Tracing my Inclination into Peace Studies

/ 3 September 2014

In these months following my commencement it has been necessary for me to figure out where my life could lead me going forward. There are many ways to go about such a thing, but perhaps the deepest is to trace the very turns that have led me to where I am now, who I am now. Turns that, in many ways, were almost spur of the moment decisions at the time, but that now define my very life, both “professionally” and personally (because, in this day and age and for my generation, how separate can those really be?). Read on if you want to explore the path I have taken, much of which will define where I really could take my life moving forward.

At CSB/SJU every freshmen takes First Year Seminar for the entire year. This is the same professor and group of students both semesters. It acts a little like a homeroom, and the professor is your faculty advisor for that year. I was placed in an FYS designated an intercultural FYS taught by one of the Peace Studies professors, Jeff Anderson. The academic advisors place first years in FYS sections largely randomly, but as I’m about to lay out, for more than one reason I don’t think it was wholly random me being placed in Jeff’s FYS. Indeed, that year freshmen Johnnies were asked if we were interested in an experimental all-men FYS section, which’d have been a very different experience. It was in the middle of my freshmen year that I decided to be fully a Peace Studies major, rather than pursue a Computer Science major as had been my plans going in (I had marked Peace Studies as a possible major for me earlier in the initial course freshmen registration forms), as I would then attribute largely to what FYS I was in.

The gravitation towards Peace Studies I have since determined began way earlier than FYS, with my decision, when given the opportunity, to attend Crosswinds Arts and Science Middle School (as it was at the time named) for 6th grade instead of staying at Groveland Park Elementary School for one last year. I still vividly remember being in our kitchen when we got the call that I had been accepted, and equally vividly remember standing in what I’d later know as the Water House science lab during the tour that was my first time ever being in Crosswinds. Throughout my time at Avalon, and even the first chunk of SJU, I at times wondered what’d have happened if I had taken a different path back then. Perhaps I’d have found Avalon anyway (in my years at both schools whole numbers of students were going to Avalon from Crosswinds) and been there for 7-12 grade (Avalon now has 6th grade as well), or perhaps I’d have ended up somewhere wholly different. I now see, though, that it was that decision in the summer of 2003 (and I remember being in my mom’s office at Luther Seminary when we informed Julie Cox, Groveland’s principal at the time, of the decision) that set me on a path to eventually (at the time out of pure curious interest) check Peace Studies in the list of CSB/SJU’s majors I was interested in. But it was not random, indeed far from that it was the culmination of 5 years at Crosswinds, and then 2 years at Avalon, a project-based school. Most of my childhood experiences backed that mouse click that led to Jeff’s FYS, and later me graduating from CSB/SJU with a degree in Peace Studies. So now, for the heart of this post, let me describe pieces of my Crosswinds experiences to further illustrate this life-defining time, and hence also give a solid story of why places like what Crosswinds once was are so important in our global(izing) society.

Across the past few years of organizing to keep Crosswinds (and its then fully sister school Harambee) open many of my gut feelings about the school from when I was a student there became clear as way too accurate for comfort. That first year I was at Crosswinds, 6th grade, was really the only year I was there that the school was what it had been created to be. Throughout my time there, and a little after, it held true to most of its arts focus, and even now has solid elements of that and its core intentional-integration aspect, but lots of the way the school was structured fell apart starting when I was in 7th grade, only to now perhaps begin rebounding.

There are two primary aspects of how the school was organized, that have long since disappeared, to discuss as some of the backbones that helped Crosswinds do what parents and teachers originally formed it to do: three-year looping; and it being organized into houses.

I was part of the final class to have gone through the three-year looping of 6th-8th grade. I remember being at a recognition breakfast at Crosswinds towards the end of 8th grade, standing with my parents and the teacher who was that teacher of mine for three years, Kristin Siskow, with us all realizing what it meant that the three-year looping model was ending with myself and my classmates. A backbone of this wonderful school was getting dismantled and tossed aside before our very eyes. Between the three-year looping and the year-round academic calendar all of us in the school could form strong friendships that reinforced more than just academic goals, even between students and teachers. These friendships, because of the nature of Crosswinds and Harambee being inter-district magnet schools (at the time, St. Paul and 9 surrounding suburban school districts), were across the boundaries of race, ethnicity, and so on. Indeed, us students growing up in this environment barely conceived of the differences that the majority of children our age had no choice but to live in the sadly majority of school environments. Even with the addition of 9th and 10th grade, to allow Crosswinds (now formally named Crosswinds Arts and Science School) to be a school where every student (at the time) went through the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program, the three-year looping could have remained, but it didn’t.

The original houses were Sun, Sol, Earth, and Water. I was in Earth. These housed the homerooms we were a part of for the three-year looping, and we took all of our core classes with fellow housemates taught by teachers in the house. Each house had its own quadrant of the physical school building, and each student in each house had our own workstation in our homeroom area that we could pretty much decorate and use as we pleased. When 9th and 10th grades were added they pushed some of the houses physically together, renamed Water to Pangea and moved it into half of what until then was Earth House, and split what was Water into Water for 9th grade and Aquarius for 10th grade. By the time I left at the end of 10th grade the workstations were pretty completely phased out for incoming students with standard lockers in their place.

