An Open Letter to the Highland Community 6.5.20

Dear Highland Community, 


A few years ago, for a number of reasons, I added a quote to the bottom of my email signature. It was a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He wrote, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." Those words have been haunting me for the past few days as I wrestled with what to say and how to say it about our current landscape as Americans who are divided. What is going on in the world, this increased awareness of how we interact with one another and how very much is at stake, is taking up a lot of space in my head and in my heart. I did a little sleuthing today and found out more context for that quote from Dr. King. He said, during a much longer speech in 1965, "A man dies when he refuses to stand up for what is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true." 


In that spirit of being alive and communicating hard things during hard times, here's what I believe: 


- I believe school should be a safe place for our kids’ emotions and bodies. It's times like this that I am more eager than ever for us to be back together in a "normal" way so we can continue to work to build a community where we live out the Highland Way of being RESPONSIBLE learners who show RESPECT to everyone and who are SAFE with our words and bodies. You can’t learn when you feel afraid, and you can’t learn when you don’t feel a sense of it being Okay for you to be you. 


- I believe our community in Lake Stevens should be a safe place. Everyone here should be free to be who they are without fear of being injured, ridiculed, intimidated or belittled. People who look, act and believe differently should feel safe to do so in a community dynamic enough to let love be stronger than fear and respect be stronger than the need to be right.


- I believe that how we talk to one another matters - in person and online. With people we know and people we don't know. For the sake of our precious children who are aware of every single word of it. Everything muttered under our breath, every sideways glance, every "joke" we tell, every response we have to seeing someone mistreated… it all matters, and it’s all seen by the children in our care. As the old saying goes, “What we permit, we teach.” 


- I believe that things get better when we talk about them. If we feel some guilt or shame about our role in the community, some confusion about our intent being misunderstood, some sense of being unsure about how to interact or what to say, we need to walk through those emotions, let them be real but not get stuck there. We need to ask hard questions of the people in our lives who look different from us. I believe we WILL experience discomfort as we think through and talk about how our experiences overlap. The discomfort we may feel is worth every second if it moves us forward. 


- I believe we experience this world differently. I am a male. I am white. I practice a dominant religion. English is my native language. I do not have a disability. I do not worry about where my next meal or my next tank of gas is going to come from. I do not fear eviction. I don’t worry about being denied housing or a job for which I am qualified based on my last name or the color of my skin. These are all things that create a lens for how I view the world and how others view me. I do not fear for my life based on what I look like. No one has ever locked their car door as I approached. I do not have to worry about my son going out into the world. I don't have to worry about the safety of my brothers, my nephews, my dad as they drive home from work or walk home from practice. These are burdens I don’t have to bear. I will never understand what it is like to walk in the shoes of someone who can have a door closed to them simply for them being who they are. 


- I believe that racism is not an antiquated far off history of where people sit on buses, and bombs thrown at little girls in churches and men in hooded robes. I’ve come learn, over several hard years, that racism is the system that was set up intentionally over time to benefit some and deny others. I did not set these systems up, but I have participated in them and benefited from them in an institutional way simply by how and where I was born and into this white skin. I own that and I grieve that. It’s what makes me feel even more responsibility to lead well within our American public school system, which also has a history of not creating the same open doors for all. 


- I believe there is some beautiful, real commonality to our experience as human beings. We get to know the joy of helping raise babies in our “village,” we have to deal with the death of those we love, we have to struggle with the why’s of cancer diagnoses and the betrayal of those we had let in close. We get to feel the thrill of loving someone and having them love us back, just as we are. It can’t be lost in all of this Hard that there is also common Life and common Beauty and common Struggle. 


- I believe there are people in our community who have experiences vastly different than mine, and I would do well to listen to them. To listen first, to listen deeply, to listen with my heart open enough to see my potential part in their pain and my potential part in their path forward. I believe that how we handle it if a student uses a racial or homophobic slur at Highland matters. It’s a chance to change what feels okay to utter, though education and empathy and clear consequences and boundaries. 


- I believe that every single day as an elementary school teacher and principal has given me palpable hope that we can do better than this. Better than violence. Better than bigotry. Better than fearmongering. Children are so much more open to the “other” and can show us the way of joyful acceptance of differences. Let’s watch and learn from them as they play and learn within a little microcosm of society in our classrooms and playgrounds and lunch tables. Do they always get it right? No, but more often than not, they find a way. 


- I believe we need to stay…during times like these. We have a long history of dividing up into our camps of Rightness and Us-ness vs. Them-ness. I challenge everyone in the Highland community - every student, every parent, every staff member to stay open enough to hear someone else’s perspective. To listen to the heart behind it and the hurt behind it. And to not deny it or sugarcoat it. I also believe that people do things that look ugly and scary when they are afraid. It’s a lot easier to hate someone who you don’t know, to mistreat people with whom you have no experience. There are people in our community who do and say things that I don’t condone and don’t understand but my vulnerable heart needs to be open to why it might be that they think and act the way they do. If I put ANY group of people in a category of Them and dismiss their perspective, then I am not doing or being my best. 


- I believe this current moment will not permanently change how we interact in America, as much as I wish it would. So I invite you three months, six months, three years from now to continue to stay open to thinking about how our experiences overlap and how we treat one another. I invite you on some random Tuesday when your child comes home asking questions about why a student said that hurtful thing to them, or why their friend called that girl that name, to reach out on that day and help us build the kind of community where everyone is safe and respected. No. Matter. What.


As adults in the lives of children let’s model interacting in a way that allows everyone to maintain their dignity. Let’s model acceptance. Let’s model finding some common ground. Let’s model speaking to and about one another in a way that we’d feel comfortable showing up on KING-5 or livestreamed on Facebook or broadcast on the intercom at Highland or played back for your favorite auntie during your next family meal.  


I see strong hope even now, ESPECIALLY now, that we can continue to build a healthy community for kids to thrive here at Highland. I am humbled to be your leader during these hard times that continue to get harder. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to share your perspective, to share how we can help you, or to share about your own hope that comes from these precious Highland Hornets who take up space in our homes, in our classrooms and in our hearts. 


All my best, 

Mr. H


Ryan Henderson

Principal | Highland Elementary

360.618.2284 mobile/text