Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School director Bob Moore had spent the past couple of weeks thinking about what he would say to inspire students on the first day of the new school year.
Then, yesterday morning, he found a nine-year-old student had said it better. So he read Susa Breese’s letter to the several hundred students, parents and faculty, who stood and sat around him.
“Dear Martha’s Vineyard Public School/Bob,” the letter began. “I have been thinking over the summer about world peace and the earthquake in China . . .”
Susa wanted to do something for the children who had lost their parents, and she wanted the school to be involved. She had given her father, Peter, an architect, an assignment to design an orphanage. She had given herself the assignment of raising money to help build it.
The letter ended: “If you don’t think it will work, think of the song What Can One Little Person Do.”
And that, said Mr. Moore, summed up what he wanted to stress to the school’s students, indeed the whole school community: think always about what can you contribute to the well-being and success of others. For in that, everyone can achieve their best.
And if Susa’s vision of community was focused more widely than Mr. Moore originally envisioned, it was equally applicable at the macro and micro levels.
“What is it you’re going to bring to the table to help the person next to you?” he asked.
“It takes a great deal of respect and a great deal of trust for all of us to accomplish our best.”
He quoted educator William Gallser:
“Quality schoolwork and the quality life that results from it can only be achieved in a warm, supportive environment. It cannot exist if there is an adversarial relationship between those who teach and those who are asked to learn.
“Above all there must be trust. They all have to believe that the others have their welfare in mind.”
And so, he said “I ask each of you to be both teacher and student. We are here to learn from each other.
“One of our pillars is trust.”
Then those assembled joined in singing a song about the schools’ pillars: freedom, democracy, cooperation, responsibility, respect and trust.
And so the day and the new year began at the Island’s only public charter school.
It all seemed so far away from the old concepts of schooling, the ones many parents present might have recalled, when lessons were drummed in by rote, sometimes with the aid of corporal punishment. When teachers had no first names — at least as far as pupils knew. When parental involvement stopped at the school gate. When the school director was called the principal or head master, and any time the average student interacted with him (it was most often a him) meant trouble.
Where were the tears at the school gate? Absent, at least among the kids.
Where, for that matter, was the school gate? Parents and staff milled about, chatting about their summers, the improvements to the school (a half-finished new wing and a sprinkler system are in place), and Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s speech the previous night.
It all had the feeling of a social gathering, albeit one with a purpose. It had, as Mr. Moore said, the feel of community.
A little later, after classes began, Mr. Moore sat in his office and reflected on these changes. At 53, he is old enough to remember the way things used to happen in schools.
“I saw people thrown up against the wall,” he recalled.
“The whole thing about fear, fear in the air, you know. Personally I don’t think you can learn until you get a relationship going, and that takes a little time.
“Then we can learn. Then we can take risks. Learning is about taking risks. You can’t take risks if you’re going to be slapped down. You learn when you make mistakes, so you need a trusting environment.
“Trust is really important, that’s why I spoke about it today. Trusting yourself and trusting one another, that’s what makes it work.”
And it seems that after 13 years, the school is working fine, according to Mr. Moore’s measures.
“The parents of the kindergarten kids, they’re the only ones that are crying,” he noted.
“Enrollment is up. Retention of faculty and students is very good.
“But things like a former student (Ruth Guilford) coming back as a teacher, or one of our graduates (Rubin Cronig) serving as a member of the board of trustees, sends a message of maturity to me and to our community,” he said.
“The Susa Breese letter encapsulated everything I could have said about building community. She’s trying to get our community, small as it is, to extend our arms to China in some way to help out. That’s the story I want to talk about today.”
But he could not talk about it without interruption. A knock at the door heralded the arrival of 15 new kindergartners — the largest intake yet — shepherded by their two smiling teachers.
“Come on in,” Mr. Moore said. “I want to welcome you to the school.”
Then he singled out one of the group.
“I love your shoes. I’m a shoe guy, a shoe and tie guy. Now, any questions for the big guy?”
There were none. After a couple of minutes of patter, during which he promised to come by each week to read a story, he assured them: “I’m a nice guy. No matter what they tell you, I’m a nice guy.
“You folks come back any time you want. If you’re doing something special in the classroom, can you make sure I get invited?”
As the kids exited, in a neat line, one boy lingered just a second.
“We are going to make something really good for you,” he confided.
The start of trust.