grew up in. This is not a community of comfort, love, and support. And this is certainly NOT a safe place anymore. Hearing this news made me really sad, and I even took that from my community, I took sadness.
What we put into our community:
This brings me to what we put into our community, because what we put into our community determines what we are able to take out. If no grass grows, there is no food for a grasshopper. Likewise, if no love and support is given in a community; no love or support can be taken from it.
In my group of friends, there were people from whole families, divorced families, kids from the “rich part of town” and kids from the other side of the tracks. We had artists, athletes, brainiacs, and even the Jack of all trades. Some of us were goofballs while others were super serious about life and our future, and we are all still this way. But we all became friends and stayed friends because our community (and us) created this space that supported diversity. Each one of us was diverse (whether that be color of our skin, where we came from, social status) but we came to support that and welcomed the diversity. We made it okay to be different, and encouraged it.
An example of this was from our talent show. Our talent show my senior year was actually one of the highlights of high school (yes, not winning district or going to the state semi-finals, but the talent show). Several of my friends were performing, but we didn’t know what they were doing for their performance, they were keeping it a surprise. Now, these friends were not known for their dancing or singing abilities, and it was a random group of guys, so everyone was kind of confused as to why they were even performing. When the curtains opened up, there were four treadmills on the stage. A popular song at the time “Here It Goes Again” by OK-GO came on. As the music started to play, the guys replicated the same exact moves that the band does in the music video. The whole time during the talent show, I thought to myself, wow I wish I was brave enough to do something like that. These guys took a huge risk, their senior year in high school, and could have made complete fools of themselves. They weren’t afraid to do it big. To them it was go big and rock it OR go big and fail magnificently. Either way, they were going.
These guys did something completely out of the box, and completely unexpected, and the only reason they were able to do this and not chicken out was because of our community. They knew they were in a place where you could fall flat on your face and still be loved. They could have gotten off sync and the crowd still would have given them a standing ‘O.’ It could have been a total disaster, but everyone would have told them how cool it was and that they did a good job. However their performance turned out, they had family and friends there to give them love and support. The dance was perfect. They stepped from treadmill to treadmill at the exact right time, and had the dance moves down pat. The crowd cheered, and my friends became famous on YouTube.
So ask yourself, what do I put into this community? Is it something that I would want to take out?
Emily Beckwith teaches Upper School Science at Episcopal. She is an environmental scientist with a Bachelor of Science in Renewable Natural Resources from Texas A&M University and a Master of Science in Environmental Science from Louisiana State University. After graduate school, Emily spent two years with a global environmental consulting firm where she worked on oil and gas remediation projects. After traveling the country for two years completing different projects and getting married, Emily decided to make a change in careers and pursue her passion for teaching the sciences.
With Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - the High Holy Days - upon us, we celebrate the religious and cultural diversity of our Episcopal School community. This is just one example of the many beliefs on campus.
In the words of the National Association of Episcopal Schools, “An Episcopal school is comprehensive and inclusive.” NAES goes on to say that: “Our church encourages respect for the other person’s beliefs. An Episcopal school may be expected not to discriminate on the basis of race, creed, or national origin, and actively seek out faculty and students of diverse backgrounds and traditions in the belief that they bring something to be valued and respected, and because we would like to be broadly inclusive of the community we serve.”
Today’s world is diverse and our school should reflect that. In our Chapel and classrooms every day students sit side-by-side with others of differing faiths, beliefs and backgrounds. Because everyone is invited and valued, everyone should feel welcome.
Our Episcopal identity says that Episcopal schools have been established not solely as communities for Christians, like a parish church, but as diverse institutions of educational and human development for people of all faiths and backgrounds. Episcopal schools are populated by a rich variety of human beings, from increasingly diverse religious, cultural, and economic backgrounds.
Our Episcopal identity recognizes what a wonderful thing it is to learn together no matter the religion, culture or background. Students functioning together in a diverse setting, such as the one here at Episcopal, is great preparation for living future purposeful lives in a diverse world.
