LENOX -- For nearly 400 students at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School -- where the wireless network is MillionAir -- it was a day unlike any they have experienced in the halls of academia.
More than two months in the making, the Pillars of Community Forum represented a mammoth undertaking by administrators and Multicultural BRIDGE, the nonprofit group dedicated to mutual understanding among diverse groups. On Friday, the normal classroom routine was replaced a series of frank, free-wheeling discussions on race, gender and sexual identity, economic inequality, privilege, entitlement and related social issues.
From my vantage point as an observer, it was an eye-opening, even mind-bending exploration of still-pervasive racism, the origins of slavery in this country, and, most of all, the need to understand and accept people from different backgrounds.
Much credit goes to Gwendolyn VanSant, the co-founder and executive director of BRIDGE, for her organization’s collaboration with District Superintendent Edward W. Costa II, Principal Michael Knybel and Dean Brian Cogswell ("Cogs," as he’s known at the school). VanSant, a native of Virginia Beach, Va., came to the Berkshires to attend Simon’s Rock College and has been here ever since.
At the outset, addressing the students in the school auditorium, Knybel urged them to "be kind Š I want you to be honest as we’re sharing something very intimate for us, our feelings. Sometimes we feel we can’t express ourselves, so today is your day."
Costa, noting that the initiative for the day originated with last year’s LMMHS sixth-graders, pointed out that "this is a huge MCAS testing month, and everything we’re talking about today, you’ll never see on this state test. Does that make it less important? No, quite frankly, today is more important than what you’ll be tested on. These are all life lessons, not textbook lessons; both are important, it’s just that life lessons aren’t tested through paper and pencils."
As Cogswell exhorted the students, "this is a discussion, not a debate. Do that in a respectful way to everyone in your classroom. It is OK to have a different opinion, a different point of view, but it’s not OK to tell somebody else that their opinion is wrong."
"It’s all about promoting mutual respect," VanSant emphasized, adding that the day’s topics were not limited to issues of race, gender, privilege, equity, equality or bullying. "We are all diverse, every one of us is different and unique."
At least 20 community volunteers, including parents and clergy, helped lead the classroom discussions, as groups of about 15 students shared their feelings.
Lenox is fertile territory for an organized effort to promote the six pillars of character embraced by the school system and extended to the community -- caring, fairness, respect, responsibility, trustworthiness and appropriate citizenship.
The town has many well-known virtues, but is not known for diversity, though gradually that is changing, and the image of a high-income, privileged oasis of entitlement is becoming outdated, if it ever was accurate. About one in five students at the town’s elementary school qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, double the number of just four years ago.
"Lenox is changing," Costa observed. "Part of changing is being accepting of all people and that’s what we want our students and our community to embrace with us."
He described the event as the opening of "a new era" for the school district and the broader community, stressing that the special day was just a start, definitely not a "once and done" occasion.
"This day is bold and daring," he acknowledged, noting mostly supportive calls from parents "who think this is the best thing and they’ve been waiting for years for this to start," though one skeptic wondered "why we need to do this."
"Schools are always a mirror of the community and the society," Costa told me. "It takes a concerted effort, a partnership between parents, teachers and schools. Š I invited that person in to see it, and they said they’d think about it. We’re inclusive, and the vast majority of people have said this is the right thing to do."
For many teachers and other staffers, the event loomed initially as anxiety-provoking, outside their comfort zone. "What I mentioned to them is that they don’t have to be an expert in diversity, in race relations, in socio-economics" the superintendent explained, "but they are experts in facilitating discussions. Today is the start of these discussions, and you have to open it up before you can open up education."
The decision to hold the all-day forum was not triggered by a specific incident, but by a series of events during Costa’s four years in the district -- "not all negative," he said, "but the events showed that we have some true learning opportunities, as students, staff and a community Š because it takes a whole community to raise our kids."
According to the Rev. Michael Tuck, rector at Trinity Episcopal Church and a community volunteer for Friday’s discussions, "it’s a chance for us to take the values we espouse, of being a small town and really caring about each other, and making that a little bit more of a reality for all the members of the community."
In his view, problems of inclusion "represent a struggle for many communities. Š I’m very proud of Lenox for deciding to address these needs that might be challenging."
As the Episcopal chaplain at Brown University in Providence, R.I., before he came to Lenox in 2012, Tuck noted that the discussions would prove to be practical for Lenox students who will encounter a much more diverse group when they arrive in college. Besides, colleges evaluate applications not only on academic performance but also on evidence of individual character.
"These are the kinds of issues that can make or break success in college," he observed. "If you come to college, find your roommate is gay and you’ve never thought about this, if that becomes a distraction for you, your grades suffer and who knows what happens?"
For community volunteer Tanya Kalischer, the day represented an effort to gain an understanding of people’s differences and value them, in order to make sure the town isn’t living in a "bubble."
After one lively discussion of race among sixth graders, students agreed that they had learned much and had valued the experience. Likewise, a 12th-grade class held an animated discussion on gender and sexual identity in a spirit of open-minded acceptance and an embrace of the "live and let live" approach.
At day’s end, VanSant met with her team of BRIDGE staffers and community volunteers; she asserted the faculty anxieties that surfaced earlier in the week had been largely overcome. Friday’s events "connected the dots and established trust," she stated.
An encouraging start, for sure. In the years ahead, parents and faculty should support the school administration by encouraging its leaders to set aside a monthly hour or two, at the minimum, so students can continue discussions aimed at shoring up those Pillars of the Community as the foundation of an ever-more open-minded, welcoming town as a beacon for people of all backgrounds, beliefs and personal preferences.
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