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Opening Fort Mason last year!

A little over a year ago, I embarked on the exciting journey of founding my first school. It was not even a week before school started that we broke into our space, began moving around furniture, and settling in for a year of learning. And now, a little over a year later, I find myself in a similar situation, my dreams coming true all over again.

Last night, we had our open house, at the brand new AltSchool Palo Alto, where we we’ve built a home for approximately 75 students and 7 educators. Parents and children bustled in, dumping boxes of magnatiles and puzzles on the floor, feeling at home almost immediately. I walked around, re-introducing myself to some familiar faces and excitedly greeting some unfamiliar ones. Little ones clung to their mothers’ legs, but with only the slightest smile and the temptation of some engaging toys, they were soon rambunctiously exploring our new space. Sound bounced off of every corner in the room, and the building suddenly came to life.

Just two weeks prior, though, I walked through the space, and I found it almost unrecognizable–at least as a school. It just didn’t feel like one.  Drywall was unfinished, furniture was still in the process of being shipped, and many of the faces and families that filled my spreadsheet were nebulous introductory characters in this story we’d begin writing soon.

So when we finally got in the space Tuesday to move in, I was thrilled to place furniture, sort and organize materials into boxes, pore through piles of children’s literature, and assemble spaces for exploration and curiosity. And we accomplished all of that. We managed to move it all into place—every piece of furniture, every book, every magic marker.  But in that moment, the school still felt very simply like a figment of my imagination, a still empty building despite its contents, a sleeping idea waiting to come to life.

11891394_10205134110249558_6421865660195188264_oIt just didn’t feel real.

It’s fascinating, creating something brand new, something that didn’t exist before. After all, there has to be a point, an instantaneous fraction of a moment when something goes from non-existence to existence, from intangible idea to concrete fixture, from imaginary to real. And that moment hadn’t come yet, despite the fact that I felt that it should have. Alas, we had but four walls and a bunch of supplies.

But that all changed yesterday evening the second I heard the first noise signaling the beginning of our open house. I was sitting in one of our small focus rooms, finishing up some work on my computer, when I heard the brushing of footsteps against our newly tiled floors and soft, dampened voices whispering through the freshly painted walls of the rooms. I opened the door, hearing giggles from the classroom and voices buzzing. I walked out of the focus room and into my new classroom to see guests arriving, children already running around, and smiles adding light to the rooms.

And it wasn’t until in that small moment, specifically, that something changed.  The furniture that lay next to the walls suddenly looked different.  The hexagonal tables seemed to perk up just a bit, and I could have sworn the manipulatives in the cabinets quietly ruffled just a little bit, anxiously awaiting busy hands to play with them.  It was in that moment that the four walls and the furniture… suddenly began to feel like a school.

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I walked around for the better part of an hour. Time neither existed, nor was it of the essence. I was enraptured in meeting my new students and watching them explore the space. I was captivated by the happy smiles of parents and the relaxed shoulders of my teaching team. I was blissfully unaware of my own existence, and numbly present for every second, up until the moment when one of my new students, dancing around in her bright pink dress, came and gave me a big hug.  I saw two of my teammates from across the building smiling and watching this short interaction from afar. At that point, the preciousness of this moment crept into my conscious.

As the final parents were clearing out, one of the fathers approached me.

“How long have you guys been in the space?” he questioned.

“Only a few days,” I replied back.

“Wow,” he said. “Pretty incredible that you got all this done in that time.”

“You’d be surprised how little it takes to start a school,” I said back to him.

Perhaps through hearing myself utter that simple sentence, I realized just how simple it actually is to start a school. Sure, you need the facility to be up to code and some materials to work with, but without the people—without the excitement, the passion, the relationships, and the joy—a school does not exist.  And in my opinion, those are the easiest things to find.  You just have to look.

In fact, the people are precisely what filled that immeasurably small moment for me last night: that gleefully abrupt change from non-existence to existence, from intangible to concrete, from imagination to reality, that moment when I realized we had created something very special, the moment when I no longer simply saw faces on a page but real people, investing their hopes and dreams into our school and into us.

I realized that without the people, and without the relationships, a school is nothing; it’s simply four walls and some furniture. Instead, a school requires relationships built on a strong foundation, good will, trust, and the desire to reach out to one another, in order to build something that never existed before.

Sure, it’s a leap of faith, but it’s certainly a leap of faith worth taking.

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