Infinite Circle

As we have built our schools, I have been guided by, anchored in an image of peacemaking from Bernie’s book, Instructions to the Cook, seeing Healing Our Selves and Others, — Bernie later called this, the Third Tenet, Loving Action, I now would call in Peacemaking,  — as “bringing to the societal table those who have been excluded.”

This image was foundational for the mission of our schools, to create a place at the college prep table for students who had been excluded, those living with diagnoses of mental illnesses, with emotional challenges, students whose differences led backs to turn, and doors to slam on them.

Although things are changing on Staten Island and the racial divides between neighborhoods have begun to blur in the last 15 years, in our earliest days, most students of color lived on the North Shore. The South Shore was pretty much all white. 

We located our schools mid-island in order to be accessible to all students living with emotional challenges and other disabilities. Mental illnesses, after all, were said to not discriminate on the basis of race.

Years later, we know that this is not so true.

Environmental factors linked to poverty (which is highly associated with race) are a major contributive factor in illnesses of all kinds. And the impact of illness, including the likelihood of recovery, is significantly associated with economic status.

Not surprisingly, most of our students are poor, most are Black and Latino. Those who are not, are mostly immigrants or children of immigrants.

We have learned who needs our schools.

We are serving kids who face multiple challenges, — poverty, racial and ethnic discrimination, disability. Our mission remains in Bernie’s words “to bring to the societal table those who have been excluded.”[1]

Now, Bernie’s idea of the Infinite Circle is challenging my internal imagery.

In the beginning, I wanted to take students who been shunned because they were different and put them on a pathway that takes them to Harvard and other elite colleges. (So far none of our graduates have gotten to the Ivy League). In designing the curriculum for our first school, Lavelle Prep, I even researched the Harvard admission criteria. Our initial design insured that all students would take the courses, including the four years of a foreign language, which Harvard preferred.

I had had the good fortune of elite education. Although my grades in high school left me far short of Harvard or Swarthmore (I did actually apply to and get rejected by Swarthmore), I found my way to Carleton College in tiny Northfield, Minnesota.

At the time, the “Harvard of the Midwest”, so-called because of its common Congregational heritage, was looking to build a national student body. It was a moment when some of us from coastal states could get in despite our “B” averages if we were willing to travel that far. When I boarded the plane to Minneapolis, it was my first time flying. I am sure that the quality of my undergraduate education had made a significant difference in my success in social work and mental health.

I wanted to offer a pathway to elite education for those who were being excluded from the societal table. I wanted to bring them into the “inner circle”.

Now, Bernie is leading me in a different direction. The goal may not be to integrate the inner circle but to enlarge the circle until no one is excluded.

In our initial design, Lavelle Prep was a high school. We were warned off by friends at the Columbia University Center for Children’s Mental Health. “Start with 6th grade,” they advised. “If you start with 9th grade, your risk of failure is too great. These kids are too far behind. Your chances of success will be so much great if you start earlier.”

And they added, “We can’t afford for you to fail. If you fail, the movement for integration of students with mental illness will be set back decades.”

This seemed good advice. We modified our charter design.

Our friends in the Charter School Office of the NYC Department of Education advised, “Start with kindergarten. Your chances of success will be much greater.”

This, too, was good advice.

New York State charter schools are evaluated largely on the basis of student performance on high-stakes State exams in math and English language arts.

This advice, we didn’t take.

Our local elementary schools were not, we thought, doing such a bad job with atypical students. Our local middle schools were the big problem. They were the schools that our parents dreaded. Middle school was the moment, in the midst of the hormonal storm of adolescent-onset, that the stigmatization of atypical students was most damaging.

We would begin there.

The advice we received turned out to be sound.

Our middle school students lagged behind their peers on statewide tests.

Nevertheless, Lavelle Prep received its first full-term renewal. Perhaps we were lucky. At that time, the charter movement in New York State and nationally was under attack for dramatically underserving special needs students. Lavelle Prep was the “poster child” answer. We were serving special needs students at double the district rate.

