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Words from the Head of School

Almost Organized

Dear Brandeis community,

Three years ago at this time of year, I wrote what is still probably my favorite of these many (many! 130 and counting) words of the week. I decided for this week to pull it out and remix it a bit, seeing what of its language and ideas still holds true. I hope you all enjoy.

I find myself this morning wanting to tell you the story of last Friday, when I went to the Innovative Learning Conference with a mixed group of Brandeis faculty, staff, and parents. But to tell that story, I need to talk about my Saturday evening, which was spent at a poetry reading, and my Sunday afternoon, when I joined our school’s annual LGBT family party. It is a story of trying to understand the age we live in, our organization, a story of al tifrosh min hatzibur (“Do not separate yourself from the community”), a story of many colors. I’ll begin with the poetry.
Saturday night I had the pleasure of going to a reading by several poets at the home of erica lewis, an old friend and longtime San Francisco poet. One reader that night was new to me: Tongo Eisen-Martin. He is wonderfully tall—he towered above the crowd in that small apartment—and has a deliberateness to his speech and movement that suggests an old soul. One of his lines caught my ear and ended up woven throughout my understanding of my diverse weekend:
            Mission Street would be proud of me
            I’m a mural man
            Almost organized
I love how Eisen-Martin, a San Francisco native, situates himself in the city here, as a character in its beloved street art. But it is the “Almost organized” that has stuck with me, that I find myself chewing on, that I hope this writing will help me understand.
Driving down Laguna Honda Boulevard elsewhere in the weekend, we saw a group painting a new mural in front of the hospital. The long wall has been whitewashed; they’ve put up a grid, and have begun sketching what appear to be San Francisco stories: people, rows of houses, and hills. It seemed very organized. As we passed, Kate and I talked to Sonia and Alma in the back seat about how the use of a grid helps to articulate the scale of a mural, to transfer it from a sketch to a wall. I found myself wondering about the relationship between the context and the painting—the form of a mural and its content—and thought back to something I’d read long ago in Spain, in a class on Latin American muralists and Diego Rivera, whose first U.S. mural hung over our San Francisco in Bloom event last spring at the City Club. Of his later work at the Detroit Institute of the Arts, Rivera wrote:
In my previous murals, I had tried to achieve a harmony in my painting with the architecture of the building. But to attempt such a harmony in the garden of the Institute would have defeated my purposes. For the walls here were of an intricate Italian baroque style, with little windows, heads of satyrs, doorways, and sculpturesque mouldings. It was within such a frame that I was to represent the life of an age which had nothing to do with baroque refinementsa new life which was characterized by masses, machines, and naked mechanical power. So I set to work consciously to over-power the ornamentation of the room.
The content, in this case, was arguing with the form, a kind of dialectic. Rivera’s aim to represent the life of an age—the new Industrialism of Henry Ford, the age of the assembly line—always resonated for me as the ultimate aim of all art, to paint in its own colors the life of its time.  Which brings me to the Innovative Learning Conference on Friday.
As its title suggests, the conversation at the conference was tuned toward the new. One session, a talk by the futurist and researcher John Seely Brown, explored what he described as the “emerging networked age,” one characterized by increasingly rapid change. He claimed that, in this context, “the half-life of a given skill is constantly shrinking.” It’s a compelling argument—one that resonates in my software jumps of the past years, from Facebook to Twitter, or Keynote to Prezi—and it raises important questions for educators. If that is our context, the wall on which we paint the mural of the education we provide our children, what is its content?
Another way to ask this question is this: what persists? In this networked age, in which the digital space of our lives grows beyond our capacity to imagine it, what will last? What will set our children up for a full and meaningful life, a life of learning and purpose?
One answer to that question was provided at the conference as well, by the Columbia University professor Lisa Miller, in her talk on childhood and adolescent spirituality. In a nutshell, her research shows that an authentic sense of spirituality inoculates adolescents against some of the most pressing dangers they face: drug and alcohol abuse, unsafe sexual behaviors, and major depressive disorders. Her book, The Spiritual Child, is worth more than a paragraph, and I’ll give it the attention it deserves another week.
I found a second answer to my question on Sunday, at the LGBT family party. I arrived to a rambunctious house full of children and parents, bursting with life and love. It was a party celebrating the diversity of our community, celebrating the value of encountering difference across its many modalities. And this is where I thought of Keshet’s wonderful poster, which I have in my office, of Seven Jewish Values for Inclusive Community. The last of those seven values is al tifrosh min hatzibur, which they translate as solidarity. As the poster has it:

"Don’t separate yourself from the community”(Pirkei Avot 2:5). When you feel different from others in your community, don’t isolate yourself. Find allies and supporters who you can talk to. If you know someone who is feeling isolated, reach out; be an ally and a friend.

This, I believe, is the great power we create at Brandeis, the power of a diverse and pluralistic Jewish community; this is part of what will persist for our children through their emerging networked lives: the capacity to connect not just across and despite difference, but through and in celebration of it. We are mural people. While there is a grid there, a grid of spirituality and Jewish tradition, we are not constrained by those lines. We are only—beautifully, joyously—almost organized.

Wishing you all colorful weekends, my friends.