Someone shared the acronym VUCA with me this week to describe the times we are living in right now – VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – basically it means stressful, crazy, intense times. It’s hard for us adults to live with so much stress in these times, but can you imagine being a child who has never known any times but these? Our children are taking extreme strain from the state of the world right now and they are almost universally tired, stressed and emotional. A lot of children react to these high levels of stress by “behaving badly”, often without even knowing why they are doing so. Bad behaviour includes everything from fighting, bullying others, opposing authority, being defiant, having tantrums, not wanting to participate in anything, being sad and depressed, hurting themselves for attention, playing the victim, blaming others for your sadness or stress, being bullied, or numerous other things. Running a school in these times is amazingly challenging – in our little microcosm we see the full spectrum of humanity – all of society’s struggles are represented in various forms. We have victims and perpetrators and rescuers and happy people and sad people and angry people and self-disciplined people and lazy people and so much more. This is not unique to Misty Meadows. This is true of our whole society, and we cannot protect our children from society forever – we have to equip them to thrive in society no matter what it looks like, and hopefully equip them to be able to play a role in changing what they don’t like about their society.
Everyone is free to have their own opinions of what school and education should look like and incorporate. Running a school is definitely not for the faint-hearted because you have to knock against all of these different perspectives and opinions on a daily basis and not be so destroyed by them that you end up closing the school. I have watched families join our school believing that it is the solution to all of their children’s problems and, to start with, they notice huge improvements in their children and sing our praises to everyone. But then one day they wake up and realize that their children still have problems – maybe the same, maybe different – and then they look for people to blame. The most obvious thing to blame is the school – it’s the teacher’s fault, or the classmates behaviour (or lack thereof), or the curriculum (or lack thereof), or the discipline (or lack thereof)… they think “if only the school could be made more suitable then my child’s problems would disappear” or “I need to take my child to a different school so that these problems disappear”… and maybe some of the time this is true, but I’ve had enough families pass through here on to supposedly greener pastures only to realize that the problems (or a variation of the problems) went with them. Most of these problems are not solvable by moving to greener pastures, but by working to resolve our own and our children’s traumas where we are. Whether these traumas are as a result of something bad that happened to us, or stressful family lives, or even just the VUCA state of the world right now, we all have them. We are all stressed, tired and anxious to some degree right now. I would like to challenge all of us as a community to accept that most of our children are stressed, tired and anxious too, and to commit to loving, accepting and supporting all of them through it to the best of our abilities.
If I had a penny for every time I have been told that someone heard someone say that Misty Meadows is a school for “stupid kids”, “problem children”, “children who don’t fit into the mainstream”, “hippies”, “kids who are never going to make it in life”, “kids who will never get a matric” and so many other such damning judgements, I would be extremely rich. The fact that so many families have found Misty Meadows after disillusionment with the mainstream tells me that we must, however, be doing something right. Many people are looking for something different than what the mainstream is offering. So, what is it that people are looking for, and why?
I have a friend whose child was born with albinism – she once said to me that everyone has disabilities, her son’s just happens to be on the outside for everyone to see. After working with children for all these years I can assure you that she was correct about disabilities. Every child has them, some are just more obvious than others and therefore easier to judge. I was one of those children that most parents would be proud of – receiving academic, sporting and creative accolades at school and behaving like a “good girl” most of the time. What people couldn’t see was my acute sensitivity which resulted in me feeling everybody else’s feelings for them and feeling enormous emotional pain as a result. I looked like a successful human on the outside, but I was a deeply depressed child who ended up numbing her pain with a combination of comfort food and remaining emotionally detached from everybody to protect herself from feeling too much. I still have tendencies to use both of those strategies as a 48 year old when I feel sad or vulnerable. I would have loved to have had the opportunity to develop some of the life skills and received some of the emotional support that we are offering our Misty Meadows children. I’m sure most of us would have benefited enormously from it.
The point I am making here is that each and every human is struggling with something – some of us have obvious learning difficulties, some have behavioural challenges, some have addictions, others struggle with feeling everything too deeply, or take on their friend’s and family’s worries and struggles as their own, or try to have the perfect life (looks, home, job, success) so that they feel worthy of being loved, and some feel all the unresolved traumas and pain in our society, or they get life-threatening diseases, or a million other things. How do we, as a community, decide which of these struggles are not worthy of our love, respect and care? Mainstream education ignores a lot of these struggles and often dismisses children who exhibit behaviours that are outside a narrow band that is considered “normal” and makes them someone else’s problem. I know from my own experience that lots of those children who appear to be okay in mainstream education are just better at hiding their traumas than others. The most sensitive ones can’t hide and so they are labeled as problem children. A lot of those particularly sensitive children come to Misty Meadows, and I feel blessed to have them here. These are the children who cannot shut down their deepest selves and just “fit in”. That is not a weakness – it is a superpower and the world needs more children like them, and not fewer.
