What Severn Street Taught Me

Seventeen years ago I moved to Pittsburgh from Los Angeles, CA. It was December. Day after day of gray skies, freezing rain, and icy streets left me cold—literally. I immediately regretted our decision to leave Los Angeles. I lost all memory of the reasons we had left California and could only recall our time there as a series of outdoor adventures under blue, sunny skies. To add to my distress, my three-year-old son was bouncing off the walls of our new home because he was not accustomed to being indoors. I headed to the parks with my two boys whenever I could, but found them empty. I went to the library for storytime and hoped another parent would talk to me. Then one snowy afternoon, I saw a man on our street herding what looked like three small bundles with snow boots into a minivan. Could it be? A neighbor with children? I decided to investigate.  
Two hours later—that’s how long it takes to get a three-year-old and a three-month-old infant into outerwear—I rang the bell at the neighbor’s door and introduced myself. When I was invited in, I saw that those bundles in snow boots were three small boys named Galen, Aidan, and Connor. I noticed their house looked a lot like mine with toys and sippy cups strewn about, a basket of half-folded clothes, artwork hung with scotch tape on every surface. On the kitchen counter, I saw a take-out menu from the restaurant we had already eaten at three times in the past week. These were my people.

In the weeks that followed, we played at each other’s houses and suddenly Pittsburgh’s gray winter skies didn’t seem so ominous. When Spring arrived, people came outside and I eventually discovered that there were 17 children living on Severn Street. There were big kids running through the connected backyards and babies on blankets in front yards. There were many older people too, some who had lived on the street for decades. 

I learned that there was an expectation that the young help the old and it wasn’t unusual for a kid to arrive at the door asking to borrow an egg because mom was cooking and needed one. When summer came, we participated in a Severn Street tradition, the block party. Toula, one of the oldest residents of the street, provided her legendary spanakopita and shared memories of parties from the past 40 years she had lived on the street. Jo Ellen moved through the crowd with her camera capturing new memories and Jack served as the bingo caller after the food was cleared away.

Because the Severn Street Block Party is always held at the beginning of September, just as I am starting a new school year, the two are linked in my mind. At the beginning of the school year, the goal is to lay the foundation for a productive year of learning and growing. The keystone on which everything else rests is the strength of the community. To build a strong community, we actively cultivate respectful, supportive relationships among students, teachers, and families. 

At times it can be challenging to connect. Ellis is a place that welcomes all kinds of people with different backgrounds and life experiences. We possess different perspectives, different opinions, and different hopes and dreams. Sometimes these differences seem to present a gulf that separates us. How do we build bridges that connect us so we can create an inclusive community that fosters learning and growth? I recommend showing up, ringing the bell and introducing yourself.

It’s what we ask of our students. Every morning, in every classroom, our students participate in a team meeting where they greet each other, share something about themselves, engage in an activity, and read a message to motivate their learning for the day. Every Friday, we gather as an entire Lower School for an assembly that provides the opportunity for us to learn from each other and about each other. In moments of conflict between students, we encourage perspective taking, putting oneself in the other person’s shoes. In small and big ways, we set the expectation that we are all in this together and every person in the Lower School has something valuable to contribute to our learning experience. Rising to meet this expectation requires our students to share who they are, which is something that many of us feel uneasy about. It requires spending time together to create shared memories. It requires taking responsibility for how you are contributing to the health of the community.

As the years have passed, the people who live on Severn Street have changed. Older people have passed away, growing families have moved away to find bigger houses, the apartment dwellers at the end of the street have left to become homeowners. While people have come and gone, the Severn Street community is as strong as ever. The practices of connecting with neighbors, participating in traditions, building shared memories, and helping each other remain. I learned a lesson living on Severn Street that I have brought to Ellis. It taught me that all kinds of people, no matter their differences, can come together and build relationships that are affirming, loving, and supportive. It is a gift to have that experience in life and I hope for our students to experience it as young children so that they might see the world that way.