MY TURN By James Burger

| 23 Feb 2012 | 03:39

    It Begins With a Handshake On these very cold mornings, it is a little more difficult to stand outside the Primary School and shake hands with each child as he or she emerges from bus or car, but it is still something I look forward to each day. The simple act of greeting with a handshake and eye contact sets the stage for a day of work, play, and engagement. It also affirms that every child is known, will participate actively in the work of the day, and will contribute to class discussions and to our entire school community. Every person has a part to play. That civility carries over into the morning meetings in the classrooms where each child greets his neighbor by name and with eye contact. It is all part of that basic rule here at Tuxedo Park School that if someone asks to join your group, the answer must be “Yes!” These rather formal rituals may seem archaic to some and artificial to others, but I firmly believe that civility grows from recognizing the humanity that we share and the handshake and eye contact are crucial parts of that genuine recognition. Words themselves are not enough. I am rambling on about civility because the events in Tucson have prompted many to write about the vitriol in our political discourse. While there is no clear connection between the acts of the deranged man and any political party or group, much has been written about the effect of images on web sites, metaphors used, and martial calls to action. It is very easy to point fingers at “the other” and lay blame at someone else’s doorstep. Apparently, it is very difficult for anyone to take personal responsibility for any part of the heated rhetoric , and the line between sharp, well-reasoned debate and reckless, “factless” ranting seems to be blurred for many. Part of our job as educators is to help students understand how to use words to express opinions and/or feelings and to resolve differences. On the playground, students learn to do this effectively, and the only time they sink into “scoring points” is when the argument is taken to an adult. That is why we supervise playground activity carefully but make sure students use their skills to resolve conflicts peacefully. I am delighted that they do so often and effectively. When I was growing up, the kids on the next block over were known as the Glencairn Gang. We never actually saw this group of children, and it is quite possible that there were no children living on Glencairn Road. But, they were our sworn enemies, and we plotted long and hard about the coming “battle.” Yes, it sounds ridiculous now, but it is an example of how “the other” can be easily demonized through epithets and misnomers. We have some classic examples in current politics with Death Panels, Death Taxes, and Obama Care (I guess the liberals are not as good at creating buzz words!), but all groups share to some extent in the misrepresentation of the other. I am sorry to read that more representatives and senators are spending less and less time in Washington and even less time in collegial social settings with members of the other party. Once we get to know “the other” through conversation and sharing a meal together, the common bonds of our humanity help to bridge the gaps. There will always be differences of opinion, and the analysis and debate of those differences can lead to unique and powerful solutions. Perhaps Congress should take a lesson from the children at Tuxedo Park School and greet each other every morning with a handshake, eye contact, and words of welcome! James Burger has been shaking hands with the students of Tuxedo Park School as the head of school for the past 17 years. He will retire in June.