As I have gotten older, I have found myself fascinated by signage.
At a basic level, I am always evaluating whether directional signage is clear. For example, I was recently at a hotel and saw a sign on a back wall positioned between two doors. Under the word “restrooms” the sign depicted a male silhouette on the left and a female silhouette on the right. The problem was that when I got to the entrance, the actual restrooms were on the exact opposite sides! Only at the last minute did I realize that the door I was pushing open was, in fact, the entrance to the women’s room. (You may have noted that we made some modest adjustments to our own campus signage recently in response to reported confusion on the part of some of our visitors.)
My real passion for signage, however, tends to be rooted in the broader messages or lessons a seemingly simple sign can imply. This summer, for example, I was waiting in line at a local coffee shop when I spied a card on the rack that said, “PROCEED AS IF SUCCESS IS INEVITABLE.” It seemed to me at the time to be an apt theme for the coming school year, during which we would be collectively engaging in a strategic planning process.
Even more fitting, however, was that directly below that card was another that said, “EVERYTHING GREAT IN THE WORLD COMES FROM NEUROTICS.” Coincidence? I think not.
At last week’s All-School Meeting, in service of a discussion about values with the students, I displayed a number of signs. The first was of a cover of a book I spied in Eight Cousins, our local bookstore. It was titled “TELL ME WHO YOU ARE.” I invited students to suggest what they might offer were they to be prompted by such a request. Initially, students offered superficial facets like “your name,” “your grade” or “your hobbies,” but these gradually gave way to traits more core to identity: “your age,” “your gender,” “your racial or ethnic background,” and eventually, “what you stand for.”
This last response enabled me to transition to the topic of values or beliefs, which I framed with a picture of a bumper sticker I noticed at yet another local coffee shop. (I drink a lot of coffee!) It said, “WHO EVEN ARE YOU?” We spent some time considering how the word “even” changes the nature of the question. Read one way, “What are you all about? What beliefs are core to you?”
I closed by showing two more signs. The first was a cartoon from the Wall Street Journal, which our facilitator, Mr. Dolph Clinton, shared with the senior class at our first annual Senior Leadership Retreat last month. It depicted the proverbial cocktail conversation during which a man says, “I do have strong values; I just don’t let them rule my life.” One of our terrific seniors explained the message to our younger students in the form of a rhetorical question: “If you say you have strong moral values, but you don’t live by them every moment of every day, then are your moral values really that strong?”
At last week’s Wednesday extended lunch, advisors engaged their advisories in conversations about Falmouth Academy’s guiding values. Let me refresh your memory:
the beauty of knowledge and the joy of conversation,
collaboration and generosity of spirit,
the power of a culture of kindness,
relationships built on trust, respect, and direct communication,
the wonder of imagination,
each student’s pursuit of diverse challenges and opportunities,
teachers as models of confident, rich adulthood.
A tall order to be sure, core values to which we should aspire, as the cartoon suggests, every moment of every day but which, since we are human beings, we are likely to and often do fall short of. Despite our shortcomings, however, it's a good thing to keep our values front and center because when we do, they become the kind of signage that will point us in the right direction for years to come.
One of my favorite signs I spotted hanging outside the art museum at the Rhode Island School of Design. It happened to be glowing in that particular shade of cobalt blue that we sometimes refer to around here as “FA Blue.” Three words:
“YOU BELONG HERE.”
Coincidence? I think not.