Who We Are at Milton Hershey School
By Tony Sedun, an MHS Middle Division Teacher
Stripes on zebras. Spots on koalas’ noses. Nose prints on cows. Fingerprints on people. These are the marks of individuality in the natural world. Individuality serves a lot of practical needs, as well as poetic ones in people’s lives.
In the classroom, individuality is just as important and equally on display. From the way students walk to the cadence in their voices, young people everywhere find ways to tell the world who they are and what they are about as unique individuals. Despite coordinated clothing requirements, that rings true here at Milton Hershey School as students are unique. After all, in many ways, kids are kids no matter where they are.
So, who are we? Really? Doubtless to say, there is a range of responses to this essential, age-old question. And equally doubtless, each area of human knowledge—spiritual, religious, physical, scientific, emotional, social, and more—has something significant to say about this question of identity.
The scientific term for human fingerprints is dermatoglyph (pronounced DER-mat-O-gliff). It derives from the ancient Greek word derma referring to skin and glyph referring to what is sculpted. Think about that. In a sense, the ancient Greeks understood these markings on people’s fingers as skin sculptures!
When we consider the young people who live and learn here at our school, we see individuals who have been sculpted by their pasts, but not set in their ways. In the eighth-grade English classroom, my students strive every day to arrive at a better understanding of themselves and others. Early in the first weeks of the school year, I remember a young man in my class wrote an identity poem for one of our first major writing assignments. His first two stanzas stand out after all these months since:
I am very smart
But I wasn’t from the start
I came to M.H.S
And then that set the spark
Now my knowledge has taken flight
Now my mind is in the light
At a point in my life
Hate and anger were bottled up tight
But now I have turned myself
To friends who are a bigger help
Medical experts tell us that human fingerprints are formed in utero, while the baby fetus is developing. Initially, the fingers have volar pads, but within 10-15 weeks of development, the volar pads change. As they are unique, absorbed back into the hand, tiny wrinkles form on the fingertips. The unique pattern of these fingerprints is influenced by genetics and the environment. Apparently, even the amniotic fluid and the mother’s blood pressure during this time can affect the patterns that emerge on a person’s fingerprints.
Our identities are, in part, thus formed, well before our eyes ever encounter nouns like faces, trees, stars, and much more. When we consider, then, how we engage the world around us then we would do well to remember that there a few lessons we can glean from the formation of fingerprints.
First, we are affected by others and the environment, and that is natural. After all, as natural creatures ourselves, our bodies respond to everything from genetics to the environment. It is impossible to think we can control every aspect of our identity. So, this recognition can help us accept things that are out of our control. While none of us got to decide how and to whom we were born, every one of us gets to decide how we will live out our fullest lives in this world.
Second, fingerprints can remind us that the changes and effects of our world on us can be quite small and seemingly insignificant. After all, the measurement of the ridges and furrows of unique human fingerprints is virtually microscopic. Yet, these ridges and furrows we know as fingerprints can render all sorts of amazing actions possible: picking up a smooth glass of water, climbing a rock face, and caressing the forehead of a loved one.
Like so many other teachers here at MHS and across the country, I have been likewise sculpted by the experiences I’ve shared with my students and their loved ones. Just this school year alone, I know some of my kiddos have suffered losses of loved ones, setbacks in academics or other pursuits, and the hard looks in the mirror that living among others can bring. As well, I know so many of them (typically, the same ones) have been blessed with the day-by-day opportunities to re-start a talent set aside, re-do an assignment that could better show their abilities, and re-make their identities choice-by-choice into people who are more dependable, more kind, more grateful members of society, and, more importantly, life-long members of our MHS family.
As we near the end of the academic year and approach the summer months ahead, we would do well to remember that our identities continue to be formed by our past and our present. Our decisions in the days ahead can shape the ridges and furrows of our habits of mind. Emotional habits can be slowly adjusted with concerted efforts to reflect on how we respond and feel about things in the environment and to adjust toward a more positive way of managing these. Cognitive habits can be likewise formed over time with an awareness of what we think and how we think to grow in our willingness to accept new knowledge, especially when it challenges our existing knowledge-base about a topic. Spiritual and social habits can similarly be formed to become more healthy, mature, and less prone to superstitions, stereotypes, and cynicism about ourselves and others.
All of these changes occur across time. Joseph Campbell wrote this timeless advice for teachers: “The job of an educator is to teach students to see vitality in themselves.” Our job as teachers is quite clear and COVID-19 has only made it clearer. Our kiddos need the time, space, and support to continuously see in themselves people worth knowing.
Many of the most significant changes we can choose to undertake about who we are will remain largely unseen, perhaps, to the world around us—at least for a while. But be assured, that they matter, just as surely as you matter. Be assured that the more you choose to use your unique talents and gifts to shape the world around you into a more beautiful and dignified place, that you are inherently choosing the best of who you are: wonderful, logical, natural, and whole.