These aspects, and many others, were most solidly around when I was in 6th grade. They have disappeared completely by now, but were diminishing for the majority of my time at Crosswinds. It was sad to see what I absolutely loved in my middle school education slowly slip away as I still occupied the building, hardly for my own benefit but because it would not be there for my own brother and the children of future generations. All I truly remember from that first year at Crosswinds is good memories, of lively discussions both in homeroom, at lunch, in the halls, and yes, in actual classes as well. A sense of belonging that simply had yet to manifest itself anywhere else outside of home for me, letting me feel wholly comfortable in the building in a way that I only minimally could realize was as unique as it was. Both the houses and the homeroom structure truly lent itself to students feeling at home at Crosswinds. At least, that is, when I was in 6th grade.

Don’t get me wrong. Crosswinds was a great place throughout not just my tenure there but also my brother’s. But it was not entirely what it’s original intention was, and it was not as good at doing what it was doing as it could have been. Each year that I have been aware of the happenings in Crosswinds, which is in a sense every year since I began going there in 6th grade until a year ago when my brother moved on (though even now I, with my family, are still somewhat loosely involved), things have been stripped back. Not just structural things, but also elements of the arts focus and the support services students can access. The music and theater programs, things students elect to be a part of, stayed more or less great (and award-winning), but the arts requirements were diminished and the curricula structure surrounding it altered from the vision that started the school, from the vision that I lived in 6th grade. As with any place, Crosswinds was never perfect. Take the instruction in the language and math subject areas as one example. But it was a place where the good, the integrated nature and so on, vastly outweighed the bad mores than in any other primary/secondary school environment.

Crosswinds was a place that needs replicating to every human community multiple times over, not disintegrated at the whim of a school board bent by design on destroying it. While we (referring to EMIDFamilies, a group whose origins lie with the ISD 622 pullout from when I was in 10th grade, here) did manage to keep Crosswinds open a year ago, under Perpich leadership that this past year has now been legislatively set in stone, we are now seeing more than ever how only the name was kept alive. Nearly all of what the Crosswinds I attended was doesn’t exist anymore (in many ways only the name and building remain, perhaps less than a handful of staff from my time). The new staff are mostly closed to allowing the students, families, and few staff that remain from before all this, the only remaining emblems of what Crosswinds was and should be, from reviving its spirit. One can argue if we won or lost the battle, but those of us involved along the way are still too weary from the ordeal to step back and make any such decision. The current Crosswinds is much more normal than the school I attended. The Crosswinds I attended is what needs replicating, perhaps starting with replicating it over the current Crosswinds.

As you can see the experiences I had that led into me now having a Peace Studies degree were far from ordinary. But that should not be the case. That they were relatively unique does a disservice to the majority of children. At my 10th grade Moving On ceremony we were told that our job in 11th and 12th grades was to take a small piece of Crosswinds with us and plant it wherever we landed. That same image, here of a dandelion, is what we used as our logo for the recent EMIDFamilies organizing effort. Crosswinds as my classmates and I knew it may be dead, but the spirit doesn’t die with the body. We are all still here, if you’ve been involved ever since (like myself) or if you’ve never looked back after leaving Crosswinds on July 31st, 2008 (for my Crosswinds classmates themselves, that being the last day of our 10th grade school year), and so we have the ability to revive that spirit into something new that benefits everyone if we so choose.

The largest element of the Peace Studies Capstone, as anyone who regularly reads my blog would know, was a Futures Project. I did my project on human rights. Why? It does really interest me, but the final reason honestly was that I was in a human rights class last semester as well so it felt like a slightly easier topic somehow. When first listing potential topics human rights wasn’t what I listed first in my notes back around January 20th. It was second. No, one simple word was first: Education. I incorporated education into my final futures project, but as a parallel tangent to the primary content of the future that I was envisioning. I knew back in Simmons Hall at SJU in January where, during the capstone class I scribbled my early list of possible topics onto one of the first handouts we got for the project, that behind the word “education” lied my cumulative experiences at Crosswinds. So, if subconsciously, I still considered finishing my undergraduate career with a project that hearkened back to the very origins of that path over half a decade earlier.

So why did I choose to do this major project on something else even when my entire life has been defined by an experience I could’ve drawn on? The best answer I can give you is that the question holds its own answer. Precisely because the experiences of Crosswinds are so close to me, defining me so deeply, I didn’t want to even begin to envision (at least for purely academic purposes) a future based on them. I don’t want anything to be a framework for what may well become at least part of what good I work towards in my life. Otherwise there’d eventually come a time when I judge my own life’s work on a 37-page report I wrote in my senior year at SJU. It was safer to avoid what may well be the area at least a portion of my work eventually circles around rather than risk writing a remotely believable future that follows too closely to my very real life.

No one can know ahead of time where their life will lead them at any given point. This set of paragraphs is merely a record of the buildup of the platform from which my life currently leans off of. It serves to tie together much of my past into a coherent story that may or may not provide a view into what I may work towards in my life. Either way it serves to highlight what was important in my past and where that is itself at the moment.