March 22, 2013 | by Aubrie Tossmann

Aubri_Blog_Picture.jpgFocus on What You CAN Do

It is the morning after Spring Fling. I’m sitting at a desk in my apartment looking out the window noticing that it does not at all look like spring. By many accounts, we are still suffering through the snow and waiting for the burst of energy that comes with the budding of flowers and chirping of birds. 

This is a hard time of year when one works in schools. A former director of mine used to call this time the “montage”– the time in movies about students and educators that no one wants to watch because it’s not pretty, so they put in images of leaves falling and snow and everything outside of the classroom. At the end, it is magically spring and everyone has changed for the better. It’s the time when everyone needs a little boost. Spring Fling was that boost for Umoja – 300 people recently turned out to support the everyday tough work that must be done in schools.

Through Umoja, I have been working at Harper High School for the past three school years. By now, I hope you have had the privilege of listening to the well-crafted radio piece about Harper recorded for WBEZ’s This American Life. It’s a two part narrative of the lives of a few individuals in this school, who represent the stories of many, both at Harper and elsewhere in Chicago. There are a lot of moments in that story that people need to hear. And a lot of moments that people (including myself some days) don’t want to hear.

Hearing this piece at one of the most difficult times of year can be defeating. With all of the rhetoric about gun violence on top of the ongoing conversation about teacher performance coupled with the lack of resources for ever-changing student needs, many of us are left with the question, how can we make a difference? Even knowing the impact of the work we’ve done at Harper over the past two and a half years, it’s easy to feel like the challenges are insurmountable. How do you get to the root of the heartache of a young man who shot and killed his own brother? How do you create an environment where a successful student feels accepted and welcomed? How does school leadership push forward when next year’s funding permeates every conversation about planning? It’s really, really hard.

While I’ve learned many things during my time at Harper, my first nugget of Umoja wisdom came in a small classroom in Crane High School, where we met with our leadership group, Phenomenal VOICE. Within my first few hours of knowing this group, I learned their key operating phrase: Focus on what you CAN do, not what you CAN’T. 

In the weeks following the airing of the Harper pieces, I have found myself in moments of chaos and hopelessness repeating this like a mantra or a sacred prayer. Focus on what you CAN do. Focus on what you CAN do.

Focus on what you CAN do.

Even though this feels like a desperate plea sometimes, it actually carries so much power. And even though the “heroes” in stories like Harper’s feel like just that, the lone souls who carry the weight and save the day, we can all do our part to ensure that success belongs to every student, no matter the zip code they’re born into.

Spring Fling is a reminder that as part of the Umoja community, we are all vessels. Vessels carry and vessels fill. We are vessels of relationships, we are vessels of potential, we are vessels of strength, we are vessels of the opportunities that young people deserve. And that is what we can do—whether you work at Umoja or not—we can be vessels with our own talents and resources to work for good, to work for change, to work for opportunity.

I hope you take the time to listen to the Harper stories for the first time or again. These voices need heard and shared. At times, they may need sympathy, or empathy if you have it. But really, they need us all to be vessels that carry, so that spring arrives and change comes and we feel that energy that transforms lives.