The Rev. Kirkland "Skully" Knight
The Rev. Kirkland “Skully” Knight has served in Episcopal schools for 24 years. The first ten were spent as a teacher and coach with the last thirteen as a teacher and chaplain. Skully has been at the Episcopal School of Baton Rouge since 2011 and serves as the Senior Chaplain and Associate Head of School for Service Learning. Skully earned his bachelor’s degree from Louisiana State University and his M. Div. from The University of the South at Sewanee. He has been married to his wife, Mary Sue, for 23 years and they have two daughters, Emily who is a senior and Katie who is in 9th grade.
In many ways, girls and women are doing better than ever:
While girls are flourishing, they also face many challenges:
While this is concerning, there are things we can do to buffer the impact of these negative influences on our girls:
Bauman, K. & Ryan, C. (2015). Women now at the head of the class, lead men in college attainment. Retrieved from http://blogs.census.gov/2015/10/07/women-now-at-the-head-of-the-class-lead-men-in-college-attainment/?cid=RS23
Choate, L. H. (2008). Girls’ and women’s wellness: Contemporary counseling issues and interventions. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.
Dangerfield, W. (2012). Before and after title IX: Women in sports. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/06/17/opinion/sunday/sundayreview-titleix-timeline.html?_r=0#/#time12_265
Voyer, D. & Voyer, S. D. (2014) Gender differences in scholastic achievement: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 140 (4), 1174-1204.
Yong, E. (2017). 6-year-old girls already have gendered beliefs about intelligence. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/01/six-year-old-girls-already-have-gendered-beliefs-about-intelligence/514340/
Jodi is Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC) and is currently serving as the Upper School Counselor at Episcopal School of Baton Rouge. She has a Master’s of Education with a concentration in Mental Health and a Certificate of Education Specialist with a concentration in School Counseling from Louisiana State University. Prior to working as a school counselor, she worked in various clinical settings, including a community-based family clinic, a university mental health clinic, and a substance abuse detox facility. Jodi’s areas of focus and experience include school counseling, adolescent and family counseling, individual and group counseling, identity development, girls’ and women’s wellness, military personnel and veterans, academic and career counseling, and substance abuse treatment.
Most of you know I am French. Some of you know that my mom is German. My grand-parents were born in Germany during World War I, and they survived WWII. My grand-father was an officer in the Wehrmacht, the regular German army, during WWII. He had to serve his country like all the men of his age. I tried to speak with my grand-parents about their life in Germany during the war. But they never wanted to tell me much about it. My mom was born in Germany in 1949, 4 years after the end of WWII. As a student in school, she had to learn about the 3rd Reich and the rise of Adolf Hitler. She had to study how her country declared war on Europe and then the world, and about the millions of Jewish people who were exterminated during the Holocaust. As a student in Germany nowadays, you keep learning about the 3rd Reich. This is not meant to make you feel guilty. It is to be learned as a cautionary tale, so people remember that a dictatorship can arise in any country anytime and, if we are not careful, History can repeat itself.
During my years in France, we also learned about our History, about the great and dark times of our country. Starting in the 19th century and continuing in the 20th century, my country, along with other European countries, colonized most of Africa. And it is important to remember that European countries started the Atlantic slave trade in the 15th century, until the 19th century. Therefore, Europe shares a great responsibility for slavery, along with the United States.
In 1954, only 63 years ago, the French Army was sent to the North African country of Algeria, which was a colony of France, when the Algerian people stood up to claim their independence from France. At the time, the government and media in France referred to the military operation in Algeria as a law enforcement operation. In Algeria, the French Army was engaged in combat against the Algerian people who fought for their independence. A lot of combatants but also civilians were killed. The French Secret Services arrested and tortured combatants and civilians. It was one of the darkest pages of French History, when my country oppressed the people from another country because they were asking for their independence. It is only in 1999, 17 years ago, that the French government officially recognized that the events in Algeria were actually a war, and that we officially called these events the War of Algeria. It was an important day in France because the government recognized, in the name of the French people, that we did something terribly wrong. If you want to improve, recognizing that you have a problem is the first step. We are now at peace with Algeria but we must never forget our History.
Every country has written great pages and dark pages in History. For the United States, slavery and the Civil War that brought an end to it were definitely some of the darkest pages. And we must never forget.
