A school is the incarnation of ideals to which some people will want to dedicate themselves and their resources.
I’ve already written at length on these ideals and their importance, but not to be underestimated is the degree to which some people will want to dedicate their energy, time, and treasure—even their lives—to helping the school enact its great values.
Human beings seem to be hard-wired to seek both meaning and connections in their lives, and for many people the first stirrings of these instincts come in late childhood, when an awareness of group membership can appear in the form of what is loosely called “school spirit.” Children at the age of ten or eleven begin to feel real pride in their school, and many independent schools are adept at fostering this pride by reminding students of the specialness of the school, its values, and the experience they are having. Shared endeavors like class plays, curriculum-related exhibitions, and athletic teams reinforce positive feelings about the group and secondarily the institution.
For many students these feelings grow as they pass through middle and high school. Fierce loyalties develop, and although these may manifest themselves as blind partisanship and even arrogance, some students feel a deep, transcendent (and often hard to express, at least publicly) connection with their schools. This connection is intensified as the student develops rich and increasingly candid and mature relationships with others who love the school and what it stands for—fellow students, teachers, other staff, and administrators. These students—not necessarily the most accomplished or “decorated” or even the key athletes on whose leadership and performance the school’s public fortunes ride from year to year—aspire to become the true-blue exemplars of the school’s most excellent qualities. They have received something of inestimable value, and they set themselves, at first quietly and even unknowingly, to pay that gift forward.
Most independent schools have become expert in cultivating this impulse among these students as they graduate, move on, and then settle into communities and careers. Schools also know that they need to be prepared to add tinder and oxygen to the spark of such loyalty that flares in many alums years after their graduation. A school that was and above all has remained worthy of such dedication can expect great things from its graduates—great works in the world and great support of itself.
The dedication of faculty and staff should never be discounted; even short-time employees can have an extraordinary and—yes—transcendent experience that makes them lifetime loyalists. Some senior staff are pleased simply to identify themselves with the glory and reputation of the school, but many long-time employees stay because of a deep commitment to a school’s best values and the satisfaction they derive from living in a community driven by ideals. They may become living embodiments of the school, treasured as such by students, families, past students, and colleagues. (And let me be clear that while teachers and administrators often play these roles, other staff of all kinds can be powerfully influential in their identification with and devotion to the school.) In schools that find ways to continually activate and fuel such devotion, the utopian spirit of which I wrote in Verse 3 is palpable.
Of course, along the way most independent schools also acquire what annual reports often lump under the category “friends of the school”—parents and past parents, community members, and even more randomly connected individuals who find themselves attracted to what the school stands for and to the work it actually does with its students. Their desire to involve themselves or to remain involved with the school stems from idealism and sometimes gratitude, and they form yet another identifiable—and cultivatable—cadre of devotees whose contributions strengthen the school in all its efforts.
There’s a brief and obvious lesson about “change” and “innovation” here: However a school may advance in its programs and practices, it must be clear with its constituencies as to how these advances support and extend its fundamental ideals.