Last week ten Proctor folks, four students and six faculty members, traveled to San Antonio, Texas for the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Conferences – the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC) and the People of Color Conference (POCC).
The sole aim of both conferences is to offer place and space for questions - and answers! - about belonging and acceptance in independent schools. There are more than 1,600 independent schools in our Association (NAIS) in the United States, which totals northwards of 2,000 schools worldwide. As John Gulla, former Head of the Blake School in Minneapolis MN and now the Executive Director of the E.E. Ford Foundation says, “Independent schools are engines of meritocracy,” ensuring that all segments of American society have a seat at the table in creating diverse and compassionate thought leaders and changemakers who will help us solve some of the world's biggest challenges in the years and decades ahead.
I believe what John posits deep in my bones, and it is the reason why I have spent the lionshare of my time, 28 of my 33 years as a full time teacher and administrator, in independent schools. That’s “full grown” in dog years.
Kidding aside, during this year’s POCC and SDLC, we talked a lot about how people - faculty, staff, parents, and students - belong, or sometimes feel like they do not belong, in our schools. Now, that may sound like a bunch of hard and uninviting conversations and workshops to be had deep in the heart of Texas in the shadow of the Alamo. Yet, these discussions happened at a time in Proctor’s journey, as well as in the journey of many other schools in NAIS, when it feels like we all are, every one of us, in the middle of the rapids of a fast-moving river. However, in my 33 years of attending the POCC, they are not (always) hard conversations. Indeed, joy abounds, especially when I get to see myself represented in our students and colleagues from other schools in our national association. Our reflection of a world that mirrors a myriad of communities throughout the nation, and not just in the Northeast.
At POCC and SDLC, folks get together, and have gotten together since 1988, to ensure that even the most fragile among us have a voice and some choice in crafting and co-creating experiences that will move the needle for them in terms of their own agency at their schools and eventually in their own lives. The conference is about connection and positive forward motion. Thanks to our schools, people can still move from poverty and powerlessness or from strength to strength, so that they all can be productive members of society. To add context, even Proctor has moved from being an all boys prep school in Northern New England to being a place where all students and people are seen and accepted for who they are and what they uniquely bring to the table. Dr. King’s dream of creating a “beloved community” remains alive and well here. I reflect on what Proctor and the rest of our schools have done throughout the centuries, but especially over the last fifty years.
Yet, we do see some dark clouds on our horizon.
According to Charles Vogel, one of POCC’s keynote speakers, we are living in an era of one of the most disconnected times in human history, largely due to the pandemic, racial reconciliation, and political division. Vogel suggests that we need to build spaces, like Proctor Academy as well as other schools and communities, that serve as campfires for human connection, which is a place where all people can gather around a common purpose and get to feel the warm glow of being uniquely who they are (belonging) and are given grace for who they are and what they each bring (acceptance).
How do we counteract the disconnection that many of us and our students feel day-to-day?
We can and we should replicate these campfire moments, holding each other accountable with data, qualitative and quantitative, and stories to ensure that every person can thrive while finding meaning in our differences and delight in our similarities.
We have done this over the years at Proctor. In fact, we have created mountains of campfire moments over the last three months–and 174 years. Recently, we have seen skiers coming in from Panorama in Canada and snowpack in Colorado, juniors and seniors leaving Proctor en Segovia and Aix in Provence to re-engage with their peers here in Andover, and other good and stalwart friends regaling us with their tales aboard the Harvey Gamage as they sailed from the harbors of Maine and down the Atlantic seaboard and around the Florida Keys. At times, we even create real campfires and bonfire moments that resound with the warm glow of mutual respect and connection across race, culture, resources, time, and communities. Our experiential model “flexes” – in multiple definitions of that word where we “muscle up” and “adapt” to what we are called to do in all the places and spaces that are our classroom. The world.
San Antonio was a revelation because we remembered more than just the Alamo at POCC and SDLC. For our gentle crew, we remembered. We remembered why we are so strong in our convictions and so uniquely centered in our gratitude for this place that is Proctor, and its people.
Brian W. Thomas, Proctor Academy Head of School
Curated Reading and Listening:
When I think of poets, I look near and far. The poet that I was searching for this week, Martín Espada, had a special friendship with our own famous local poet Donald Hall who as many of you know loved the Boston Red Sox and lived nearby. Here is Espada’s poem honoring Hall “The Bard Shakes the Snow From the Trees: For Donald Hall.” Listen to the poem at the end of the audio version of this week’s blog. Or, read it: HERE.