Stone Soup: Some Food for Thought by Head of Upper School Michael Denning
My all-time favorite children’s story is Stone Soup. I first heard its powerful message when my second-grade teacher, the venerable and seemingly immortal Ms. Pierce, read the story to our class. We were embarking on the “Butter-making Project,” and I suspect Ms. Pierce was trying to find a way to engage our rambunctious group in a conversation about the value of collaboration and cooperation.
Versions of Stone Soup can be found in the folklore of many countries and historic regions, including those of Ireland, France, England, Sweden, Switzerland and Germany. In 1905, the famous Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, actually published his own take on the parable, A Pot of Broth. But here in the United States, this folktale was made famous by Marcia Brown in her award-winning rendition published in 1947, the one Ms. Pierce offered our class.
The setting for Ms. Brown’s Stone Soup is a French village at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Given the vast extent to which the agrarian villages of northern France suffered during the first and second world wars, Ms. Brown’s choice of location seems more than apt for her 1947 book. Ms. Brown tells the story of how three famished soldiers journeying home— as common an occurrence in 1947 as it was in 1815—coax and trick the village’s apprehensive residents into sharing what little they have to create a pot of soup. While initially unwelcoming and seemingly devoid of compassion for their exhausted, hungry visitors, the townspeople become curious about the soldiers’ plan to make soup from stones. One by one, the hamlet’s residents are convinced that if they contribute a bit of what they can, they will make an important contribution to something about which they can feel good and proud. In the end—and here is my spoiler alert—the villagers and soldiers create a meal and celebration that is, “Truly fit for a king.” As the story closes, one senses that the feelings of anxiety, fear, suffering and fatigue we observed in the villagers at the story’s outset have given way to laughter, revelry and moments of shared happiness— the kind of feelings one finds only while accomplishing something for and with others.
Frankly, I don’t recall if Ms. Pierce explained Ms. Brown’s motivation for writing the story or if we had much discussion about it at all. But there is something in Stone Soup’s message that provoked me, even at this early age, and during the more than four decades that have elapsed since I first heard the tale, I have returned to it many times, contemplating the wisdom of the soldiers and the villagers’ good fortunes.
At Nobles, we are justifiably proud of the rigorous academic preparation faculty offer and students receive at our School, the results our students earn perennially on standardized tests, and the outcomes our seniors realize at the end of each year’s highly-selective college-admissions season. So, too, do we take pride in the hours of service we perform, the beautiful works of visual and performing art our students create, and our teams’ many victories. Moreover, we know from surveys of—and conversations with—recent graduates that Nobles students are well prepared to succeed in our country’s most rigorous undergraduate programs. And there is no doubt that we will continue to keep our eyes on these prizes. However, hours of service, exceptional works of art, athletic championships, and successes in the college process have never been the only or most important prizes upon which we focus.
While mindful of the future and desirous of achieving measurable successes, we use our relationship-based pedagogy to challenge each other to live in the present, knowing that doing so is essential to creating a healthy, productive, nurturing environment. Throughout our history, a relationship-based pedagogy and commitment to community have been our bedrock, the foundation from which we have:
built the advisory and student-support systems that adolescents need to thrive;
remained committed to a model in which faculty are involved with—and get to know, teach and nurture—students in multi-faceted endeavors and activities;
maintained an unwavering commitment to morning assembly, a place where we gather to celebrate and build community through shared ideas, performances, applause, laughter, respect, and, sometimes, tears;
stayed true to the idea that if we focus on creating great learning processes and environments, and work together for and with each other, successes will follow.
In her highly acclaimed novel My Antonia, Willa Cather entreats us to recognize the important role doing things in community plays in the creation of one’s happiness, suggesting that the latter is not possible without the former: “That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.” As I watch our students and faculty commit themselves joyously and completely to each other and their shared endeavors, goals and dreams, I am reminded of the timelessness of Cather’s and Brown’s shared message. In a world in which students are too often encouraged to pursue their own individual needs, goals and desires—their own interests—at the expense of others’ happiness and their own, we stand against this by asking them to contribute to Nobles’ pots of stone soup each and every day. And in the sadness and grieving of these past few weeks, this has never been more important.