Sharing Stories

The first week of school is exciting at Catlin Gabel. Children arrive full of energy (and some anxiety); parents and guardians beam as they cross the campus; and teachers wait eagerly in well-prepared classrooms. Familiar rituals of setting expectations and explaining schedules signal the next school chapter has begun.

During our first week, we repeated a new “tradition” begun last year – all students and employees gather in Schauff Circle to celebrate the start of the new school year. This year, teachers led us in old and new songs, Student Association officers rapped a welcome message, and we heard from several new members of our community. With all of us together, I introduced a community theme to guide us in the months ahead: share your story.

As I said to the 950 students, teachers, and staff in the circle, we have much in common. We all are drawn to Catlin Gabel by the promise of a challenging and engaging education in a supportive community. We love learning and value hard work, and strive to be kinder than necessary. We are proud to be at Catlin Gabel and enjoy life in Portland. The implicit and explicit values and aspirations we share give us a powerful sense of common purpose. 

At the same time, we are not all the same. There are 950 people with unique stories on our campus, each of whom deserves to be heard. We may think we know the story of being a Catlin Gabel student, or having an Asian-American heritage, or living in Northeast Portland, or being on the soccer team. But we do ourselves a disservice when we make assumptions about each other based on those facts. There is no “one story” of being Asian-American or an athlete at Catlin Gabel.

The more we push beyond the obvious, the more we appreciate the individuality within our community. It’s one of the ways we prepare our students for life after Catlin Gabel. In a global society, they need the skills to collaborate and create with others, and the confidence to know that they can relate to a wide range of people. We want them to appreciate the differences among us, and to be proud of the ways they are different from others. We want them to know that their story has value. 

At our assembly, Jasmine Love, our new Director of Equity and Outreach, and Seth T., a new ninth grader, generously shared personal stories. I’ll add one of my own as a way of thanking them.

When I was 20 I worked in Germany for three months. My father knew someone who helped me to land a temporary job at Dorfnerwerk, a factory in Leonberg, near Stuttgart. Soon after arriving, I learned I was to be a “quality control technician” in a grinding wheel plant. I was trained to randomly test ceramic wheels to ensure they could hold up to high pressure and velocity. It was a dirty, dusty job, and the clock on the wall moved slowly during my ten-hour shifts. I soon realized that the only Germans in the factory were the managers who sat above us in the glass-walled office. My coworkers all were “Gastarbeiters,” guest workers from European countries with less robust economies. As I swept the factory floor surrounded by Turks, Yugoslavs, Greeks, and Romanians, I thought this was not the opportunity I thought it would be to expand on skills I learned in high school and college.

In my three months at Dorfnerwerk, I learned how wrong I was. Thrown together from all over the world, our motley crew formed close bonds. Coworkers extended invitations to family homes, campground sleepovers, and soccer club dinners. We employed comic gestures to make our pidgin German intelligible to each other, and we saved seats for each other on the train to and from work. When we had a machine breakdown or potential safety issue, others stepped in to help out. We shared stories of loved ones at home far away. I may not have learned much about German politics or traveled as much as I would have liked, but I learned a lot about myself and how to be in the world. I learned that a little kindness means everything to strangers and that working and laughing side-by-side creates trust. The heartfelt efforts of Elio, Gabi, and my fellow workers to connect with me across our differences was a powerful and lasting lesson. 

Now it’s your turn. Share your story here, and give us the chance to appreciate the unique person you are, and all that you bring to our community.

Explore this topic

  • Novelist Chimamanda Adichie speaks about of the “danger of a single story” in her powerful Ted Talk lecture. Watch the video.

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