(Blog post author Karen O’Meara Pullen, back row, far right)
My husband and I have stopped watching the evening news. In a summer of wildfires, epidemics and hatred “spiraling out of control” we found ourselves in a bit of a spiral ourselves, wondering where in the name of all that is hopeful we could find some promise of a better future for our grandchildren.
And then, in August, came some hope. For the 10th time I had the opportunity – the blessing, really, and I don’t use that term lightly – to work with Rainier Scholars in their Leadership Development Retreat sessions. The world became, somehow, a bit more under control. These young people, statistics would predict, should be ready to drop-out. They are students of color, from low-income families, many brought up by single parents. But despite their circumstances, despite the dire statistics, they are ready to lead this troubled world to a better place.
True, having served as a classroom teacher and school administrator for more than 40 years, I have had many moments of delight in the promise of young people. To remain in that profession, one can’t help but be a hopeful person; every September brings new promise and anticipation. Nonetheless, regularly I would encounter a student who was particularly sullen and unresponsive, another who was confrontational, a number who had perfected the art of eye-rolling over a challenging assignment, whole groups of teenagers who virtually dared me to interest them. One boy told me he didn’t have to learn to spell because “his secretary would do all his writing for him.” (This was before Spell Check). Every so often, however, I would encounter a class that really jazzed my professional juices – a class I would look forward to every day, a class that brightened the dreariest February Monday, a group of kids that were engaged, funny, curious and kind. I didn’t have a group of those day-brighteners every year, but when I did, they kept me coming back every September, looking for the next.
When I “retired” four years ago, little did I expect I would find a succession of classes that would exhibit that spark and willingness to ask and to share and to learn. In every session, every Leadership Retreat, I have found that mix. Every single one. Ten in a row. By the time the Scholars get to the high school Leadership Development stage of their time with the program, they have been guided, goaded, encouraged, sometimes chastised and celebrated; they have been “schooled” (in the best sense of the word) in a sense of integrity and responsibility. The work (and it is work) we ask them to do is strenuous. The readings are challenging. Could my 17 year-old self have slogged through an analysis of Machiavelli or prepared a comparison of the world views of Thomas Hobbes and Thomas Jefferson? Not likely. Could any of my previous classes stayed in character as a “president” of a fictitious university as it faced a financial crisis and student strike? I doubt it. Rainier Scholars regularly take on those tasks with thoughtful willingness and spirit.
Tony Wagner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education surveyed college professors and corporate employers asking them what they look for in their application process. By far, both groups said the key skills required for success in the 21st century are the ability to solve problems creatively and to work collaboratively in groups. (No 1600 SAT scores? Apparently not a priority.) And those skills are just what the Rainier Scholars are honing.
Throughout the 5 retreats (each 3 intense days of study and discussion) in this phase of Rainier Scholars, the students examine the tasks of leadership, the attributes of leaders, the lessons leaders might provide and – perhaps most importantly – they have the opportunity to try out their own skills and styles in a variety of situations and setting, understanding the difficulty of leading not only effectively but ethically as well. As one student reflected at the end of this summer’s session, “I have learned that to be a leader you don’t have to be in a position of authority or have a big personality” but sometimes one can “lead from behind” understanding a clear vision and working with others towards a common goal.
Here’s what I hear frequently in the classrooms with the Scholars: “As Santiago said, ….”; “I respectfully disagree with you, Michelle …;” “Well, another way of thinking about this might be….” That sense of open inquiry is clearly a part of who the Rainier Scholars are and how they operate – and how they will be taking some significant leadership roles in the years ahead.
What is it about the existence of Rainier Scholars that helps me sleep at night? It’s their willingness to work hard, to listen to one another, to tackle thorny issues with determination, creativity and collegiality. It’s the hope that they bring to one another, to their schools across the city and across the country. And the hope they bring to a needy world. Perhaps my grandchildren will be able to watch the evening news with less foreboding and despair than I. The real news is that there is hope in these young people.
Karen O’Meara Pullen was a middle and high school teacher and administrator for nearly 40 years in New England before moving to western Washington in 2007. Committed to promoting equitable education for all young people since her first teaching job in Zimbabwe, she has served as an instructor and curriculum developer for Rainier Scholars for the last 4 years.