Welcome back from your first week of school scattered in locations ranging from downtown Boston to Mount Katahdin, from the White Mountains of New Hampshire to Acadia National Park Downeast, and from a host of places in between. I have heard happy reports from all directions. Now it feels good to assemble together this morning under one roof as a full Upper School for the first time this year.
Last week I was with the ninth grade up north in the middle of the 100 mile wilderness on pristine Fourth Debsconeag Lake. As most of you know who have been there when you were in ninth grade, it is a very good place to get to know people. I can tell the rest of you that we are lucky to have this class joining the Upper School. They were fun, helpful, and up for anything we threw at them, from long hikes, to deep meditations, to strange challenges such as using only their facial muscles to move Oreo cookies from their brows to their mouths.
At the campfire on the last night, I asked the students why they thought that Waynflete Upper School has opened with Outdoor Experience for more than 40 years. I wish I had recorded the responses because they perfectly articulated the philosophy that underlies the program. One response in particular stood out for me, which is that for the ninth grade, the program is designed so that the first big challenge of high school is experienced together as a class. Facing a collective challenge creates lasting bonds, underscoring the bigger idea that in any healthy community, no individual should feel alone.
That comment stood out in part because it reminded me of last year, which was the most challenging of my entire career. I know I speak for all of us who experienced the loss of two students and friends – first Payton and then Beata – when I say that at times feeling those losses has seemed almost unbearable but ultimately became bearable because of the way this community of students, faculty, and parents responded, with exceptional care and courage, tirelessly striving to reach out to one another so that nobody would have to endure such a painful experience alone.
As we enter a new year with a new mix of students and staff, some who were here last year and some who were not, I am comforted knowing that whatever comes our way, I will be in the same boat as all of you. Being in such a supportive community helps all of us both to endure great trials and to take the kinds of emotional and intellectual risks that are the catalysts for personal growth and the foundation for the powerful, world class education that awaits you.
As a faculty, we believe that our collective ties are so important to making you all feel both safe and challenged that we are seeking ways to make those ties even stronger. This year, we intend to focus on cultivating all of our capacities to be in dialogue with each other across the rich array of our differences in viewpoints and backgrounds. Building strong connections through dialogue seems more important than ever right now because we live at a time when the great diversity of our nation, which truly is our strength, is too often viewed as the cause of division and animosity.
In fact, as I read the news and the hostile rhetoric flying around social media right now, I feel great concern for the safety and well being of our students of color as they navigate their lives outside of school, especially our Muslim students, especially our Muslim girls who choose to cover because they can’t take a break and blend into the masses, even if they were to try.
As a white, middle aged male whose family immigrated to America centuries ago, I simply don’t have the life experience of feeling like the target of such suspicion and animosity. But I can seek understanding of that experience by listening to those who do and then take action based on what I understand. Creating and maintaining a school community that both holds and challenges our students in a variety of ways and teaches them to learn from each other through dialogue are tangible steps that the faculty and I can take to make the world we live in better for everyone right now and into the future.
In addition to being receptive to our efforts to promote dialogue as a habit at Waynflete, we hope that each of you will think about what steps you can take to make the communities that you inhabit better because you are present in them. Whether a long term initiative to combat an injustice or small daily acts of kindness or an extended commitment to community service – those are the actions that make a difference. Please know that supporting your efforts to be good neighbors and responsible citizens of the world are also steps that the faculty and I are always pleased to take.
Being in your presence this morning fills me with energy and optimism. Thank you for your respectful listening. I truly look forward to our year together.