Good Fences

May the new year bring you boundaries that provide caring and clarity.

Not what you were thinking? Think again!

2022 was a showcase in the implications for not having and enforcing clear boundaries. In fact, so was 2021. And 2020.

The attacks on Ukraine.

The assault on the U.S. Capitol.

The global spread of coronavirus.

Choosing confrontation over cooperation continues to be humankind’s favorite mistake to make.

More than a century ago at the outset of the first world war, New England’s poet laureate Robert Frost wrote, “good fences make good neighbors.” His poem describes two New Hampshire farmers walking the length of their common stonewall to repair those places where nature and humankind had broken it down.

In my boyhood home in Northborough we had a stonewall marking the perimeter of our yard, shared in common with the Dennings and Parkers and McLeods. It was (and is) old and weathered, born of the rocky soil of eastern Massachusetts. We were always aware of it, meeting friends there, playing and climbing along its surfaces, and chasing chipmunks running into its nooks and crannies for safety. But we never dismantled it. It seemed true to me then as it does now: good fences do make good neighbors.

This lesson has been on my mind this December as I reflect on the challenges facing global society. It is in vogue to bust through boundaries. Who is going to make me wear a mask? Why should I accept election results I don’t like? How will anyone stop me from invading my neighbor?

Well, of course you can ask and answer these questions, but there are implications for not respecting boundaries in the process. And (more to my point), if you thoughtlessly dismantle boundaries without knowing what you’re undoing, there are even greater ramifications to face in the aftermath.

It’s easy to just plow through what’s in your way. It’s mindless and dangerous, but it’s easy. Honoring and enforcing a boundary is more work. The effort to walk along a common wall – both literally and figuratively – to keep a boundary in place is a deliberate act. It requires intention and understanding of its importance. Everyone involved needs to be committed to its preservation.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down,” Frost writes.

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

There’s something romantic in the notion of breaking down barriers. But boundaries only seem like barriers out of ignorance. They are in place for a reason. They allow human society to function, even with all of our differences. While barriers can be broken for the greater good, boundaries are meant to be kept in place for the same reason.

And so my wish for you in 2023 is boundaries that bring caring and clarity…that offer understanding and cooperation…that provide safety and peace…for all of us.

Walter McKenzie is Senior Director for Member Communities at ASCD, leading its Affiliate, Champions in Education, Connected Community, Professional Interest Community, Student Chapter and Emerging Leader programs.