Welcome to my blog, a way to present ideas, reflections, and observations with the school community and beyond. I blog on a regular basis, commenting on a thought-provoking experience, a significant development in education, and news of student and teacher work here at Catlin Gabel. My goal is to make you think, provoke a reaction, elicit diverse points of view, and affirm your faith in our school's mission. I hope you'll share with me and other readers any reactions you may have to my posts.
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.
- See the all-school gathering in Schauff Circle. Access the photo gallery.
Your story resonated with me and brought back a similar, but different, experience I had during my year abroad in Japan during college. I had been living with a family in Tokyo, but had a chance to spend a month-long winter break in the mountainous “Snow Country” of Nagano, living with a rural family who farmed rice in the summer and ran a hostel-like inn for skiers in the winter. I understood that I was to teach the elderly farmer who ran the inn English. Once I arrived, though, I found out I was also expected to cook, clean guest rooms and do pretty much everything except shovel out the communual composting outhouses. So much for my winter break, I thought. Although I’d already spent five months in Japan, I was suddenly in deep culture shock. I was surrounded by 10-foot snow drifts, endless futons to change, and weeks of no indoor heat save a frightening portable propane heater that I removed from my room at night for fear of dying of carbon monoxide poisoning.
I complained about the scullery maid work, and after some difficult negotiations with the professor who had arranged my rural sojourn, I was let off the most onerous tasks. But by the end of my stay, I realized that, regardless of whether I had been told about the work in advance, I really should not have objected, in my American way. It was, after all, work that had to be done. (I found out later that two young male Japanese college students who were also “wintering” there ended up doing the extra work.)
I also learned much about the communual rural life for which Japan is famous. The elderly couple and myself spent much of our time each day sitting in an unheated room, with our legs and arms tucked under the heated kotatsu table, talking - or sitting in silence. Very little English was taught — I later realized that was beside the point. But that intense sense of togetherness, the utter lack of privacy as well as the shared burden of the daily workload gave me more insight into rural Japanese culture than any course I was taking at my Japanese university.
It also taught me much about the diversity within Japan — in textbooks described as a very homogenous society. To the horror of my Tokyo homestay family, I learned to speak with a country accent. I learned to cook the one dish I’d request in heaven — a soy-based bean dish with seaweed — that I’ve never been able to recreate — could it have been the homegrown beans? I ate raw horse brought over from a neighboring farm — and I had recently been a vegetarian. I learned to love the quiet snowed-in rhythm of rural life. I felt defensive for my humble country family when my sophisticated urban family came to visit. It was the kind of experiential learning that is a core value of a Catlin Gabel education. I wouldn’t trade those precious snowy months for any vacation.
Choose groups to clone to: