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Published in Print: September 9, 1998, as A Case for the Sacred in Our Schools

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A Case for the Sacred in Our Schools

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How many schools provide students a place to ask questions of life not comfortably entertained, much less inspired in the cafeteria or the parking lot?

Tragedies can bring to light significant elements of life that the inertia of the everyday may hide. Such was the case with the school shootings in Springfield, Ore., last May, an event that put into stark relief some of the basic needs of our children. They need a safe school environment, certainly. They also need teachers who care about them and peers with whom they can connect. But they need something more--something less tangible.

Buried a few paragraphs into the newspaper account of the Oregon shootings was a piece of information that told me those students were signaling a powerful need we seldom talk about in schools. They had created, the article said, a "press free" section of the chain-link fence outside their school where they could gather by themselves to grieve and connect without the presence of adults. What these students had made, in effect, was a sacred place. A place where they could step out of the storm surrounding their school and try to make sense of what had happened. A place where they could slow things down and reflect.

As I reread this passage of the news account, the students' act became more compelling to me. Here was something positive and life-affirming they had caused to happen on their own, without pressure from teachers or administrators, and it reflected their unspoken need for a designated space, a special place, where they could grapple with pressing life questions. I wondered how many schools provide such places--oases of calm where students can make sense of things--during less extraordinary times.

A middle school I once taught in had such a space. The summer before I joined the faculty there, a little girl named Emily had died tragically. In addition to holding a memorial service for the girl that fall, the school dedicated a section of its new library to her memory. This became Emily's Corner, a quiet space adorned with the painting of an artist who was the mother of one of the school's other students. The scene she painted depicted a smiling Emily reading books with friends among growing things, lush green vines and copious flowers.

Emily's Corner was a decidedly special place, one that had a qualitatively different feel about it than other parts of the school where children and teachers gather. It inspired thoughts and questions beyond the everyday. I myself spent time there between classes, sometimes to read or just to think. Having recently lost a family member, I found in Emily's Corner a safe place to grieve silently and to transcend the "small things" that clutter the daily life of a teacher.

How many schools give this opportunity to their students? How many provide a place to ask questions of life that aren't comfortably entertained, much less inspired, in the cafeteria or the parking lot? I suspect not many. Schools provide spaces for other childhood needs deemed worthy of nurturing. Million-dollar gymnasiums and athletic fields reflect our commitment to healthy and strong bodies. Music classes, fine-arts theaters, and libraries pronounce our interest in developing the aesthetic and intellectual sides of our children. But what speaks to the nurturing of their spiritual side? Precious little.

Creating a space for students will send a message to them that, in addition to a healthy mind and body, schools find it important to nurture the soul.

Not that I have in mind a place where students go to pray or worship. I am not making a case for religion in public schools, nor for requiring students to visit the spaces I envision. I am merely suggesting that we honor the desire children have to grapple with important questions about meaning in their lives. Humans, including our adolescent variety, are essentially meaning-seeking beings, and a school tragedy is not needed to stimulate such a search. Just below the surface of students' everyday lives is a rich terrain in which they seek engagement with important life issues. One doesn't need to dig too deeply to find this layer. Neither would one have to look too far to encounter other members of a school community who might find the presence of a "sacred" place useful.

A child whose parents are experiencing a divorce might find such a place a safe haven to visit before or after school. A student fighting with a best friend or a boyfriend or girlfriend might find solace there. Maybe even a teacher, after a particularly trying day, could repair a bit before the drive home. Such a retreat would be a place where hierarchies of authority could temporarily and safely dissolve. Wouldn't the sight of an administrator sitting next to a freshman send a healthy message that, in some arenas, we truly are all equal and that certain human needs are blind to titles?

Such a place need not be foreboding and gloomy. In fact, to fashion a place accessible only to those nursing deep wounds would be to create too narrow a space. It should be simply a place to entertain thoughts outside the exigencies of daily life. It might be a place to give thanks or to "re-center." I could imagine a teacher making a ritual of visiting this spot early each morning before work to focus herself for the coming day. Graduating seniors might slow some of their dizzying thoughts of the future in such a place.

What having this "sacred" place would do is send a strong message to students, in the same way that athletic fields and fine-arts centers do, that relating to the world in a contemplative, thoughtful way and asking larger questions of life is a normal, healthy, even necessary thing to do.

Schools fail to pay enough attention to this spiritual side of children, as Robert Coles, in The Spiritual Life of Children, notes. Nel Noddings, too, says that schools have stopped asking "big" questions about life and that issues of meaning should be central to our curriculum. Parker J. Palmer, in The Courage to Teach, suggests that students have a thirst for what is "real" in life and that schools often shy away from such conversations.

The kind of quiet, calm, "sacred" space I am suggesting could take many different forms, but an outdoor courtyard comes immediately to mind. For schools where this would be impossible, perhaps an indoor space surrounding a statue or some other artwork would be suitable. Maybe the spot could be dedicated to a founder of the school or a teacher who lived the ideals of the school, or to one who found importance in connecting with nature or the world in a particularly thoughtful way. The rituals of the school would then protect and support the "feel" of this place. It should be well-kept and free from trash. It should be shielded from loud and boisterous behavior. Perhaps every year a chosen student could give a speech at this place on a theme that reflects its purpose. Seniors might plant flowers there each year. Growth and life would be accentuated.

Creating such a space will not automatically satisfy the spiritual and existential needs of students. Nor will it heal all of their wounds. But it will send a message to them that, in addition to a healthy mind and body, schools find it important to nurture the soul--the side of a person that seeks wholeness and contemplates meaning. This, I think, was the very side exhibited by those students in Oregon who wanted to create a special space, just for themselves, to make sense of what happened in an awful instant last May. It is the side that feels at home in a place like Emily's Corner. And it is the side of our students more and more people are realizing that schools, at present, neglect.


David Fulton is a doctoral student in education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Vol. 18, Issue 1, Pages 52,54

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