I couldn’t resist this phrase from West Side Story, performed this week by our Senior School students at the McPherson Theatre. On Wednesday night I and my wife, Joan, had about seventy Annual Fund “Headmaster’s Circle” donors for a short dinner, then we all went down to the show. Most of our guests were from Victoria, but a couple came from Vancouver and Kelowna. One flew in from Calgary. Afterward he left a phone message repeating his thanks, and how it was definitely worth it. I don’t remember a high school production where the depth and breadth of voices both male and female have been better, or where the entire sum of contributions both on stage and backstage was so much greater than the individual parts. The orchestra played the challenging music, and the choruses sang it, with polish. Although many of our guests conveyed their effusive praise and wonder at the performance, it would be truer to say words escaped us, humbled in the presence of so much talent. So much promise fulfilled, or exceeded.
It would be lovely to imagine that one could transpose those lines, “there’s a place for us,” from the song to our school. But the song, where it occurs in the show, is overflowing with irony. The lovers, Tony and Maria, are aglow in a fantasy whose tragic seeds have already sprouted: they are immersed in a web of hate, murder, petty ambition, feuds and bigotry; they believe they can find an untainted place, and lead an untainted life, away from the west side of Manhattan. Not so.
Hopefully I, a teacher, can be excused for drawing a lesson from these observations. A place for us – for the “us” that is SMUS, that is – should be aglow, for sure, but one hopes that this glow will be more secure than Tony and Maria’s. Next Monday we are having a visitor from Warchild Canada to speak to the students – in an earlier blog entry I wrote about our participation in WarChild, and organization that supports children who are the victims of war. Over the March break we have students going to Kenya to help with construction of a school. At the end of March, the entire staff is having a workshop on Global Responsibility, which is one of the five streams of our Leadership Programme. A central theme of this exploration is that global responsibility is more than admirable good works at home and abroad; it has to be accompanied by an understanding that, in trying to make the world a better place, one is entering an arena fraught with suspicion over one’s motives, with corruption in the allocation (or stealing) of resources, and even with resistance from less privileged people who simply would rather look after their own problems, thank you very much. These sentences are not supposed to be non-sequiturs: they are just a few examples of ways in which we deliberately weave into the somewhat charmed fabric of SMUS the thread of many worldly imperfections. A year and a half ago we held a think tank with about forty parents on the evolution of leadership at the school, and one parent made a very apposite comment: “So what the school has to try to do is to expose our kids to all the things we are trying to protect them from.” Exactly.
Human nature, of course, is inescapable. Many metaphors have been erected around education and schools. One of my favourites doesn’t unfold very elegantly, but I find it works: students come into schools like plants in a nursery ; before going out into the world they have to be set out in the weather a bit, hardened for the elements. Otherwise the elements will be too much. The place for us is the one we make, as much as the one we find.