On August 11, Head of School Emeritus Margaret Gragg Bissell spoke at the All Faculty/Staff Opening meeting. She inspired us with her personal experience as an educator and the "a-ha" moment she had in writing our school's Affirmation of Community in 2007. Below is her speech.
My comments this morning relate to my personal experiences in 2 schools, 4 decades apart. Though directly unrelated, they significantly influenced the statement you see on the face of the envelope in your hands.
School Year 1966-1967:
I do realize that many or most of you were not even born then or, if so, are now about 55, and happily, I hope, in mid-life.
In that ‘66-’67 school year, I had just completed student teaching, graduated from Duke, applied to the Charlotte Mecklenburg School system, and was hired and assigned to North Mecklenburg High School in Huntersville. Huntersville was then primarily a rural community. In accordance with federal law, that school year 1966-1967 began the desegregation of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. In that year, the entire student body of the all black Torrence-Lytle High School was combined with North Mecklenburg, as was their entire faculty.
As a novice, I enjoyed and learned from my fellow teachers. Most of all, I loved and learned from my 5 daily English classes of about 130 students a day. Standout memories clearly remain with me of several students, such as Stanley Graham, still a talented black musician whose last CD I recently ordered from Amazon. And Curtis Brandon, recently retired as a black policeman in Greensboro. It was Curtis who, in our senior English class, volunteered to read from our textbook the role of Professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion (later adapted as My Fair Lady) if I teamed with Curtis to read Eliza Doolittle’s role.
As a naïve but bold second-year teacher and with my principal’s approval, I applied for and received a $1,000 grant from a North Carolina non-profit organization to focus on diversity at our North Meck school. That grant funded for the subsequent school year assembly speakers, panels, and teacher-designed class activities, all focused on the value of diversity--all helping confirm in small, intentional ways that North Mecklenburg was to be a school belonging to all.
In my memories of my 3 years at North Meck, integration went smoothly but without a strategic, forward focus. I witnessed in my own students, black and white, their embracing and contributing to their newly diverse school environment. The school was beginning a positive path, but seemingly, to me, without a continuing mission celebrating diversity and sustaining a focus on belonging within a school community.
Leaping forward now: 40 years later to Charlotte Country Day and 3 years before my retirement
School Year 2006-2007
During that Country Day school year, an ad hoc committee on Diversity was appointed by the Board of Trustees and the Head of School engaging some trustees, faculty, and staff. Country Day’s commitment to diversity had existed for decades, and that year we were evaluating again what we had been doing and or were not doing to support, sustain, and more intentionally honor our commitment to diversity and the experience of belonging for all our students and faculty.
I remember committee meetings of circular but productive discussions, questioning, poster-papering, idea-creating. The end result and action in the 2007 spring was the assignment given to me as Head of School: to draft specifically the articulation of “diversity” for CCDS.
So, on a spring Sunday morning, after lengthy procrastination and a looming deadline, I sat at my desk at the head of school’s house facing blank pages. Over decades of experiences and observations what had I learned and what had I not learned? (whether from North Mecklenburg, subsequently East Mecklenburg, or then from 31 years at Country Day?) On that Sunday, perhaps with some divine intervention, what came to me was this: we were focused on and attempting to define and articulate the wrong word. “Diversity” was and is an integral, essential component for the school aspiring to be an authentic, inclusive community. Diversity was and is a path, a path Country Day seeks and commits to travel. But on that morning, I decided my assignment was missing the essential, overarching focus that should define not our path but our destination: that destination was Community.
And so, I changed my given assignment to define “diversity” and the Affirmation of Community and its bullet points were written during that long afternoon and subsequently adopted by the Board of Trustees. That affirmation ends, as you see it on the envelope in your hands, with “Awareness that living in community and engaging diversity are an active process, a continual journey which engages us in personal and institutional self-assessment, reflection, and openness to growth and change.”
My story, my direction is also now your continuing story, your journey, your direction. Even in challenging Covid years, your sustaining resources have been and are supportive, creative colleagues and students who motivate you to do what you do so well. You together experience and define, and affirm this CCDS community through your energy, creativity, collaboration, and commitment.
As you experience and build on your Country Day’s community this year, I wish each of you a rewarding journey.
Now, inside of your envelope, you’ll find a toy compass, a token reminder of your shared direction, journey, and destination. I think the Latin word com means “together” and passus means “pace or step.” So, together I take it that the word compass can mean to step together, to journey together. May your compass be a token reminder of what you have done together and continue to do as you navigate through this school year as integral members of an authentic, committed community.
I wish for each of you a rewarding journey.