Collateral Beauty

May 2, 2019

Dear Families,

A few weekends ago, I found myself alone in the house for the first time in years, literally. Saturday morning, I decided that I would rewatch Collateral Beauty starring Will Smith. I don’t know about you, but I have a few movies that I rewatch every so often because they challenge my thinking and push me to reflection.

I started to watch it on several different occasions but found myself paralyzed to actually push play. After watching it, I realized that I avoided it because of Lisa’s passing 3 months ago. I didn’t want to cry. I also realized that I actually NEEDED to rewatch it. The opening scene shows Smith speaking to a room full of ad executives. He asks them, “What is your why?” I engaged immediately.

In my experience, asking why provides wisdom and discernment not attainable through the questions of what or how. I find myself regularly reflecting on this question. But I realized with this viewing, I hadn’t really checked myself with the question of why in a while. I find this problematic. When I face decisions that impact the staff or students, I wrestle with the why.  When students struggle to make right choices, I seek to know why. As I listened to Smith’s character inspire his colleagues with his speech, I found myself contemplating the question yet again.

Once an English teacher, always an English teacher. As the movie progressed, I found myself examining the “collateral beauty” of school. Day in and day out, students face a myriad of obstacles. They navigate heartbreak, academic challenges, peer pressure, and a host of other challenges. How many times have we, as adults, said with emphatic passion that no one could pay us to go back to middle school? How often have we said, “Things are so much different than when I was a kid in school.”?

Stop and think, really think, about your school experience. If I had to choose to go back to my years on the elementary playground or face the challenges of today’s youth, I would return to 1978 and let Michael Luna push me in the puddle no questions asked. If I had to choose to return to my middle school experience or to grow up as a teenager today, I would choose to go back to my experience in a heart beat.

Our students face things today that 20 years ago would have been unimaginable. Our middle school students navigate the adult world of social media without the benefit of a completely formed frontal lobe. Gone are the days when passing notes in your pen cap caused the greatest controversy in class. (Not that I would know anything about that method of delivery.) Each and every day, teachers juggle the balance of imparting academic knowledge and navigating the distractions of society. Students today, as my son would say, are the real MVPs.

There are days I question how on earth we can expect students to implement the Quadratic Equation or to argue the value of capitalism in a Socratic discussion. I question because I know the internal battles they face. Social media suffocates them. Screen time consumes them. The need to know who is doing what? when? and with whom? controls every waking minute. This battle creeps its way into younger and younger grades each and every year.

As the movie concluded, I drew a connection. I realized that the collateral beauty of school rests in the success that students find when they battle and win. They battle to think critically and to learn the importance of balancing equations. They practice their math facts with dedication and commitment. They work to support their claims with solid data. They work to make connections in their small group reading time.

But they also battle to become honorable leaders despite the pressures they face. They navigate conflict on the playground and try to view things from their peers’ point of view. They struggle with making the right choice about a post or SnapChat. They battle to find themselves. They battle to develop strong character. This is their collateral beauty. In their collateral beauty lies the why of my love for my students. I love that despite a broken world, my students respond to redirection. They take ownership of their mistakes. They desire to do better. I see their hearts.

They sometimes lose their battles. Sometimes, playground conflict needs adult support to find resolution. Sometimes, middle schoolers need help to navigate their struggles with friends. But I’m thankful they choose to battle. I celebrate it. For in their battle, they grow. I believe that we look into the eyes of our future leaders when we look into the eyes of every child at SkyView Academy. The challenges they face build their collateral beauty.

Honored to Serve You All,

Janet Worley