Head of School Blog: Stuck on an Escalator

Your kids may have told you that from time to time I will show a brief, hopefully thought-provoking, video clip at All School Meeting on Monday. I invite the students to discuss its contents with their peers and teachers throughout the week and then at our Friday gathering, facilitate a dialogue with the whole school community about its implications


This week, my video of choice was this amusing advertisement entitled, "Stuck on an Escalator." It is worth the minute or so it will take you to watch it yourself so click the link below, but if you’re pressed for time, it shows the reaction of two people who are traveling on an escalator that suddenly and inexplicably breaks down.


The humor in the clip is rooted in the comic paralysis of our two characters. Why, the viewer muses, don’t they just walk up the escalator? During the course of our discussion, the students and I agreed that getting stuck happens and is usually no cause for panic. The “stuck-ees” in the video have become accustomed to and dependent on the escalator doing the work, their imaginations confined within the boundaries of expectation and routine. They behave exactly as they would were they stuck in an elevator, but they’re not. The solution to their problem, that is, to walk up what is essentially now just a set of stairs, is right in front of them, yet it eludes them. These folks are precisely the opposite of the people who are in highest demand in the working world. They wait for the mythical repairman to arrive and when he too becomes stuck on the escalator, the viewer is left to ponder the absurd notion that they may remain stuck for all of eternity.


Consider the comparable metaphor embedded within the following news story. According to a Seattle Times article a few years back, three people were returning from a downtown conference to their hotel in Bellevue, Washington. Alas, their GPS instructed them to drive down a boat ramp and directly into a lake and . . . that’s what they did. Happily, all escaped without injury, though their rental car was not so fortunate.


When confronted with a task or problem, one student’s first instinct might be to ask the teacher for help, but too often “Will you help me?” actually means, “Give me the answer.” It is sometimes said of a teacher who does not readily provide said answer that he “doesn’t teach.” But another student, the self-reliant student, eschews the path of seemingly least resistance and instead leverages the resources at her fingertips. She willingly engages in the kind of heavy lifting that builds academic muscle and is not one of those who seek learning environments where failure has been taken out of the equation. In other words, when the escalator breaks down, she calmly assesses the situation and walks up the stairs.


Rising to challenges requires us to take risks, unfamiliar steps toward uncertain worlds beyond the escalator steps that we currently occupy. Our kids’ classrooms are not elevators, or even escalators to the top; they are not airport moving sidewalks upon which they can stand passively and be whisked into the futures of their choice; they are places where, under the watchful guidance of dedicated faculty, our kids can, with a little effort, patience, and resourcefulness, come to their own solutions and strategies when they inevitably find themselves stuck, as our escalator friends did.

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