By the time that Lavelle Prep came up for its second renewal, middle school scores continued to lag behind the state average, but again, we got a full-term renewal. By that time, our students were graduating from high school. High school graduation rates were hovering around 100%. Our graduates were going on to college. That was sufficient proof that our design was working.

Now, in a more anti-charter climate in New York State, our lagging middle school scores are a threat, despite the continued superb high school graduation rate.

And we are facing a similar challenge in our elementary division. Lavelle Prep expanded to include elementary grades in 2017. We opened the elementary division with grades 3 to 5. Statewide testing begins in 3rd grade.

At every level, we get students who tend to be lagging. Parents choose charters because they are dissatisfied with district schools. Most of the time they are dissatisfied because their children are failing to thrive academically. Their kids are falling behind. Beginning from 3rd grade, students have no time to catch up before State testing kicks in.

It is only in 2020 that Lavelle Prep admitted its first students in kindergarten, first and second grades.

We now know that we are working with students who are facing multiple challenges. Going on to college itself is a victory. I am learning to see the limits of my original vision. From the aspiration that our students go on to elite colleges and universities, I now am growing increasingly uncomfortable with a mission to integrate a tiny inner circle. Why not “great public colleges and universities for all.”

There are great jobs in the building trades industry, good-paying jobs. Should we be preparing students for those jobs? Are building trade jobs an alternative to college? I still worry about tracking our atypical students away from the inner circle or perpetuating patterns of exclusion. Should we be creating a building trades college?

I am pushing at the circle.

I am noticing again the affinity between our Zen practice and the Tibetan Buddhist teaching of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Maezumi Roshi and Trungpa were very close. Bernie hired senior students of Trungpa for key positions at The Greyston Foundation. (I was irked by this at the time. Aside from Jishu, why weren’t any Zen students in leadership roles? My green monster).

Bernie told a wonderful story about Maezumi and Trungpa traveling by car through the Colorado Rockies at night. They had been drinking and they stopped to pee at the side of the road. Standing side by side, as they were peeing off into the darkness of the roadside ravine, Trungpa commented, “The streams of our practice have finally merged.”

When Bernie thought of doing a Buddhist Bowery Mission, he wanted Pema Chodron, the best known of Trungpa’s students, to direct the mission.

I love Pema’s books. I have always been intrigued by the Metta teaching of loving-kindness. We cannot begin, she teaches, by loving our enemies. That is an advanced practice. We have to begin by loving ourselves, very hard practice for most of us who come to Zen to fix all that’s wrong with ourselves and our lives.

Only when we are able to treat ourselves with loving-kindness can we begin to expand our circle of love to include those who are closest to us and then expanding slowly from our most intimate circle to include friends and acquaintances and then all the people about whom we feel neutral before we can begin to include those who we dislike and those we hate. (For some of us, it is hard to even acknowledge hatred).

Bernie’s Infinite Circle captures the ultimate aspiration, ultimately to embrace everyone and everything, all creations throughout space and time.

This is not the meaning for me of the third Bodhisattva precept: Reality is boundless, I vow to perceive it. “Perceive” no longer feels like quite the right word. Reality is boundless, I vow to embrace it.

“Why open more schools?” I am often asked.

“Because there are more students who are being excluded from the societal table.”

This is a central element of my practice, of my vows: To continue to push the circle outward toward infinity. Like all Bodhisattva Vows, impossible to fulfill if you think of the Vow as pointing to a destination. But it is not a destination; it is a journey. Reality is boundless, I vow to embrace it. Day-to-day. Moment by moment. A wonderful practice, which moment by moment brings me face-to-face with Otherness.

If I face Otherness honestly, openly, I am aware of the boundaries I am creating, the circle I am drawing in my mind. The Otherness is in my eyes, in my perceiving, in my conditioning. Working on the boundaries as my boundaries are working on my Self, is letting go of my Self, is becoming one with the myriad things.

[1] This is the language of my mission. The official language of the schools is less esoteric. For example, “To overcome obstacles and fulfill the college promise.”