History is not supposed to make you feel good or bad. History is your best defense against ignorance. Every time you learn about History, you are improving your defense and you are increasing your chances to have a bright future. When you know your History, you are less likely to get manipulated and to get lied to. Educated citizens are essential if we want a healthy democracy. Democracy can be hijacked and replaced by a dictatorship anytime anywhere if we close our eyes and we forget about our History. Don’t ever take anything for granted, keep learning.
We have made progress in this country since the end of the Civil War, thanks to citizen initiatives like the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s. We just had the 1st African-American president for 8 years, which is something that would have been unthinkable just 60 years ago. We have made progress but there is still much more work to do until we live in a society where all people have the same chances of success in life.
So, may we all learn this month about our History so we may never repeat our mistakes and we may all together build a brighter future. #StrongeruKnighted
[I]t is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions that result from our misnaming them...
The 2014 team performing “Fences.”
Gabrielle Bienasz ’16, Bria Johnson ’14, Chloe Matthews ’14, and Julia Powell ’16
As the poets take the stage, I can see their nervous energy. It is finals night for the ALL CITY Teen Poetry Slam Festival at the Manship Theatre, and they have spent all afternoon, and every free moment they could find in the last week, rehearsing the poem that they wrote together and are about to perform. The four poets station themselves across the stage with deliberate stiffness, standing rigidly and holding hands with the people next to them at an angle that creates what I know is the outline of a picket fence. Beginning together, “We fences, we see everything,” the poets in turn describe the views in their neighborhoods: what a fence might witness that the people might not see or want to see. The fences are chain link or wood, perfectly manicured or in disrepair, and they stretch all over town, both connecting and dividing the city. But in each case these fences “see” people performing and pretending: children pretending to be adults or to be dutiful carriers of parents’ ideologies, parents holding up facades of perfection that mask deep divisions, children playing pretend with the adult world, the adult world also pretending to be something else. As the poets weave their individual stories and observations together, they make layered and complex critiques of their worlds, but the strength of their performance evaporates my concerns that their ideas won’t be clear to the audience.
As the nods, snaps, and sighs of the audience turn to applause and we wait for the judges’ response, I watch with new amazement and pride, even though I’ve seen this many times, and even as I worry that they’ve broken the time limit or that they’ll be too hard on themselves over a missed line or misspoken word and won’t see that they nailed it. I repeat to myself the slam poetry mantra, “The points are not the point; the poetry is the point,” as if I could remind my team telepathically.
As a teacher and coach, I love the entire process of working with my poetry team on a group piece, from their first conversations to this final performance. With up to four poets collaborating to write, choreograph, and perform a poem together, these pieces offer a powerful challenge to a team. Each year, when my students begin the process of brainstorming, they quickly realize that they need to find a topic that matters to all of them, but that they each have something different to say about. As they decide on their topic and begin to map out on my whiteboard what each poet will contribute, they find that their different identities, perspectives, and experiences are a source of strength. Building on each other’s ideas, the poets work to find the common ground that will bring their piece together and the distinct individual voices that will make it their own, thinking carefully about how their stories will connect and how they will differ. For example, as this process unfolded for “Fences," co-author Chloe Matthews ’14 notes that despite her concerns about how poets’ differences might ultimately link together, "The singular fence was a metaphor we were able to use to firmly imply that, while our different perspectives mattered individually, none were any more or less significant in the grand scheme of it all.” Though I hope to support them with a well-timed question or a push to sharpen an image or explore an idea a bit further, but my role at this stage is mostly as a witness to their creation. And as a witness, appropriately, I find something poetic in the ways that they honor each others’ stories, the connections that they create across race, gender, religion, class, and sexuality that value their differences without minimizing or polarizing.
Because they are adolescents, all of the students I teach are in a critical stage of understanding how their identities are shaped by but exceed these identity markers. Because I teach English, the tools I have to support that endeavor are reading and writing, and they can be powerful tools. I work to pose questions and introduce my students to texts that help them to consider how their own stories intersect with and diverge from the stories of others, that ask them to explore how history and culture shape all of our stories, and that call for them to engage with information that often challenges their beliefs and understandings. We discuss Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s claim that “how [stories] are told, who tells them, when they are told, [and] how many stories are told, are really dependent on power,” and we consider stories’ power "to dispossess and to malign,” but also “to empower and to humanize” by reading and responding to literature that represents identity and difference in many different ways. The results of that work are highly individual: while some students take firm steps toward seeing identity in a critical historical and social context, others dismiss what they see as a political agenda, and many simply build their ability to consider others’ perspectives and extend the range of perspectives they have examined.
