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February 1, 2001
Vol. 58
No. 5

If These Walls Could Talk

A school celebrates its community by recognizing the heroes of its past.

The idea was born in a moment of sadness. One of our most beloved teachers, Virginia "Ginny" Kirchner, shared with me that her cancer had reached a point where she could no longer teach with an enthusiasm that belied her 73 years. I thought that we needed to do something to remember this powerful teacher who had given so much to our school.
Shortly after Ginny's death, I had the idea: create a wall of recognition in the school that would display the names of people who had made significant contributions. Public schools in general do not celebrate their histories or recognize the people who have made the schools unique and powerful places. I hoped that our school could capture some of its history and that students could gain a deeper and more human connection with the school.

Creating a Tradition

My first step was to propose to the school board a new annual goal: to establish a tradition of recognition. By including this in our annual goals and by involving the board, I believed not only that the effort would have the importance it deserved, but also that we would follow through on this effort. My own evaluation would be based, in part, on my progress to meet this goal.
With the board's approval, we convened a recognition committee of five teachers, a staff member, and a school board member, all chosen on the basis of seniority. We agreed that constructing a Wall of Recognition would be our focus; we would supplement the wall with smaller plaques placed around the school.
We then solicited nominations from the school and the community by developing this project description:Our purpose is to establish a tradition of recognizing and celebrating the lives of people who have made enduring contributions to Lincoln-Sudbury. This tradition should help students understand and value the lives of people whose commitment has made the school a special place. Those eligible will be faculty, administrators, staff, and school committee members who have provided vision, direction, and contributions to students, faculty, and the life of the school. Nominees must have worked at or served the school for a minimum of six years and have retired from active service for at least two years.
By requiring that nominees be retired from their positions for at least two years, we would not have to consider, and possibly turn down, colleagues who had recently retired. We all, however, were aware of the irony that this criterion precluded choosing the very person who had prompted this new tradition.
  • C. Newton Heath (superintendent, 1957–1964), who guided the creation of Lincoln-Sudbury as a regional high school. "Doc" interviewed every teacher, met with every committee, and knew every student. His confidence and determination created a nurturing atmosphere, and his trust inspired loyalty.
  • Paul Mitchell (history teacher, 1957–1990; department chairman, 1960–1979), who lectured, led, and dazzled his students with the spectacular history of Russia. His course emphasized self-exploration, as students kept journals and even graded themselves.
  • Harriet Rogers (director, drama department, and English teacher, 1965–1978), who created the Lincoln-Sudbury drama program. An Emmy winner, she was no prima donna. Sneaker-clad and chewing gum, she coached hundreds of students in a 13-year string of outstanding productions.
Once we had identified the inductees, the challenge was to make the wall a reality—designing the display, writing the narratives, organizing a formal ceremony, and figuring out how to pay for it all.
A graphic artist designed a large wall display that could accommodate as many as 77 names, as well as individual plaques, all made from vandal-proof acrylic. While the design was in development, we began writing narratives for the plaques. Each committee member researched the lives of one or two individuals by speaking to colleagues who had known them well. This information was synthesized into tightly worded narratives, which we reviewed together. The finished products exceeded our expectations.
We began to understand that this project was far more important than we had first imagined. What we had thought would be routine descriptions of 12 very good people became labors of love, for, in committing to paper what their lives meant to the school, we had unearthed important pieces of the school's history and codified what the school meant to us now. Our archaeological efforts revealed a richness beneath the surface that could only be described as inspiring.
With the narratives completed and the funding settled (a grant from our alumni association, a gift from a parent, and some school funds), we directed our attention to the ceremony itself.

Bringing a Community Together

The response to the event was impressive. All but one of the eight living inductees attended, and family members accepted on behalf of those who were deceased. Their enthusiasm and sense of anticipation were equally matched by the community's response. We had invited the entire school community to the formal ceremony through a local press release, and we extended personal invitations to former colleagues of our inductees, many of whom attended.
Because it was only my fifth year as superintendent and principal at the school, I had not worked with any of our guests. Because I did not share the emotional intensity felt by members of our committee who remembered these people, I was able to observe closely what occurred when the group came together. Teachers, administrators, and school board members, most of whom had not seen one another for many years, greeted one another with warm embraces. This was a distinguished group of retired educators. The youngest was in his mid-60s and the oldest was about 90. The delight on everyone's face was plainly evident, including those of us responsible for the event.
It was an early evening affair. After a reception and dinner served by students, our inductees proceeded by the Wall of Recognition to the library, where more than 100 people waited for them. When we arrived, the library was filling up as student instrumentalists provided beautiful background music.
The ceremony itself was brief. I reviewed our purpose and then introduced each of the inductees. After reading aloud the inscriptions on the plaques, I presented a replica to each recipient. After the ceremony was another reception, followed by the annual spring concert.

Building a Strong School

It is widely accepted that the cultures of schools have a direct bearing on students' learning. Schools that get results are places where adults work hard, focus on improvement, feel good about their work, and believe that they make a difference in the lives of their students. We also know that schools with strong, positive cultures are places where rituals and traditions celebrate innovation and commitment, where an informal network of heroes inspires colleagues, and where a pervasive sense of shared purpose and an ethos of caring and concern exist (Peterson & Deal, 1998; Saphier & King, 1985).
Our school has no Gothic spires, no architectural tributes to its noble past and eternal future. Most colleges and independent schools tell you, in the definitive lines of their stone and brick buildings, that they will shape and define you. Physically, our nondescript patchwork of California-style wings, extended to meet each enrollment wave, says, "I'm here for you; make of it what you can." Like many public schools, Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School struggles to be more than just another faceless public institution and to preserve a distinctive culture that has evolved over many years.
It has been several years since I, too, left Lincoln-Sudbury. Among my lasting memories are visitors reading the testimonials and commenting how unusual it is to see such a display in a public school. Although developing a strong, positive culture in schools often feels like a Sisyphean task, a successful project such as this can energize a school and light the way for other initiatives. I am proud that we began a tradition that will help the school become a more personal place and that will breathe life into our school culture.
What I remember most about that first induction ceremony was the feeling in the library, a palpable sense of community that bound this group of very diverse people to one another and to the school. And I was delighted to learn that Ginny Kirchner assumed her rightful place on the Wall of Recognition at the second induction ceremony three years later.

Peterson, K. D., & Deal, T. E. (1998, September). How leaders influence the culture of schools. Educational Leadership, 56(1), 28–30.

Saphier, J., & King, M. (1985, March). Good seeds grow in strong cultures. Educational Leadership, 42(6), 67–74.

Matthew King has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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