In the year 2000, a man named Red Wassenich called in to a local Austin radio show on a Saturday morning to make a pledge. When he was asked by the person who received the donation why he was supporting this quirky, offbeat show, he said, “I don’t know. It helps keep Austin weird.”
According to a NY Times article on Wassenich published in 2002, he quickly realized that the phrase captured something essential about the town that he knew and loved, a town that was quickly becoming a destination for normalcy, which he associated with plentiful chain restaurants, suburban neighborhood development, and rising home prices — all of which tended to crowd out Austin’s more bohemian and creative culture. In short, Wassenich knew there was something quintessential, something fundamentally unorthodox, about this town and he wanted it to resist the homogenization that so many parts of the country have experienced.
I think most Episcopal schools would like to think of themselves as “weird,” too. Perhaps many of our schools prize their unique campuses, advisory programs, student-teacher relationships, or teaching and learning styles. Maybe we find other ways of marking our distinctiveness through liturgical creativity in Chapel and Eucharist. Many of us teachers, administrators, and chaplains have found a home in an Episcopal school community because we just don’t seem to fit in at many other places.
At the same time, however, many of our students may also be just at the edge of making outcasts and outliers out of those within our communities who don’t quite conform, whether that nonconformity is in religious affiliation, socioeconomic conditions, political identification, racial/ethnic group, or gender and/or sexual identity. Certainly a baseline measure of Episcopal identity should be that we are careful always to welcome and include everyone, especially those who don’t fit a broad cultural conception of “normalcy,” and that we even help our students deconstruct this cultural conception of “normalcy” itself. I hope Episcopal schools always prize and include weirdness as an important part of who we are.
The 16th century French thinker Michel de Montaigne lived in a time of extraordinary violence, the French Wars of Religion, in which small-scale terrorist actions on the part of both Protestants and Catholics formed a violent cultural backdrop to his life. Montaigne made a conscious decision to retreat to his family’s castle to read, write, and think. To do something like that was certainly considered “weird,” but he wore his own erudite strangeness as a badge of pride. After all, he said, in a time when it was so common to do evil, to do what was merely useless was practically praiseworthy.
We live in a time of cruelty and violence as well. The violence is always present; just 40 miles north of my own campus, three black churches were burned by a white supremacist in the past month. Yet this violence is not unrelated to a broader culture of cruelty that flourishes both in person and online, from our national life to our virtual lives. It is easily accessible and well documented and can sneak itself into our schools in so many ways. To paraphrase Montaigne for the 21st century, in a time in which it is normal to be cruel, it is praiseworthy to be weird, to deviate from that norm. If we need weirdness in any way today, we need it most evidently in a rejection of the cruelty culture we are immersed in daily. We need weirdness most in kindness and generosity and in a willingness to embrace people very different from ourselves. We need to keep Episcopal schools weird!