A Cry of Hope, Serenity, and Sadness

In 2000, American Elegy was performed for the first time in commemoration of the victims and survivors of the massacre at Columbine High School. In the thirteen years since composer Frank Ticheli was first commissioned to write the piece, it has been performed in commemoration of too many other disasters. It has also become a popular piece for high school wind ensembles and concert bands around the nation.


Ticheli, a USC professor, describes the piece as having come to him first in a dream and then coming rapidly together – more rapidly than any piece he had ever written. In accepting the commission, he accepted the calling to lead a grief stricken school, community, and nation forward. In his own words, his hope is that American Elegy “reminds each listener of our human frailty and our intimate connections with one another.” 


For the last six months, a collaborative project involving the students, teachers, administrators, parents, and community members of a public high school in Seattle, WA has been exploring the intimate connections between business, community, and education. Working together, Dr. Dan Kaufman, Leslie Bennett, and I modified much of what we teach in the Tribal Leadership Intensive and other CultureSync Academy programs. We stripped it down, customized it, and reshaped it for this group.


This past week, a group of thirty teachers, students, community members, family members, and administrators of the school gathered together for the third of three day-long sessions that are part of the project. As facilitators, Leslie, Dan, and I shepherded a conversation in which the leadership of the participants’ emerged time after time and moment by moment.


Community members presented the statistics they’d spent months reviewing and led us together in considering the data from many perspectives. Parents and teachers presented what they’d learned in a gathering with parents and grandparents of struggling students as they explored what resources are necessary to support their children. Students presented a video on their experiences of the high school – the good, the bad, and the uncertain.


Most of the day was spent in discussion: the characteristics of the school today, the vision of an invented future of “Positive Outcomes for All Students.”  We used play to get quickly to the core of each conversation and spent (never enough) time looking at each question from many different points of view.


Throughout the day, participants made statements that shattered through any naïveté of what we were doing together. “You can’t learn if you come to school angry every day.” Male students “bring weapons to school, because they are afraid.” “Some teachers just don’t seem to care.” “Sometimes there are students we just can’t help.” So many heartbreaking messages, and yet gathered together there was hope in our interactions.


By the end of the day, the principal had collected promising ideas for improvements from all participants – some ideas that could be instantly applied, some much larger that would take time and greater involvement from the participants present and the teachers, administrators, parents, and students not in attendance. There are many next steps.


Several days later, I sat in a different high school auditorium half a continent away and listened to the school’s Wind Ensemble perform American Elegy. As it came to its completion, a single trumpeter played off stage behind a closed door. A voice from beyond, it called to every person present. It spoke of hope for the future, of the great sadness of too many losses, and the serenity that comes in holding those we love in an ever broadening circle.


It reminded me of our project in Seattle. While our group worked together on its project, the normal day continued at the high school. The vision, the participants, and the new ideas gathered together was that trumpet playing off stage.


It calls to us all.

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