Freedom Week and Life Itself

Brendan Largay, Head of School
Post Date: May 29th, 2020
Brendan Largay

Education isn’t preparation for life. Education is life, itself. – John Dewey

The democratic ideals of Dewey have long been at the heart of my ideology of education. Dewey’s quote opened the educational philosophy statement that accompanied my application to become Belmont Day’s 13th head of school. When moments in our everyday lived experience provide evidence of the truth of Dewey’s sentiment, I am inclined to make them visible for others when I can.

After last week’s Capstone success, sixth graders took the virtual stage to unveil their civil rights projects this week. We have affectionately come to know the culminating event to showcase this work as Freedom Night. This year, due to the pandemic, we find ourselves in Freedom Week,  coordinated by social studies teacher Dean Spencer with the help and guidance of the sixth grade team. Freedom Week makes space to honor the excellent work our students have done as researchers, artists, performers, public speakers, and scholars.

As someone who was able to drop in on several of these presentations, I can tell you with a considerable amount of pride, that these sixth graders know their stuff. Whether I was learning about six-year-old Ruby Bridges and the four armed guards that chaperoned her to and from school every day to preserve her safety or the project that examines the story of the Freedom Riders, chosen because “it wasn’t just one singular event, but a series of events that happened over a longer period of time,” I found myself in the company of young scholars, confidently sharing their knowledge.

As I pause for a moment here, I acknowledge that this Scoop article should be a singular celebration of the sixth grade students’ work. However, as it sometimes does, the world beyond Belmont Day’s walls has intervened. Education became life itself with the death of George Floyd, a black man who died at the hands and knees of four police officers in Minnesota. Suddenly, the work of our students is cast in far starker relief and takes on an urgent degree of importance. The work is no longer just about history. How are we still here? Why does the story of Emmitt Till ache with urgency in 2020, 65 years after his death? How can the very phrase, “I can’t breathe,” be an eerie echo of Eric Garner in 2014?

We are forced to endure another inconceivable moment of loss that highlights the great distance our country still has to travel in its effort to reconcile its dark history of and continued proclivity towards racism. At this moment, having more time than usual with family can be helpful.

If, as I hope, education is life, then I hope also that you find a way to engage in dialogue with your family about the world outside your doors.

At a school that promises through its mission to honor differences, how might we find space to acknowledge some devastating truths about our country and its irreconcilable relationship with racism?

The image of a black man with a white man’s knee upon his neck is an image that should revolt us in the pages of history books or in a Freedom Night presentation, and it should devastate us in 2020.

How are your children and our students who identify themselves as the same race as George Floyd dealing with the profoundly frightening impact of this moment?

These are the kinds of questions that our sixth grade students have been grappling with; questions that should be reminders of a different time in our nation’s history with lessons we should all carry forward with us today. How I wish they weren’t reminders of the news of the week. But, education is life, and clearly, we still have a considerable amount of work to do.

If you are looking for resources on how to have these conversations at age-appropriate levels, I turn you to the compelling wisdom of our own Dr. Hoyt. He has let me know that if parents would like to gather to discuss this situation, he will organize a discussion. Please feel free to contact him if you’re interested in such a gathering.

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