Kinder. Gentler. These two words feature in every obituary I’ve read of the 41st President. Quoting President Bush’s inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1989: “We as a people have such purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world,” these obituaries also lament the loss of those values and qualities in our current political and cultural climate. Many detail the letter George H.W. Bush left his successor, President Bill Clinton, on Jan. 20, 1992. “I am rooting hard for you.” Clinton’s success, Bush wrote, is America’s success. Bush had his missteps, such as the Willie Horton ad, but Bush, mostly, remained in his presidency and after his presidency the kind of person he was all along: kinder, gentler.
I’m the head of an independent age 3 through grade 8 school in Midtown, Atlanta. Every year, on Tuesday of Thanksgiving week, my school hosts Grandparents and Special Friends’ Day, when hundreds of guests descend on our small campus to visit classrooms and celebrate family and childhood. In my remarks this year to over 300 guests in our gym, I shared a short story about why schools like mine still matter, why the values espoused by President Bush in his inaugural address are still essential to what we teach our children and what we model as the adults in their lives. A new parent last year, driving her daughter to school one morning, already late, was anxious that a tardy note would be added to her daughter’s attendance record. On the ride over, the daughter noticed a homeless man when the car was stopped at a stoplight, and urged her mother to pull over and show some care to the homeless man. The mother, already concerned about being tardy, pulled over anyway to honor her daughter’s wishes. The two spent some time talking to the homeless man and offered him some food. They got to school, even later than expected now. To the mother’s surprise, the teachers, upon hearing why they were late, stopped class for a few minutes and spent time as a full class talking about homelessness. The mother was blown away by the response. It reinforced her choice of our school for her daughter. Her takeaway: she could enroll her daughter at any school to become a smart and intelligent person. But she wasn’t looking to just raise a smart human being. In her own words, she didn’t want to just raise “a smart a***ole.” Kinder. Gentler.
The violence against minorities, schools, and places of worship has made me worried as an educator. I’ve written more letters on this count to my community than I wished for or anticipated. All of this has made me concerned and wonder about the purpose of schools and school communities. Like places of worship, or even a home, schools are supposed to be safe havens, homes away from home where children and families are cared for and supported, not just educated. Too much of the rhetoric surrounding education today talks of innovation and STEAM, skills development, entrepreneurship and preparation for an innovation economy in an age of artificial intelligence, apps, automation, blockchain, cryptocurrencies, alternative ________ (fill in the blank here). The list goes on of all of the changes unleashed by technology and its extended family. What all that rhetoric does not consider is how, and who, will bring the heart and soul to all of that left-brained talk. In one of her recent articles for The New York Times, Kara Swisher asked “Who Will Teach Silicon Valley To Be Ethical?” Who will teach those smart, intelligent people to also be kinder and gentler? Who will teach them to consider the ethics of their choices and actions? “Move fast and break things” is a good motto for a company until it breaks down communities and the human spirit, puts neighbor against neighbor, friend and family against one another.
It’s unfortunate, somewhat, that only after his death are we all talking about and remembering President Bush’s character and legacy. For all of us who care about children and the kind of adults they will grow up to be, let’s double down on those two words – kinder, gentler – today and not just raise smart jerks.