They courageously took their masks off, one by one, breathing in the fresh, clean air of an early Spring day. It had been months in the making, this sojourn of artists to a neighboring museum, an appropriate stage for the products of a two year journey.
The relief was palpable. They sipped bubbly water, taking in the people crossing the street at the nearby cafe, trying to live out ordinary lives in an extraordinary time. But nothing was ordinary, as this age of uncertainty and stress draped over the annual ritual of hope and commencement like a resilient strain.
The painstakingly planned exhibition reflected more than ever a similarly painful journey of people whose stories had become as significant as the ceramics, sketches, photography, and textiles. Their humanity transcended criteria in a time of crushing challenges.
Lupus in Fabula, an Italian expression, literally meaning ‘the wolf in the fairy tale which is, as we know, the heart of nearly every children’s fable. The expression came from author Bruce Feiler who quoted it in a book I’m reading called “Life is in the Transitions.”
It seemed like an apt metaphor for the circumstances under which these people produced their art.
Several years ago, I invited an expert on data from the National University of Singapore to visit and help me realign my definition of success in school and how I measured it. I was failing miserably in the usual indicators of “success” under which every Principal’s head was lain, pouring my energies into the success of others rather than my own survival in a survival of the fittest culture. My neck was on the line and I needed a win, however small.
She sat down in my office as I closed the door, gently sipping from the tea I had served her, and smiled, waiting for my response to her question. “Well, what is it? You must be doing something well?”
I felt a small lump in my throat. No one had asked me that question in three years at the school.
I told her about the dramatic gains we had achieved with students that came to us with learning and emotional support needs, the improvement in English for the newcomers, the sense of belonging students felt thanks to our advisory program, the discoveries students had made about talents they didn’t know they had in spite of their parents pre-determined wishes for them.
You know, the things we never measured.
She laughed and yelled, “THEN START MEASURING THEM!”
Seven years later, I contacted her to check in and shared the artist story, how they painfully, emotionally, started opening up, exchanging not tales of relief and accomplishment per the norm, but of being judged, rejected, and unhappy. They actually wanted to stay, to remain in the cocoon. It was incredulous, not the usual ‘can’t wait to leave this popsicle stand in the rearview’ I’d come to expect.
The one whose parents were disappointed that he wasn’t taking the path that had been chosen for him but had accepted him for his newfound happiness.
The one whose family lived faraway and couldn’t share in the journey.
The newcomer who had to fulfill dreams at any cost.
The one afraid to leave the house due to a dreaded virus.
The one who overachieved to prove it could be done.
They told their stories and talked about their fears. Their real, deep seated fears that, when looking back, were evident in their art as a connection to the person, not some loosely defined object designed to please an examiner. They spoke not of achievement but in symbolic terms of the wolves that had attacked their fairy tales.
“So what are you going to do with that?” the professor asked. “Can you measure this?”
“I have no idea,” I said. The self assessment of the students, focusing on their humanity, not their achievement, caught me by surprise. I thought they would have reverted back to the old I hope this uni accepts me, and I hope I can go to so and so to live in London and I really hate chemistry but I need at least a four to get in.
But they didn’t. They just talked in a very accepting way, a very courageous, honest way about what had gotten them to this point, for better or worse with circumstances they couldn’t control.
She paused on the phone.
“It’s the great accelerator,” she said. “I don’t know if you can measure this one.”
“How do you mean?”
“It’s taken away that moment, that glimmer in the eye when they think anything is possible because in this moment of history they have been forced to realize that maybe it is not. That’s usually an epiphany that hits you in your thirtees.”
We both laughed. Yes, the normal metrics for success had gone out the window. Even the IB has lost the plot on how to measure success, I smiled.
I thought about all the things I poured my life energy into (coaching stressed out department heads, negotiating learning challenges with families, unravelling conflict, attending open ended meetings that unveiled enormous problems with few answers). All of the illusions of control cast into the spotlight by a situation that no one could control.
“So how do you bottle that?” she asked. “How do you take that moment with those people together, sharing that journey in spite of the obstacles and making something of it?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “All I can think of is telling them to stay in touch with each other and to have a chance to share their story.”
“Gratitude,” she said. “Measure that and you’ve found your metric.”