Simon Says…

Is This Blog Post a Microaggression?

Is This Blog Post a Microaggression?

Recently, a close friend who is a college professor told me about a study group she was in with some of her colleagues. The group was interested in learning about the Millennial generation, and one of the sub-topics was microaggressions.

My friend was generally familiar with the term, but not aware its genesis and fine points. Thinking it a valid question to pose to a group of fellow academics, she asked, “Does anyone know the academic definition of microaggression?” The response surprised her. Several of the professors became rigid and agitated. One suggested, by inference, that asking the definition of the word was itself a microaggression. My friend was floored, both embarrassed and also shocked that among some of her colleagues the question made her seem socially insensitive, or something worse.

Now, this friend is a feminist, someone who doesn’t doubt the existence of microaggressions, and who believes that it is the job of each member of a particular demographic group to educate themselves—as well as others who share it—about that privilege. I would say the same of myself. And yet, this event suggests some paradoxical questions: If members of a privileged group have a duty to educate themselves about their privilege (and I believe they do), how can they do so without necessarily invoking it?  How can it be that our educational environment today is such that one cannot, in the spirit of genuine inquiry, admit a gap in one’s knowledge or ask for help in developing one’s own understanding without putting oneself at risk?

These are sensitive questions to ask, and as the leader of a heterogeneous educational community of people who live, work, study, and play together, it is literally my job to help figure out and address an answer. I need to make the space that we share one in which a truly diverse community can learn about microaggressions and ask questions of them safely. Smaller, tight-knit communities should be able to do this more easily than larger, more anonymous ones, and I’m glad for being a part of the former. I’ve got a few ideas on the subject; foremost among them, I believe that people need to start by giving, instead of withdrawing, the benefit of the doubt, and assume good intent on the part of the inquirer. The complex world we are making each day demands that we find ways to hold open, genuine conversations in which both parties recognize the intentions and limitations of the other.

I know there is more to do and I ask your help in that effort. Please send me suggestions and share your comments, either in the space below or with me personally at holzapfels@darrowschool.org.

Addendum: As I researched this term, which I assumed was relatively new since it has emerged into mainstream discourse in the past five to 10 years, I found (and here am knowingly and publicly outing myself as less than fully informed) that the term is about as old as I am, a product of the early 1970s. This is one of several things I have learned today.

Dick Nunley: Loving Tough Guy

There are some teachers who are beloved for being fun, some for being funny, and others for just being tough. As I have heard from the former students of Dick Nunley, he falls squarely in that last camp. According to the guys (recall that Darrow was a boys school in the 1960s), “He made you grow up very quickly.” “He instilled a work ethic, he made you work, and work, and work. No soft As or even soft Bs came from Mr. Nunley. He did not seem to be motivated by his students liking him, but rather by upholding the standards of his discipline.” For that solid core he is remembered, and above all respected.

Several alumni—including lawyers, businessmen, and bankers—credit him with playing an instrumental role in their career development and successes. Many also say he had a strong sense of humor and cared for them. He was generous with his time, spending it as each individual required to help them improve their writing, just not in a warm and fuzzy way.

This sort of teaching is increasingly rare in a world where teachers are taught to project relentless hyper-positivity to their students in virtually all situations, an approach that strikes me as a disservice in some cases. Positivity is important, but so is the truth. Mr. Nunley would never lie to a young man by telling him he could do something he couldn’t, or by inflating his sense of accomplishment just for its own sake. For that, he served as a model of balanced appraisal, because in the end not everyone earns the proverbial gold star.

Darrow was fortunate to have had such an extraordinary educator, who served as a teacher from 1957 to 1970 and as a trustee from 1993 to 2003, retiring from that position just a few years before I arrived on the Mountainside. I wish I’d had the chance to meet Mr. Nunley. If I had, I would have saluted his direct, forthright technique and thanked him for keeping his standards high in the service of true education.

Note: A memorial celebration of Dick Nunley’s life will be held at the Tannery on Saturday, July 30, at 2:00 p.m. If you would like to attend, please RSVP online at svy.mk/1Qc7Ywc or contact Diana at diandericjohnson@yahoo.com.

Getting Things Done, One-to-One

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Head of School Simon Holzapfel and Class of 2016 Student Body President Ross Matican.

School leaders are always looking for ways to use their time more effectively, to actually get done the things that matter most. One way in which I accomplished that in the recently concluded school year was through weekly one-to-one meetings with Darrow’s Student Body President Ross Matican ’16. Having that regular check-in allowed me to do several things that would have been much harder otherwise.

