What are the qualities of a rubber band? Flexibility: the ability to bend without breaking. Clinnesha Sibley shares a reflection on the first time she felt the power of community as a teacher at Piney Woods School, and shares a list of guidelines for how to find community.
A spiritual leader once gave me a rubber band to wear on my wrist to remind me that God will constantly stretch me toward my purpose. When I went to work for The Piney Woods School in Mississippi, I wore a rubber band. Whenever I felt that I was being tested, I tugged on it. The proverbial stretching was not just a sensation that I alone felt. Everyone who worked at this institution felt the supple movements of the elasticity. Each day was a communal stretching. The entire campus community—students, teachers, administration, staff, grounds men—everyone feels this extreme tugging. Everyone is trying to elongate dwindling resources.
Yet somehow, as a group, we managed to replace the frustration of never having enough with a collective hope. From the lack of classroom technology to our payday theatrics, our common struggles would bring us closer together and inspire us daily. Our pain became our growing opportunity. In spite of it, we wanted to bless a student and a colleague. Through our stretching, we prayed. The tension, you see, became the social glue. The bond happened in the midst of the stretching. For me, experiencing Piney Woods as an educator allowed me to feel—for the first time ever—what it was like to be a part of a family and to partake in community-driven teaching. This was a big deal for me. I remember when I was in academia, I could sense that there was a collective belief in the same goals and dreams, but I would sit in these faculty meetings and feel so isolated. Estranged even. I never felt a part of the community, because my dreams were different and, essentially, outside of the community’s focus.
It was at Piney Woods that I found people who were vested in the same vision. Even though the arts was not a main focus; for the first time, I felt in-community with colleagues. Piney Woods is a predominantly black boarding school situated in Mississippi’s pine belt. The campus includes a 500-acre instructional farm and five lakes. The school is not state-of-the-art, but definitely state-of-the-child. The natural milieu is breathtaking. God meets you in every bend of this place. Humble spaces have always been more impressive to me than elaborate ones, and Piney Woods is a humble place that deeply engraves itself in your heart once you encounter the young people who live and go to school there. I know my time teaching at this place was a calling and a deliberate stop on my journey to become the human being I was created to be.
If you’re searching for community, consider these things:
1. Feeling out of place and out of sync with people helps you to recognize true community when you see it. Ride the waves. It’s a journey, not a destination.
2. Community is not fake. It does not feel fake and it does not require that you become fake.
3. Community does not only welcome and embrace you; it also opens up a portal for you to be able to put into practice what you wholeheartedly believe in. It’s inclusive.
4. With community comes a sense of comfort, but not complacency. It’s work that you will truly enjoy.
5. A real community will stretch you. You may lose some elasticity, but you will never break or be broken.
With All My Art,
Beginning in the fall of 2017, Clinnesha will begin her tenure as Literary Arts Instructor at the Mississippi School of the Arts in Brookhaven, Mississippi. To learn more about The Piney Woods School, please visit http://www.pineywoods.org/.
Photo CC Duncan Hull