My friend Kathryn recently asked me to write a forward to her newest book on the importance of place and belonging in schools. Using vignettes culled from decades of trying to understand the experience of children who don’t feel as if they belong in school, she stitches together a story about what adults can do to change that. As I thought about children and belonging in school, I could not help but connect their experiences—good and bad—with my own.
–image courtesy of K.A. Riley
Kathryn does not define belonging, but her descriptions suggest that young people have a fundamental need to feel that they are in a psychologically safe space. The drawing above, one of the most evocative in book, makes clear the devastating effects that feeling excluded have on identity. Joe Murphy has said for years that the first goal of any school must be to weave an invisible cord between a caring adult and each student, so that if the child begins to be pulled away, the adult will know and figure out how to draw them back in. In other words, personal connectedness is key to safety and belonging.
Woven throughout Kathryn’s book is an imperative: Educators must be attentive to the experiences that each young person brings with them because children, like adults, need to be known and understood to feel that they belong. A child who recently immigrated from a war-torn country may gratefully acknowledge that physical safety is fundamental to his feeling of belonging in school, while another whose family experiences routinized racism will need a different form of care to feel safe.
But there is another message, also reflected in Tupac Shakur’s evocative poem, A Rose that Grew from Concrete: The communities in which young people live deserve the same compassion and understanding. And belonging can be inseparable from physical place – a sense of being rooted that goes beyond positive relationships and comfort inside a particular school building. Shakur’s poem is a metaphor for finding resilience in community, and for more attention to all places as a source of individual identity that support social and emotional development.
While contemplating the stories of young people that Kathryn collected, I could not help but think about how belonging also colors my life – and how questions about “where I belong” have come up in so many post-COVID conversations with others. Dan looked up the other day and said, out of the blue, “we skated through COVID” – no one that we know even got very ill. But we were in Boulder for a warmer winter close to family when the world shut down and we stayed. We felt safer and more connected because we were in a “pod” with a daughter, son-in-law, and grandchild, which meant that we were not alone. We had zoom connections with groups that we were already part of, so we felt engaged – even surrounded — by others. Of course, we missed hugs, but we were ok and as safe as anyone could be during a global pandemic.
By the time that the 2020 election heated up, however, we had to acknowledge that the passage of time meant that we had effectively moved from Minneapolis, without really planning to do so. We registered to vote in Colorado.
I keep thinking about my reaction to Brian Friel’s Home Place, which I saw 14 years ago at the Guthrie Theater. While the play is ostensibly about racism and class as English rule begins to erode in Ireland in the late 19th century, the dominant narrative is not what stuck. Instead – then and now — It was that the English owner of The Lodge at Ballyweg kept referring to his real home as a place in Suffolk– where he had not lived for decades. In other words, where you live is not always where you feel that you belong.
And although Dan and I are reasonably content, we were uprooted from Minneapolis but are not rooted where we are. This feels like a big deal because we are getting older, and like the plants in our garden, we need water, sun, and time to thrive in a place – and we know that this is probably our final chance to find a home.
The last time I made a major move, from Boston to Minneapolis, I was just over 40. I had always belonged to groups that were tied to place and space – in Boston, I floated between different jobs but I “belonged” with a close-knit “moms of young children club” and a sister close-by in a house that I loved. I felt understood and rooted. When I first landed at the University of Minnesota, I immediately decided that my itchy desires to try new things could be easily satisfied there – in other words, I found a professional home place. But I changed houses, churches, book groups, and preferred grocery stores on a regular basis. Now I have not been in Minneapolis for 18 months, during the trauma of COVID and the murder of George Floyd — and am retiring. I don’t feel that I belong in a city where I lived for over 30 years – I miss the close friends whose lives have enriched mine over the years, but it feels as if the city and I have both changed. Although Colorado is where I live, it is still not a home place. Everything from the gorgeous scenery to the strange weather feels slightly foreign. The awe when I look at the Flat Irons each morning (finally, the view that I always wanted) is real, but it still doesn’t fully engage my heart. And, having lived a very circumscribed life during the COVID shutdown, I still have to use Waze to get anywhere but Target.
I am vaguely envious of friends who do have a home place and a sense of roots that connect people and a place to which they always return: the couple who has Thanksgiving (and an extended vacation) with friends in the town where they lived after they first married; the middle-aged children who go “home” to their parents and old friends on a regular basis; others who spent a substantial sum renovating a house that they cannot imagine leaving because most of those they love the most live in the neighborhood. The exquisite feeling of knowing that you belong someplace can be visceral…when it connects all the elements that I saw in Kathryn’s description of young people and belonging.
My friends who have a home place take it for granted and cannot imagine what life would be like without that touchstone. I take for granted the fact that at various times in my life, I have experienced the psychologically safe space and personal connectedness elements of belonging that the children talk about even though I may not have them both today. This leads me to wonder whether there is a rooted element to belonging for some people, but for others belonging is more fluid and situational. In my case, generational wandering and relocation has been the dominant narrative of the Seashore clan ever since my father’s family left their tiny, rocky “home place” in Småland as immigrants to the U.S. in the 1860s. Yet others from my great grandmother’s side, who came from Sweden at the same time, cannot imagine living anywhere but southern Minnesota and attending 4 generational family reunions each year. Are some people simply more likely to need belonging and place, while others are sustained with the availability of safe spaces and satisfying relationships?
Martins own this ragged edge
stitching sky peat water cloud
where land weds salt.
Cobalt ripples draw
The sun joyful
Through a mackerel sky.
I scan the gloss of deep
feel the sea cradle this isle
these crofts this past
— Fiona Scott