My mantra as an Elementary School Principal in British Columbia, Canada is “Everyone’s Invited to the Party”. We register the students who live in the defined school catchment or there is space in the school to allow for a cross boundary permit. There is no requisite testing or evaluation of “fit” in the school community. As a student of history, I ascribe firmly to the notion that the state of democracy in a country can be judged by the state of the public-school system. In British Columbia, we are in good shape. Our curriculum is progressive and focused on student learning. We do well on international testing of student achievement and have been acknowledged for the strength of the system. That doesn’t mean that there is no room for improvement, particularly when it comes to students who enter the public system with social and/or learning differences.
Both my maternal and paternal grandmothers were matriarchs who held their families together. They both experienced a considerable amount of adversity in their lives and it made them resilient and appreciative of family bonds. They actively stayed in touch with each of their four children, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They shared family news and ritual gatherings helped all of us step past petty grievances and hurt feelings with laughter and shared memories. Newcomers to the family were welcomed with open arms and celebrated. My grand-mothers thought less of themselves and more of the family members they sought to embrace. They provided the ultimate example of inclusion.
With the deaths of my grandmothers, the bonds loosened and the context of family changed. This change seems to be reflected in society generally. A huge focus on the individual and their losses, happiness, divorces, and boundaries has weakened the concept of family. Bullying by exclusion takes root in this context. The concept of family and the requirements to maintain inclusion in the life and fabric of family changes to one of judgment, preference or arbitrary measures in all too many cases.
There is no doubt that setting boundaries in cases of abuse are required for the safety of individuals involved. However, all relationships are hard because people are not perfect, have expectations, and they keep changing. We can learn about the importance of investing in these relationships from our grandmothers. Blood connections are not required. An investment in time, effort and empathy is required. We are included in the family because we fit into the web or relationships through blood or affiliation. Our shared experiences are instrumental in defining who we are. Strong families create spaces for all members to be loved and celebrated. There is also scaffolding to navigate through difficult situations so that the family is able to remain intact. The longevity of the relationship brings depth because of the shared experiences.
In his book my grandmother asked me to tell you she’s sorry (2015), Fredrik Backman does a masterful job of illustrating the insecurity of 7- almost 8- year old Elsa in finding her place in her two new families, after the divorce of her parents. Her father’s wife has two of her own children and her concern is that she upsets the family dynamic, as she has read on the internet, so they don’t want her around. Her mother and her step-father are going to have a new baby and her concern is that they will love the new baby more because he belongs to both of them. Fortunately, in this case, both parents and their partners are very focused on the child’s needs and respecting the other parent. They fully invest in including Elsa in both of the families she belongs too. In this situation, everyone wins.
On Twitter this week, @MrsHankinsClass was sharing how her students said “Welcome to the family” when the new student said “Hi”. This is a concept of family in the very best of ways. Day One that new student knew he was welcome and he was in a safe place therefore in a position to start learning. There is an expectation that differences will exist, problems will be encountered and there will be a will a respectful problem-solving process. This is what inclusion is supposed to look like. You walk into a classroom where it is just fine to be yourself. Perfection is neither expected nor required. In the midst of challenges and poor choices, the expectation is that you calm down, then problem solve and then repair relationships. Tomorrow is always another opportunity to be your best self. Growth is the valued currency.
I’m excited about the beginning of a new school year and it isn’t restricted to the new post it note colours and shapes and the smell of new notebooks. I’m in a new school and there is another opportunity to work with a new staff to welcome our students to a school where they want to come each day. Fredrik Backman defines the most important human right as the right to be different. Yes, everyone is invited to the party!