Art Abelmann: Talk about the passion | AspenTimes.com

Art Abelmann: Talk about the passion

Art Abelmann
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Halloween, clearly a big deal in Aspen. What a great event for all to enjoy. What one notices, however, is that it’s not just during Halloween that people – including teachers, students and parents – decide to get dressed up. Please do not misunderstand, doing so during the holiday can be great fun. It is the costumes many of us choose to wear and hide behind during the other 364 days a year that is worthy of attention.

Shedding one’s costume could not have become more clear to members of the Aspen High School community as the entire student body and faculty assembled in the District Theatre last Monday to kick off “Action in Africa” week. A student-driven initiative brought the INVISIBLE CHILDREN program to our campus. The story shared was that of the plight of Ugandan children and the tragically difficult life they live. Caught up in a civil war for more than 20 years, many of the younger Ugandan population find themselves serving as soldiers in a country with unimaginable unrest.

No holiday here … no costumes one day and not the next … this is real. School-age boys dressed in army fatigues carrying guns with real bullets, not a costume from Target or Wal-Mart, not for play.

Several Ugandan students came to Aspen to share their own story of personal loss. A loss that includes the death of parents and siblings as well as losing the opportunity to go to school. Attending school is something many of us simply take for granted. Schooling, the students shared, is the only means available toward escaping the war-torn regions, the refugee camps, the life of sadness and death. Education is the path to freedom for this newest generation of Ugandan children. The value placed on education and freedom is so strong that the implications of going without them does not easily resonate with our own students.

A significant sidebar to the INVISIBLE CHILDREN story is focused on three young students with a passion for filmmaking. Their experience of filming in Uganda led to their passion to bring the story to the rest of the world. All too often, in high school, we see students wearing a costume known as the accepted norm. Peer pressure is often what prevents our students from feeling comfortable enough to venture away from those costumes worn in order to be part of a socially accepted culture.

Recently, I had a father-daughter weekend with my daughter Amanda. She is a sophomore at college in Maine. “Dad,” she said, “you need to tell students not to just do what everyone else is doing, but rather to find their passion.” She actually used that word – “passion.” It is worth noting that “passion” is a term nonexistent in public high school until recently.

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That same weekend, it so happened that my path crossed the path of 15 MIT students. Don’t ask how or why; it just happened. The conversation that followed is worth sharing. I asked the mathematically inclined young folk, “What was it that set you apart from others and able to get in to MIT?” All of a sudden that word, “passion,” was being thrown around like a Frisbee. (Students at MIT play a lot of Frisbee.) Each future engineer, bio-med specialist, computer guru (unfortunately most likely no future high school teachers in this group) shared that they did their own thing in high school. Each found a passion independent of the social norm to the degree that they put up no false fronts … they wore no costumes. More importantly, they simply demonstrated their true passion for something unique and followed it.

One wise student from Kansas enjoyed shooting his potato gun. He enjoyed it so much that during his interview he shared the potato gun he built that shoots golf balls at the speed of sound. The message here, not only for students, but for all of us, is to truly be yourself. Find what interests you. Connect to a cause, a purpose or goal. Find your passion.

Recently a small group of Aspen High School students participated in a choir program at Rifle High School. No uniforms with numbers, no win-loss record and no fans in the stands. Simply a group of kids with a passion for singing. When asked if any videotape of the performance was available, the choral teacher asked, “Why?”

“Because I would like to play it in the commons during lunchtime,” I said.

Instant, schoolwide recognition for those willing to share their passion. Now to find the videotape.

During a recent leadership and professional development opportunity, it has become more and more clear to this school leader that our school, in fact most every school, has indoctrinated students, and teachers for that matter, to be seen in a certain way, as well as being required to learn and teach in a very limiting model. Change comes slow and hard in the school environment. This, too, is indoctrination. Find the norm. Behave, learn and teach as the model prescribes. Stray not from the tracks by showing your individuality, your own learning or teaching style or the passion you may have for outlying interests.

Clearly, the model needs more flexibility. Passions should be celebrated in creation and demonstration by all involved. Extended learning opportunities and credits should be available to pursue in order to accomplish this goal. At Aspen High School, we will approach this option.

So from Halloween to Uganda, from social norms to passions, from my daughter to MIT students, from choir recitals to extended learning opportunities, many topics have been shared. Shared but barely exposed.