The first tangible accomplishment was launching a new and much sought-after student snack bar, in a way that was truly student-led and organized. Another benefit came following a student protest in April. Being able to meet with Ross allowed me to directly influence how the event was processed, resulting in a new dress code proposal, as well as several other ideas for the coming year. Without a well established and open line of communication, I would have been operating in the dark, and would have had a much harder time responding constructively to the issues our students raised. Finally, as a teacher, the meetings allowed me to directly mentor a young leader in how to use his time effectively to create change.

In reflecting on the experience, I asked Ross how he felt about his meeting time with me during his term. Here’s what he said: “Through our weekly meetings, I learned first-hand that change is a truly collaborative effort. I also realized that there is no better way to become a leader than to be mentored by a leader.”

What Ross helped me learn this year is that the value of that interaction can be just as great as any of the others I have each week. Thanks for that, Ross. And to Zion ’17, who will be next year’s Student Body President, I look forward to keeping the momentum going with you. School leadership needs to be as comprehensive and inclusive as possible. That won’t happen unless students are part of the equation.

Dissenting, venting, listening, and learning

Late last month, a good portion of Darrow School’s student body staged a walk out of Hands-to-Work to draw attention to issues they felt weren’t being discussed. We quickly convened to the Tannery for a productive two-hour session, during which students did a lot of venting and also a lot of listening to each other. Faculty and administrators did a lot of listening, too.

In the days following, I held three after-dinner meetings that I hoped would help us delve deeper into student perceptions, and also address some assumptions that were bumping through the student body. Here are my takeaways from those meetings:

  • Students recognize and think about their school as a business, though they are uneasy with the idea of the school making profit, which is all for the good.
  • The concept of not-for-profit business is not at all intuitive to international students, which makes sense given that this sector is not prominent in much of our world.
  • Students trust each other more than adults in cases where they feel the adults don’t have competency, especially around identity issues.
  • Students want to engage in designing their lives and don’t want it handed to them, for the most part. Other parts they most definitely do want pre-made and pre-structured.

I’m proud of how our students advocated for themselves, and of how the adults responded thoughtfully and wholeheartedly. I expected nothing less and have learned a lot from the experience.

For that I’m grateful.

Success for Dress

This week, Darrow has been trying out a new dress code designed to focus on some of the issues for which dress codes have been criticized recently:

The trial code is intentionally brief: “Darrow community members are expected to refrain from displaying inappropriate or offensive imagery and language on their clothing.” Although it is not perfect (clearly there is ample latitude for interpretation), the administration believes the code will give our students a chance to rise to the occasion, to show through their choice of attire what they consider to be their purpose each day as students, and to maintain an open dialogue that our community began two weeks ago.

Dress code is certainly a divisive issue in many, if not most, independent schools, especially those who want their students to have a significant voice in shaping the culture of the school. I’m excited to see what the week ends up looking like and how our students respond. I’m also eager to find out what other students, teachers, and administrators are experiencing at their institutions. Please feel free to comment below or email me at holzapfels@darrowschool.org.

Five Things I Learned About Social Activism and Civic Engagement

Last week, our faculty and students participated in the Social Activism and Civic Engagement Symposium, a daylong series of activities, presentations, and seminars focused on ways in which citizens can better understand the most pressing social issues of our time and find ways to effect meaningful positive change.

Here are my top takeaways from this compelling and enlightening event:

1) The cynicism of my generation—Gen X—is refreshingly absent in today’s high school students, who are not only thoroughly capable of describing some of the world’s most vexing social problems, they are prepared to offer viable solutions.

2) When you’re trying to grab eyeballs for your presentation, a good poster is every bit as important as a good pitch. Well done Global Citizenship students! (The Global Citizenship class is one of many engaging history  courses offered at Darrow, and served as host of the Human Rights Expo at the symposium.)

3) Using Skittles® as mock birth control pills to highlight a tactic used by sex slavers is very effective.

4) The U.N.’s  Universal Declaration of Human Rights is so far from being realized that I wonder which of them, if honored across the globe, would most increase the realization of the others. Which do you think is the most, or least feasible and effective? Please comment below.

5) As Margaret Mead said, “”Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

What if?

The comic strip Dilbert has long been a favorite of mine because it crystalizes the absurdities of our current moment into images and stories that are both true and funny. I respect, and am a fan of, Scott Adams because he thinks broadly and in divergent ways that can be startling and that create little micro-disruptions in our thinking; kind of like Michel de Montaigne did when he philosophized about topics that were off limits in his day, or at least highly unconventional.

Here’s to asking, “What if…?”

Creating a Low-Cost Life by Scott Adams

I would love to hear your opinions on Scott Adams’s vision for a sustainable future. Please feel free to comment below.