After the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in March of 2018, my colleagues at Justin Siena High School and I sat around a table to decide how best to listen to our students and respond as a school community. We had had a tumultuous year already. While our struggles did not compare with the trauma and earth shifting reality of a school shooting and loss of life, we knew we needed to come up with a healthy, appropriate response that was inclusive, healing, and meaningful, leaving politics aside as much as possible.
Around the table: an interim principal, a dean, two English teachers and myself, the Director of Student Life trained in pastoral counseling and conflict resolution. This group, with its mixture of conflict aversion, activism, community peace-keeping and conservative and liberal leanings, politely discussed current trending options for response, our student body, our school values — and stayed in their corners.
Myself included. After enough tentative back and forth, I leaned into the middle, lightly tapped the table and said, “ I worry we might come up with nothing more than thoughts and prayers by the end of this meeting, and I am tired of hearing about kids being shot at school.” All four cautiously abandoned their respective corners, leaned in to the table and said the same.
I reached for a piece of paper and used all of its blank real estate to draw a circle. Inside the circle I wrote, I am tired of hearing about kids being shot at school, a statement shared by all. Then I said, “What else do we all agree can go inside this circle?” In a short amount of time we filled the circle with much more than platitudes and fluff.
The poet Edwin Markham, in his poem Outwitted, wrote:
He drew a circle that shut me out!
Heretic, Rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win
We drew a circle that took him in.
When we gathered, each one of us was so committed to the rightness of our reactions and reasons. We drew tighter and tighter circles around ourselves that disallowed any creative solutions or room for others’ ideas and perspectives. Fear, anger, ego, pettiness, and distrust drew the circles that shut each of us out.
After we filled the circle with ideas and feelings held in common I said, “What is outside of the circle? Would we all be willing to name two things that we hold that we think others present might not?” To my surprise and relief, everyone named two things.
I continued to push my luck and asked everyone to name one question — any question — he or she may have that relates to the issues of gun ownership, mass shootings, school safety, gun violence — anything. Something they want to ask a colleague, but have never had the courage. And they did.
What does it take to be as willing to change your own mind just as powerfully as you desire to change someone else’s mind? What does it take to truly value differences of opinion, whether the stakes are high or low? I think it requires a critical measure of humility, and probably love. A willingness to see the people around the table and remember that you really do belong to each other on the tempest-tossed, late-March ship of your school – in the daily reality of Covid-19 and all that it has brought to our church and our world – out on the open waters of culture, exhaustion, uncertainty and relentless demand. It is love that has the wit to win.
Do we have the patience and generosity to find what is held in common in the midst of conflict instead of staying in our corners and holding tight to our passions and opinions? Do I have this? Not always. And yet. A small circle of “one-right-way-only” was not going to move our collective concerns forward. Instead of trying to be right, or trying to convince each other that we possess all of the answers, I simply asked my group what matters the most to us all and remembered that we are all educators. We make up a circle that takes us all in. We are all people of faith at Grace Church…what is our circle that takes us all in? We belong to each other, in Christ Jesus. The one who showed us how to love with his whole life.
-Sarah Neidhoefer, Administrative Manager
Ps. You can find our other Agreements for Communication in Community here!