Last week I stopped into a kindergarten classroom where a photo of the recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings was projected onto the board. “What do you know about what’s happening in this picture?” the teacher asked. Little hands shot up as students pieced together a collective understanding of the image.
“I heard that some people don’t think Ketanji Brown Jackson is smart enough to be on the Supreme Court but I heard her talk and I thought she was very smart,” one student shared.
“I heard that some people don’t like what we learn about at GDS. Don’t we just learn about how to be kind?” a second student offered.
“And how to read!” another student chimed in.
Learning how to be kind and how to read. This strikes me as a pretty good synopsis of our mission.
As we’re all now aware, in her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Justice Jackson was asked about her service on the GDS Board of Trustees. Some senators offered a caricature of our School’s curriculum and pedagogy in an attempt to score political points; affiliation with our School was depicted as at odds with Justice Jackson’s qualifications for service on the highest court in the land. In her response, Justice Jackson spoke beautifully about our School’s history and mission.
The portrayal of GDS as a “radical” institution is not new. Seventy-six years ago, establishing an integrated school in Washington, DC was, in fact, a radical act. The city was governed by a Senate committee chaired by Mississippi Democrat Theodore Bilbo, a member of the Ku Klux Klan who argued that Black Americans should not be allowed to vote. In 1945, when GDS was first opening its doors, Senator Bilbo was on the Senate floor attacking Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy, which was both celebrated and controversial for its honest depiction of racism in America. “Its purpose is to plant the seeds of devilment and trouble-breeding in the days to come in the mind and heart of every American Negro … It is the dirtiest, filthiest, lousiest, most obscene piece of writing that I have ever seen in print,” said Bilbo. Reading Black Boy, then, was a radical act as well.
In 1948, three years after GDS’s founding, the Washington, DC Real Estate Board of Ethics stated that, “no property in a white section should ever be sold, rented, advertised or offered to colored people.” In that same year, the National Theatre in Washington, DC ceased live performances rather than permitting integrated audiences.
In this context, imagine the vision and courage of GDS’s founding families, who looked at the world as it was and believed that it could be different. The founders did not consider themselves radicals, necessarily, but they understood intuitively that a school where students of different races and religions could learn with and from one another was not just a moral and civic imperative—it was also essential for an excellent education.
So often we look at the world’s shortcomings and tell ourselves,“that’s just the way things are.” A refusal to accept what is and to imagine instead what might be requires courage, vision, and optimism. These qualities inspired a ninth grade GDS field trip to Farmville, Virginia in 1961. Seven years after Brown v. Board of Education when officials demanded that Farmville integrate its public schools, local officials privatized the schools instead, leaving Black students to go to school in church basements. GDS students learned of this injustice in their ninth grade history class and went to visit, traveling by car rather than on school buses as their presence in Farmville was unwelcome by some. Farmville’s Black students were subsequently invited to Washington to visit GDS and friendships were formed as together students challenged the status quo. Radical? Or kind?
It was courage, vision, and optimism that inspired the inauguration of the Lower School Free to Be Me Assembly in 2003. GDS was one of the first schools in the country to have Lower School students celebrate LGBTQ community members.
Our youngest Hoppers learned that their classmates’ families might look different from their own, that some families had two moms or two dads. Questions were asked, meetings were held, letters were written—and, at the end of the day, our kids were happy to learn about and celebrate each other’s families.
As the world around us changes, so must GDS. And so while our understanding of the world has changed much since 1945–and our curriculum with it–many of the things that define our school have remained. Our work may be viewed by others to be radical, but we don’t see it that way.
So what does GDS’s vision for education look like in 2022? We want each student to feel known and valued. We strive for students to be challenged with rigorous, engaging, relevant content, and supported in meeting challenges by our talented faculty and staff. We hope our young people experience themselves as part of something bigger, and learn what it means to participate in a healthy, dynamic community. We aspire to prepare our students to build a better, more just world than the one they are inheriting. Or, in the words of our kindergarteners, we teach kids how to be kind and how to read.
As with America, we know that GDS is a work in progress. We are an enduring experiment in education, with results that must constantly be tested and renewed. Not every student has always felt loved and embraced in our school. Our mission calls us to always do better, whether through examining our curriculum, engaging in an institutional equity audit, or inviting our students and adults to reflect on what changes we need to make so that every GDS community member experiences a sense of belonging. From its founding, our School has done its best to act on the belief that children and adults should be cherished for who they are and who they are becoming, that they can only do their best work if they feel safe, and that every student who steps foot on our campus, from wide-eyed pre-kindergarteners to fearless seniors, has inherent dignity and worth.
Much of our work happens in small moments—an interaction in the hallway, a comment on a paper, a kind word to start a class. I’m proud of the sum total of these small moments, a school community that strives each day to be worthy of our history and mission. GDS will never arrive, and I think that’s the point. Together we can be grateful for a school community that, however imperfectly, keeps trying to be better. And in moments of history, like this one, we can joyfully celebrate the “bending of the arc” toward justice, and hope that our students, who know how to be kind and how to read, can play some small part in the bending.