Watching Gabor Mate’s documentary “The Wisdom of Trauma” I truly came to accept that we are not just our behavior, we are all human beings doing the best that we can with the knowledge, skills and self-awareness that we have, and each and every one of us deserves love, respect and care regardless of our struggles. Our purpose as human beings is to support each other to heal our traumas and reach our full potential as thriving human beings on planet earth. Only when we all do this will our world start to look more loving and less chaotic. I have often asked people where the human dustbin is where we can throw all the bad humans away, and how we choose which humans need to be thrown away? In our hearts all of us know that we have not behaved impeccably in every moment of our lives, and most of us have had times when our behavior was probably dustbin-worthy. Some of us even know what it feels like to be thrown away by somebody. I would like to encourage us all to have love and compassion for each and every child in our community, no matter what their abilities or disabilities might be. Let’s learn how to be better humans together as a community, with no child left behind. I hope this goes beyond just the acceptance of each and every child in this community for who they are and towards the acceptance of every person in this community. Let’s create a community that others admire and respect and want to emulate for all the right reasons. This would truly equip our children to live meaningful lives and make us proud that our children attended Misty Meadows.
That is what we are here to do for each and every child who comes to Misty Meadows. We are here to love and accept that child, and to focus on supporting that child to develop their skills and capacities to thrive in their own unique, precious life. Every child is here and exactly as they are for a reason – we are not going to judge any child as more or less worthy than another, or capable than another, or good or bad. Measurement is totally arbitrary – we have not learned to measure what is important and so we measure what is easy to measure – scores on tests, or on the sports field. I am not interested in measuring those things because they are poor proxies for measuring whether someone is capable of living a full, creative, meaningful, inspired, difference-making life.
If it was truly possible to be most happy and successful with the highest scores then I would probably recommend that we all go to schools that push academics above everything, or even better that we sit at desks at home and learn as much as we can to score the highest scores we can score in life without anyone disturbing our concentration. However, I know for sure that children learn so much more from interacting with their community – their peers of all ages, as well as many different adults. Yes that means having to figure out how to get along with others and find common ground with people who are very different from us, and who might have a very different set of capabilities from us. I actually learn so much more from the people who are different from me than I learn from those who are most like me. I have learned exponentially more from my biodiverse Misty Meadows community than I ever learned in the relative monoculture of St Mary’s School for Girls. I am actually so grateful for all the differences in our community – it is our differences that make us stronger together.
I commit to loving and accepting each and every child in this community and working tirelessly to support each one of them to figure out who they are, what their strengths are, what their struggles are, where they need help and where they can manage on their own, and how to ask for the help that they need. I commit to teaching them the words to be able to express their thoughts and feelings so that others can hear them, the skills to listen to the thoughts, feelings and needs of others, and the skills and confidence to be able to say no when they need to say no and yes when they need to say yes. I commit to encouraging children to get out of their comfort zones and into learning zones where they have to stretch themselves and often fail on the path to success. I commit to encouraging children to build their self-discipline and mastery in whatever areas that interest them. I commit to supporting children who feel sad and need to cry or shout or punch something or just wallow for a while in order to feel better, and I commit to being here to hear children tell me of their triumphs and accomplishments and to celebrate with them. This is the true value of school for me – that there is an extended community to love and nurture the children in that community to work through their struggles and find ways to thrive, or at least constructive ways to reduce their suffering and maximize their joy.
I know most parents are most worried about their children getting the “piece of paper” that says they’ve passed Matric as if this is the guaranteed path to happiness, or at least a guaranteed path to avoid unhappiness for all children. I would like to encourage each of you to reflect on what has enabled you most to succeed in your life, and what has inhibited you most from succeeding in your life, and I doubt many of you will mention that piece of paper. Maybe some of you will mention the self-discipline it took to get that piece of paper, or your university degree, or your first job, or to start your own business. If we focus on developing self-discipline then maybe the children will choose to get the piece of paper for themselves, or whatever else they might need that would be more valuable than that piece of paper. I am not worried about any of the children at Misty Meadows succeeding in life if we get the love, acceptance and self development part right. This is a school committed to helping children to self-actualise – the matric certificate might be a by-product of self-actualization, but it is not the main point of it.