Melissa Spear, Executive Director

Melissa Spear is Executive Director at Common Ground.

I took advantage of a quiet school building during April break this year to work with two current Common Ground students and two recent graduates painting our three upstairs classrooms. The walls were in desperate need of some TLC. Painting might sound like pretty mundane work (and at times it certainly is). Yet, at Common Ground, everything has a way of turning into a learning opportunity: certainly for me, and hopefully for our students as well.

A good painting job is more than just slapping paint on the walls. It requires extra effort and attention to detail. It requires taking down all the bulletin boards, moving all of the furniture off the walls, removing all the face-plates, spackling and sanding all the dents and push-pin and staple holes, meticulously taping all the door and window trim and chalk boards, wiping away the worst of the dirt and always, always, always using a drop-cloth. These might seem like simple things, but they are not things most teenagers would know to do without some guidance.

Painting well, though, is not just knowing how to do it right — it is having the desire to do it right — to take the extra time and make that extra effort to do the best possible job. It is the “pride of ownership” that motivates me to want to do a good job — that is, owning my work and wanting to make sure that, because it is mine, it meets a high standard of quality.

Working with our students, and with my own teenage kids, has led me to think a lot about where pride of ownership comes from. I spent a lot of my childhood with my grandparents, first generation immigrants, and proud owners of a small house in California. My grandfather, who was a linesman for the phone company, maintained a workshop in his garage and took meticulous care of his home. Painting with our students, I realize that the high standards I carry to my work every day echoed what I saw my granpa doing every day of my childhood.

I realize that my experience isn’t everyone’s experience. At a time in history when the American Dream seems to have lost some luster, when home foreclosures are an everyday occurrence, when young people in particular are struggling to find meaningful paid work — what is the source of pride of ownership?

And so we come to what I hope (I wonder) the students I worked with over break may have learned from me: not just the right way to tape off a door or window, or how to spackle in a way that requires the least amount of sanding, or to always, always, always use a drop-cloth (so that you don’t have to spend hours scrubbing paint splatter off the floor when you are done), but that when you do things well you can and should feel pride in your work; that everyone who walks through the door of that classroom is going to see what you have done, and if you have done it well they will appreciate it because it will create a pleasant environment for them to learn in. And this is something to be proud of.

I personally believe that pride of ownership, as defined here, contributes to an intrinsic sense of self-worth, success and happiness no matter what you aspire to. It can be learned in many different ways but it is not easy to come by. I have learned not to assume that everyone has had the opportunity to learn pride of ownership — and I try not to judge those who lack it. Instead I look for ways and opportunities to model and teach it and I see the same happening throughout Common Ground. Whether it is Shannon, our Farm Manager, teaching kids how to weed a bed or Karen Climis, a Math Teacher at Common Ground High School, helping a student solve a geometry problem or Rhonda DeLoatch, our chef, showing a student the correct way to slice a carrot or Camille Seabury, one of our after-school staff, helping a student complete a difficult homework assignment, taking ownership of the work, and putting in the effort necessary to feel proud of the result, is an essential lesson we strive to incorporate into everything that we do and that is just one more thing that I love about Common Ground.