Clan, Tribe, Band, Community

By Todd R. Nelson

I got married wearing a kilt. It was made in the Gunn tartan: green, blue, black and a blood red pinstripe. Gunn may not sound too Scottish, because the Nelsons apparently descended from Norse people, perhaps Viking invaders many eons ago. I am also a member of a clan of a different ilk, the nationwide progressive schools community. I descend directly from the influence of John Dewey, Whitehead, Francis Parker. And the Nelson band of Lesley and Todd and their three kids has lived in urban, suburban, and rural environments, including small towns that depend on volunteers to put out fires, staff the ambulance corps, and grant precious harbor moorings in a small Maine harbor.  I changed schools this summer and am now hoping to be inducted into the Ridley Creek Tribe of Rose Valley learners, which may be where all of my affiliations intersect: kilt, progressive classroom, mooring, and bamboo forts or May fair dances.

I do have a point: Imagine the number of clans, tribes, and bands comprising any school community—including the ingenious interpretations of this concept that each child might arrive at. The block corner clan; the dress-up corner band; the tribe of button sorters in the kindergarten; the adult learning community. There are subtle shades of meaning to each kind of human collective.

Which is to say that we all blend in intentional and unintentional, chosen, inherited or happenstance communities, clans, tribes, and bands. We are each a product of the unique warp and weft of location, values, and history. Each of us comes from near and far in time and distance. Within five generations on just one side of my clan, I descend from a farmer, a carpenter, a journalist, a tool and die maker, and an accountant.  My kids will have to add an educator to their list. I can’t wait to see what their kids add.

I’ve come to feel that community is, in fact, always intentional. It is the choice we make to join together, share habitation in a particular place and time, or congregate along an intellectual or artistic vein of experience. If the world is now flat (Thomas Friedman), then a certain sense of community can reach farther, faster than ever before—if that is our intent.

And yet… does the sense of “online community” have the same satisfying texture as throwing our voices over the backyard fence, shoveling driveways, or fighting fires together? Authentic communities share a stake in a particular place.  Without some core allegiance or devotion we’re left with mere occupancy, or land use without stewardship. Wendell Berry, the Kentucky poet, locates healthy childhood in such a core: “If we were lucky enough as children to be surrounded by grown-ups who loved us, then our sense of wholeness is not just the sense of completeness-in-ourselves, but is the sense also of belonging to others and to our place; it is an unconscious awareness of community, of having-in-common.” We are moored in such having-in-common, and it is something to be cherished and amplified. The world needs more of it!

Contemporary lives may not exactly intersect in the same commonalities as in former times—think: farming communities in which everyone depends on the quality of local soil, and one family’s barn gets raised through communal effort—but schools provide us with perhaps the last vestige of just such a community and calendar. A chance conversation with a parent reminded me of this. “I love May Fair,” he was saying, exiting a classroom last spring, in full preparation for the next day’s dances and games. “There’s nothing like it.” We spoke of the celebration as a throwback.

Indeed. What other institution in society still functions on an agrarian cycle, has profound rituals and rites of passage that celebrate seasons, planting and reaping times, where the whole community gathers to celebrate itself, as itself? It’s not something that lends itself to on-line community. There’s simply no other way to have the texture and grace of the May pole dance. It is an heirloom rhythm and celebration, to be sure, but consider how much it is still something for which people hunger. Which means school communities like ours have something important to say to the future as well—to our clan, tribe, band, or community as it will exist downstream from our time.[1]

[1] “Clan, Tribe, Band, Community,” Teachers.net, October, 2010.

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