Community is critical. Perhaps I didn’t realize just how much that was the case until we stepped back into Spring Lake, Michigan, in the beginning of July after our six-month life in Utrecht, the Netherlands.

Our family had every reason to suffer from some serious hiccups in the transition: financial frustration on the transition back, social challenges with integrating back into friendships, and even cultural differences of systemic functioning around town from food to transportation and everything in between.

But we haven’t felt isolated at all, and that’s thanks to each of our communities welcoming us back with open arms.

Of course, our family has been central to the warm return; they have greeted us with meals and we have had evenings filled with storytelling. Our close friends have welcomed us home with evenings out to our favorite restaurants, ones we’ve been missing. Our various sports clubs – the Grand Haven Running Club for Nikki and the Lakeshore Pickleball Club for me – have let us right back into the active calendars they lead.

For various reasons, we’ve had to spend bits of time at work preparing for the upcoming school year and our colleagues have filled us in on the need-to-knows of the last six months and welcomed us back to the community. Our daughters have felt the warm embrace of their friends and their friends’ families. Even our community-at-large has felt so welcoming with extraordinary July weather and an outstanding festival last week to celebrate the Coast Guard’s birthday.

Because of this warm embrace we feel from community, we feel open to being our best and most honest selves. We haven’t shied away from telling people that we can miss aspects of Dutch culture. We have been able to keep our texting threads with our Dutch neighbors going while still being present in the here and now due to people respecting our need to stay in touch.

Because of our communities – big and small – we are OK. And that is a critical reminder as we all step back into our various schools later this month.

We already have established communities. Within a school there are lots of them: classrooms, grade levels, students, staff, administrators, jocks, theater kids. Of course, they grow bigger still. At Spring Lake, we are an entire community of Lakers. At Grand Haven, Buccaneers. At Fruitport, Trojans. Even bigger. We are all educators. We are all students. We are all teens and adults working to better ourselves, working for better communities.

But there’s an even bigger challenge – bigger than simply having communities: We must expand our communities to embrace others into them. Only when we do that, allow students the time and flexibility to find their communities, can we allow students to achieve their best selves.

Our charge this coming school year is to have open doors, to allow for unexpected members into our communities because we Theunes have felt the power of communities’ embrace. It’s great. It’s wonderful. It cures what could have ailed us.

Now, come the first day of school, let’s understand that power and offer it up to all.

About the writer: Spring Lake High School teacher David Theune is back home after he and his family spent six months in the Netherlands through a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching grant.

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