A school is a place where people interact. It’s easy to rush ahead and think these interactions don’t matter. After reading about the staff and students in Parkland, Florida, I was reminded of how much of an impact people can make in each other’s lives. I experienced this impact as I supervised a school dance yesterday.
The student government had planned the dance with a “Glow in the Dark” theme and bought hundreds of plastic glow sticks that students could wear like necklaces or bracelets. However, nothing was glowing, and not many kids were dancing. It was still daylight and sunlight was streaming through the large gym windows. My assistant principal gave a pep talk to the demoralized student government so they could get past their disappointment. It worked.
For the first hour and a half, though, the dance was mostly kids sitting on gym bleachers. The only exception was bachata songs, which many students danced beautifully. Then they’d sit again. We have a very diverse school of newcomer English Language Learners from all over the world, but teenage self-consciousness is universal.
We had several school safety agents providing security who encouraged the students to dance. “Come on, why did you buy a ticket if you’re not going to dance?” said one of the agents to a boy slouching in a hoodie. The boy smiled.
The sun started to set, the gym got darker and the glow sticks started to glow. A circle of students formed in the center of the gym and a brave senior busted out a few moves, which got the students cheering. Two girls in the student government pulled more students to the dance floor with a no-nonsense urgency. More students showed up to the dance, videos and photos were Snapchatted and Instagrammed, and a dance was born.
The social media had an impact. Two boys showed up an hour later, probably enticed by videos of glow sticks. However, they had cut a class the day before so we couldn’t allow them into to the dance. They looked disappointed as they walked out. I followed them outside and said, “We’d love for you to be part of the dance, but you can’t cut classes. We want to see you in every class, every day. Do that and you’ll be welcome.” “OK, miss,” they said, and shook my hand, walking way a little lighter.
On my way back to the gym, I spotted a custodian I normally don’t see. I asked him his name, thanked him for cleaning up the gym after the dance and warned him about lots of popped balloons. When I came back to the gym, my staff was sweeping up the popped balloons– “We don’t want to leave a big mess for the custodians”– and students were cleaning up pizza boxes and glow sticks.
All of these interactions reminded me of the opportunities we have to connect with other people: the safety agents encouraging the students, the student leaders getting their classmates to dance, the assistant principal’s pep talk, the boys who cut class knowing we care about them, staff sweeping up popped balloons to make the custodian’s work easier, the custodian being known and thanked. The interactions on that Thursday night were not particularly special on the surface, yet each made a difference in the lives of the people involved.
The students will remember the glow sticks. I’ll remember that people took care of one another instead of finding ways to hide or get away from one another.
Schools are math, science, English, History, tests, facilities, rules, regulations, schedules, dances, sports, statistics. But above all else, schools are places where humans interact. Each person who died in Parkland made a unique contribution to their school community. An assistant football coach, Aaron Feis, died heroically shielding students from gunfire. But he was a hero before this event, being a trusted and kind presence for all of the students he worked with. Every interaction matters. Every person matters.