Shaking Hands

September 13, 2019

A great deal of work goes into opening school every September: Our maintenance team spends its summer readying our facilities for another year of use; the technology department makes sure that the school’s computer, phone, and wireless infrastructure can handle the activity to come; faculty revise and create learning activities for their classes; and all of us spend a week in meetings to communicate strategies for best serving the boys as learners, friends, and citizens.

Despite all of this preparation, I never feel like we are fully “back to school” until the first Red Door handshake of the year. Browning is a school of many traditions, but the custom of beginning our school days with a handshake stands out for what it says about our community’s aspirations.

In professional life in the United States, a good handshake—one characterized by a firm grip and steady eye contact—can be a sought-after skill, and this certainly may be one of the advantages of our tradition. During his school years, a Browning boy will get lots of practice on how to present himself in greeting. The truest benefits of the handshake, however, are more profound and tied to our community’s core values.  

When we meet at the threshold of Browning, look one another in the eye, and offer our hands in greeting, we announce a sense of mutual respect—we say, in gesture, ‘I see you.’
— Head of School Dr. John M. Botti

The first of these values is dignity. When we meet at the threshold of Browning, look one another in the eye, and offer our hands in greeting, we announce a sense of mutual respect—we say, in gesture, “I see you.” There is a great deal that goes into assuring that every member feels that they have worth in a community, but it all begins with recognition, with the symbolic assertion that no matter their age or accomplishment, boys are both known and loved inside the Red Doors. The handshake announces our school’s intention to be a community where every boy is embraced, literally and figuratively, and valued for who he is.  

The next of these values is honesty. In shaking hands, some scholars suggest that we actually draw upon a custom designed to demonstrate honest intentions to strangers—a right hand extended openly was one that did not carry a weapon. This open-handedness also communicated a trust that the stranger would not draw his or her own weapon to take advantage of the peaceful gesture. At Browning, I love that we begin our day with the tacit assertion that our community exists on foundations of honesty and trust, and that boys and adults are eager to view each other as ambassadors of goodwill.  

Handshakes are not the only way to give meaningful greetings; indeed, the gestures of Namaste, fist bumping, and bowing can all convey similar senses of welcome, solidarity, and respect. At Browning, we have asked the handshake to do the job, and over time it has become an indispensable ritual, particularly as a gesture of welcome that sets the tone for what is to follow.  Those of us who shake the hands of boys in the morning see students enter their school with both joy and confidence, for they know—either explicitly or tacitly—that they are entering a community committed to dignity, respect, honesty, and trust. The handshake does not simply initiate the school day; it also announces who we intend to be, and thus will always be the true beginning of our learning at Browning.