I had an interesting conversation with a colleague while I flipped burgers on a gigantic BBQ grill. She was telling me about her daughter who lost a friend recently, so a group of friends had gathered at a local watering hole in to remember him. My colleague said something that resonated and inspired this post. She noted that, for her daughter, the simple act of coming together to remember a friend was most important - more important than attending funeral or memorial service.
When I was in my early twenties, I lost one of my best friends. He died suddenly in an automobile accident. It took me and my group of twenty-something friends completely by surprise. What I remember most about dealing with his death was coming together with those friends, school chums, and teammates. We attended the prayer service, then we came together at an Earl's restaurant to eat and remember. At the funeral, we sat with our families and acquaintances. Afterward, though, we came together at a local pub, this time to drink and remember. As the night wore on and we moved from pub to home to club, we remained together. It was a hard time, but we worked through our numbness and disbelief together.
Coming together is incredibly important in the work that I do. Recently, I had the good fortune to speak at another school about our school's experiences with improving student writing. More than anything, I was proud to emphasize how everybody "bought in" to what we were doing. The school I work at has an amazing staff. Time and time again, they come together to make incredible things happen. From school improvement projects to June clean up to staff learning days to retirement celebrations to special events, everyone in the building comes together. As a group, our staff understands that it is impossible to accomplish anything on your own. It is so nice to be a part of our "come together" culture.
Recently, we held our family barbeque and movie night. It is my favorite night of the school year (Student-Led Conferences are a close second). As I write this, I can't see clearly through my glasses because they are covered in burger grease. My eyes are very sore from 2 hours of non-stop grilling. I smell like a Big Mac wrapper and the dog won't quit licking my pants. Make no mistake - the Family BBQ is not without drama. People invariably have to stand in line for burgers, kids regularly overindulge in the infamous McDonald's "Orange Beverage", and I spend the first 3 hours of the event in a state of constant worry and thought. Hmmm....how could this possibly be my favorite night?
This night brings people together in a very special way. A very diverse group of people appear. Parents, grandparents, siblings, friends and neighbors attend for a free burger or hot dog. Each family brings (or should bring) a dessert or salad. Some are homemade and delicious, some are bought at 7-11 on the way to the school. People from across the street come over to see what is going on. Tonight, a fellow stopped by and wanted to sell a box of CD's and cassette tapes to us for $10. One of my BBQ partners had him talked down to $3 and a free burger, but somehow the deal fell through. There is a colorful character who lives around the corner from the school. He runs a skate sharpening business and has a pet parrot. Tonight, he showed up on his bike and brought the parrot. On his shoulder. To a school yard full of inquisitive children. How's that for a recipe for disaster? The addition of the colorful characters and people who wouldn't arrive at the school unless there was free food makes this night extra special. I just love it! It is a success because our staff comes together with our school council, the families in the school, and the community. We truly work together to make a great event.
Last year, we added a great twist to the family BBQ night. We hire Fresh Air Cinema to hold a "walk-in" outdoor movie event. And this twist adds a"if you build it, they will come" element to our family BBQ. It is amazing to watch people filter in. The screen starts going up as people first arrive with their pot luck item and lawn chairs. Many people choose to sit and watch the set up. This year's film crew was composed of two of my former students. They got to know my oldest son, who is fascinated by engineering and electronics, quite well by the end of the night. To their credit, they put a lid on his simmering pot of questions. Even better, they made a point of telling me what an interesting child he is. Indeed...
From the end of the BBQ to the beginning of the movie, there is nearly two hours of time to fill in. Many families come, set up their chairs and head home until shortly before the show. Many families, however, choose to stay for the entire time. It is amazing to watch how people come together for these events. There is music, dancing, soccer games, frisbee throwing, chasing, tag, hanging out and playing on the playground. During this time, nothing is organized, it just happens. It really is amazing to watch because our staff bring their families. Our families bring their families. Odd characters and members of the community arrive. Tonight, a group of sketchy looking teens came to smoke, but they stayed out of everyone's way and I decided that if these "tough" kids wanted to watch G-Force on a gigantic outdoor movie screen, they were welcome to do so.
It is incredible to see how people "come together" on a night like this - it reminds me of the community picnics, gymkhanas, and rodeos I attended at the local community hall as a boy. It has elements of family reunion, outdoor festival and circus sideshow. At the end of the evening, though, I can only look back and smile. I think of the the work our school staff puts into setting up, ordering food, preparing salad, setting tables, washing dishes, mopping floors. I think of my companions at the barbeque - wiping grease off their glasses and taking mild abuse about the long lineup for a burger. I think of the wide range of families who arrive - some for a free meal, some for a free night out, some because their children don't want to miss a single school event, but most for a genuine chance to be together with our school community. It's magical, and I wish our society did more things like this.