On being included

It is about 7am, an hour before school starts.

I am walking through the school to one of our staff rooms to put something on a teacher’s desk.

I see a year 7 student, holding her violin case, school bag over her shoulder, reading yesterday’s notices on the board. I sense that she feels awkward.

We greet one another in a friendly manner, and I ask her about her family. On this occasion she doesn’t say too much. Her eyes slip back to the notices.

As I walk on, I think to myself that each conversation matters. Even awkward ones.

When I come back out of the staff room, her music teacher has arrived and they are off up the stairs to her lesson.

This brief encounter has led me to reflect about the ways that the structures in schools provide young people with a sense that they belong. Informal conversations matter. Shared histories matter. And basic structures matter.

Young people, like all of us, will sometimes feel out of place, will sometimes doubt themselves, will wish for closer friendships or that someone would be different to how they are. But the school will have places for them to be and things to do. The music teacher will arrive and the lesson will commence.They will have defined purposes, and also a measure of freedom and creativity within those activities.

At a very basic level, everyone at PLC Sydney, for example, wears the school uniform. A study in Ireland compared a school with a clear uniform policy, with one that asked students to select their own attire. In the school where there were no uniforms the authors reported that students were more reluctant to move between peer groups than in the nearby school which had a clear uniform policy. The study concluded that in the school with a laissez-faire policy, each group had its own clothing code and to move between groups means having to change codes. Schools across USA don’t seem troubled by this, but it is my experience that a clear uniform policy provides a benefit to students as they are growing up. It is as if the school is declaring that everyone belongs, even if the individual is still to find their niche. A uniform policy limits the ability of some students to use clothing to exclude others.

In schools like PLC Sydney everyone is in a House and participates in a range of collective activities, from House Choir to House Gymnastics. These are student run affairs where each student has a part to play. They are also all in assembly and chapel and most are in sporting teams or taking part in cultural activities. The musical, the orchestra and the art gallery are all part of the welfare program of the school as much as they are co-curricular activities. Children find people who are significant others in their lives in such places. They gain special relationships with teachers and they discover their talents.

And it is essential, in my view, to have opportunities for service. In schools we provide a counter-culture for students. Marketers try to convince us all that ‘the grass is greener on the other side’. I would belong if only I had this product. I would feel good about myself if I could replace ‘a’ with ‘b’, or if I could escape from something in my life. In service learning the focus is on our contribution to others, and it is important that we don’t gain much applause or credit for our actions. We are seeking to build new friendships and to understand people whose background is very different from our own. The irony is that when we ‘lose’ our lives, we gain them.

It is currently the period of our HSC examinations. Again we will say goodbye to a group of students, some of whom have been in our community for fourteen years. They will have made some mistakes with each other, they will have felt awkward or troubled at times, but, if we have done our job well they will have felt like they belonged. And they will take away a sense of responsibility that they should make sure in their future communities, that they should help others to belong.

The year 7 student standing waiting for her teacher didn’t need rescuing, but it is important that she has a place to belong.

On the Festival of Dangerous Ideas

It is, in my view, wonderful that Sydney has a festival of dangerous ideas. Anaesthetic was, until Queen Victoria used it in child birth, considered a risky idea for women at the full term of their pregnancies. Obviously today it relieves pain for millions of women. On a more trivial note, my daughter has just informed me that carrots were colours other than orange until the Dutch, in tribute to William of Orange, genetically modified them. Dangerous ideas, it seems, can become movements, and, ultimately, the standard fare.

These are examples of ideas that have brought particular physical benefits. Underlying these are the religious and philosophical ideas regarding the nature of the universe and what it means to be human that form the bases of our societies.

This makes me wonder what qualifies as a dangerous idea in the minds of the organisers.

I am pleased that they have chosen ideas from both ends of the spectrum, with a talk against free will, for example, as well as a talk on the reality of the devil, in this year’s series. Thus we have one person arguing that there is only physical matter and another arguing that the universe is dependent upon God.

In the digital age it is the trend that trends matter. We examine trends in support for political parties, leaders and policies. We highlight the trends on Twitter feeds or in celebrity choices. In today’s Sydney Morning Herald, for example, there are articles discussing the trends in support or otherwise for Tony Abbott by women, live animal exports, Obama’s government and the penchant celebrities have for posing nude for perfume ads.

This is fine, but I think there is a danger that news becomes a type of mental stimulation, bereft of heart-felt beliefs and convictions. Visiting the internet is like being part of the crowd at a sporting event. The game goes one way, then the other, then we go and get something to eat.

I am glad that we still have in schools the opportunity to spend sustained periods of time with young people looking at issues in depth. We can get beyond the sound bites, and the editorials on the media that dichotomise arguments. We can still look at the nuance in things.

It might seem a contradictory idea, but I hope that the organisers of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas look at positions that have been seen as part of traditional views in society to check if they shouldn’t qualify for their series of talks. If the ideas come to represent only the progressives, or only the left in politics, or only the ‘dangerous ideas’ we are comfortable with, this festival could just be a ‘trend’.

In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus said: ‘If someone takes your coat, give him your shirt as well.’ Would this qualify as a dangerous idea?