I know I share with all my colleagues a commitment to teaching for community, social justice, and respecting the dignity of every person. In my classroom and beyond it, that commitment means recognizing and honoring our differences and our many stories.
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A week ago, while scanning my inbox, I noticed a rather strange announcement from a student club:
A group of students, of their own free-will (ha!), discussing theological fatalism? I’ve been out of the classroom for a while, but I would have to say this was an outlier. The Tea Club, as I discovered later, was a student organized club (comprised primarily of Sophomores) with the following mission:
Tea club offers students a comfortable, civil and respectful atmosphere to discuss philosophical and political topics over a hot cup of tea.
The world could certainly use more of this. I was intrigued, so I dropped by to see it in action.
As I walked in the door of Dr. deGravelles' room, the conversation was underway. About ten students had arranged desks in a circle of sorts. One student would pose a question about the topic; “what do you think”, or, “what does this mean,” were par for the course. Other students would respond, some informing their answers from their faith or using logical arguments and reason to stake out a position. Positions were challenged and rebutted, but with unusual grace for teenagers.
The topic was interesting, yes, but the subtle action occurring below the surface of the conversation gave me hope for the future. Ideologically, the students in the room represented opinions ranging from conservative to liberal. Their religious backgrounds varied. Some were athletes, some were not. Some were budding artists and some were quiet students on the campus and in the classroom. They were a cross-section of Episcopal. They didn’t necessarily agree on any conclusion and challenged each other, but they remained in the room, at the table, engaged and listening.
I was fortunate to witness the powerful combination of student interest coupled with the excellent coaching of club sponsors, Dr. Khun and Dr. deGravelles. This thirty minute club meeting was demonstrating to those involved that diversity of thought and civility is foundational to the discussion and understanding of ideas.
I’d imagine if you ask most of the members of tea club why they participate, you would get a range of answers. For some, it’s a place to be heard, for others a place to learn about new ideas, or it might be a place where they feel they belong. The same holds true for the broader Episcopal community. Faculty, staff, students, administrators, and parents all bring unique perspectives to the table. Diversity of thought, experience, and culture make our community stronger, #StrongeruKnighted.
Who am I? A seemingly simple question, but one that causes us to dig deep into reflecting about what factors make up our identity. The start of a new year always brings about self-reflection as people set goals and make resolutions. In order to aspire to eat healthier, read more or procrastinate less, we need to take an inward look at ourselves. As we work to improve ourselves and gain a deeper awareness of who we are, hopefully this also creates greater acceptance and tolerance of others. We can achieve a more uKnighted community.
When the fourth graders returned from Christmas break, they participated in an identity activity and were asked to answer the question "Who am I?" In filling out an identity chart about themselves, students realized that some factors were things that could be seen, such as height, hair color, and eye color. We also discovered that many of our identity traits are unseen, such as being a daughter, a morning person, an athlete, and friendly. We learned that amongst us were people who like cheerleading, are shy around new people, like sour candy, and enjoy classical music. Some of the traits were similar to our own identity and some were not. A few traits surprised us, such as learning that someone is an uncle because they have much older siblings. Just as we've heard the saying "Don't judge a book by its cover" we learned that there are many layers to each person and we cannot judge a person's character from their appearances.
I was impressed with the students' honesty about their identity. Students shared that they were picky eaters, stubborn with their parents, and fought with their siblings. One student asked, "If I'm only hurtful to my sister, does that still make me hurtful?" We discussed how we are all imperfect and a life-long goal could be working on these traits. Some bigger ideas surfaced when another student said that she's been labeled as having a big head. How do we respond when people make judgments about our identity? By understanding ourselves better and learning more about each other, we can become open and empathetic to people who are similar and different from us. This greater awareness of one another can build a better community.
To further our exploration, students looked at twenty statements which were part of an identity tapestry. Some of these statements were: "I was born in Louisiana"; "I have been to another country"; "I have felt excluded from a group before"; and "I am here to learn and be my best self". These statements were spread out on a bulletin board. Students used embroidery floss to wrap around statements they felt aligned with their identity. In observing the final tapestry, the fourth graders noticed that we have many things in common: we are creative, we are responsible for our own actions, and we love science. We are connected in many ways but we also noticed that not many of us are left handed and few people prefer hot weather to cold weather. The final product is a beautiful tapestry showing the many ways we are alike and different, yet how we are a connected fourth grade community.
For our final activity, the students wrote a thoughtful letter to their future selves. In the letter they needed to choose aspects of their identity they were proudest of, what aspects of their identity they hoped to change or improve, and how they could make this change happen. Here is a sample student letter:
Dear future self,
Some good traits about me are that I am very confident about myself. I am unique and brave. Are you still some of those things? Do you dot your I's in the future? These are some things I would like to change. I am very unhealthy and picky with eating. Also I'm super lazy and not helpful. I would like to wake up when dad tells me to. I want to eat all the food that is put on my plate and unload the dishes every day. Thanks for your time!
Students will get these letters back at the end of the school year and reflect on any changes to their identity. Starting the new year by having students set goals on how to become better people will hopefully build a community of individuals who are accepting of themselves and others. We are always stronger when our community is uKnighted.
This activity was inspired by the work of artist Mary Corey March.
As tradition would have it, 2017 has me in a pensive mood. Maybe it’s because of the hunger pains I’m experiencing brought on by my new diet, or the lack of oxygen to my brain from fasting. Nonetheless, I’m beginning this year very aware of the awful events that took place in our city this summer as well as the highly contested presidential elections this winter. In the past, I would not have been as bothered by things that are out of my control, but as life would have it, I’m a father now. There’s a little version of me (Ace Williams) running around Episcopal these days and he brings me great joy each day I get to drop him off at his class.
Last week it dawned on me, how blessed I am to have my son attend Episcopal. The education that I received as a student at Episcopal has afforded me so many opportunities that I figured the same would be true for my son, right? In that moment of reflection, I began to form a comparative analysis of his experience versus mine, 20 years ago.
When I first arrived on Episcopal’s campus (1993) I was introduced to a unique culture, steeped in tradition and pride that echoed the school’s identity. Behind the scenes were guardians of that culture who stood watch to protect the foundation of those traditions, only allowing the most necessary of changes to the status quo. Hold that thought…
My recollection of Ace’s first day of school (2016) was one of utter delight. I can remember dropping him off to a class of PK-3 students who modeled the make-up of a United Nations delegation! It was exactly what I wanted as a parent. I wanted Ace to be in a diverse environment, but above all, academic quality remained my top concern. In my day to day routine of working at Episcopal, I feel even stronger about his school environment. From the hi-fives to the occasional “Hey Ace” that we get from other students, there is a genuine love for my child that I can truly appreciate.
There is no question that Episcopal is becoming increasingly diverse. This diversity spans race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, geography, religion, and language. Acknowledging Episcopal’s diversity is an important step to living and learning with others in our school community. Can Episcopal improve? Sure, we can. Everything has room for improvement. I’m 100% certain that we are on the right path.
Back to my earlier point: I trust that the current “guardians” of Episcopal’s culture also see the value in its diversity. There is value in engaging different departments on issues regarding inclusion, diversity, and ways to improve workplace climate. Heck, I’d even consider myself one of the “guardians of the culture.”
Episcopal is a better, more diverse place than it was when I was a student. Race relations have vastly improved, but there’s still so much more to do. I can say that I’m happy to have my son here contributing to the diversity on campus. If you get some time, you should stop by and maybe you’ll see him running around. He’s the handsome, athletic one that looks like me, lol.
In all sincerity, as the celebration of MLK day approaches, I challenge us all to engage in real conversations about diversity so that we can see the value of judging people as individuals and not letting stereotypes shape beliefs about groups of people. I believe those conversations will make Episcopal an even better community in 2017. Happy New Year and Happy Mardi Gras!
Always a Knight,
Jimmy Williams enters his 6th year as the Episcopal defensive coordinator and Assistant Athletic Director. Born March 10, 1979, Jimmy prepped at The Episcopal School of Baton Rouge and was inducted into the school’s inaugural class in 2006.