Remarks by Rector Kathy Giles
The Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul
October 12, 2019
Good Saturday morning, and welcome! While it might seem a bit early to be getting down to work, we are warming you up for a day’s worth of insights into classes and life at SPS. The hope for today is that you get a good sense of your student’s orbit here and how the pieces are fitting together – whether this is year one or year last – so that you have a good working frame of reference to help your student make those good choices that form the core of a successful growth experience. And thank you for being here this weekend – your presence gives visible strength to the partnership between teachers and parents. Many of you have come a long way, but whether you are from Concord, N.H., Concord, California, or across the planet, that investment and caring are wonderful gifts to your student and our community. Thank you.
After the first few weeks of my seventeenth year as a head of school, albeit my first year as Rector, I’m completely impressed by the students and colleagues of SPS. This student body is incredibly diverse, interesting, and curious. Our students’ spirits are high; they are excited about learning and community, and they want to take full advantage of their time together. And they are in the community with both feet, so to speak; the common residential experience really does both ground and energize us. We’ve had robust turnout at night games, evening capture the flag, and the first big dance – and for the climate strike and Eco-Fest. It makes all the difference when students – particularly Sixth Formers – show up ready to participate, and whether it is in the jam-packed library every night (where truth be told, ENOUGH studying is going on), or the student center or the Rectory Open Houses on Saturday nights, our students are out and about and engaged. And it’s terrific to see the partnership with talented and engaged teachers, as well, in those 360-degree kinds of ways that are so unique and powerful in boarding schools. It’s great to be out and around in the evenings and see teachers and students working together in office hours or just meeting for help – or, in a couple of notable cases, help and cookies.
After just a couple of months, it’s pretty clear to me that this community is building a modern version of itself on those traditionally strong pillars of scholarship, leadership, character, and community; that we appreciate our spiritual lives and give both time and space to their cultivation; that life here engages our entire selves, physical, intellectual, social, emotional, and spiritual; and that there are indeed those common ties expressed by the School Prayer – kindness, unselfishness, consideration, and compassion – that we offer each other and rely on, in our turn, in the day-to-day life here at SPS. We are by no means perfect, with much to work on – and thank goodness for that! – but as we all know, it doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful. All systems are go on this school year, and there is much to look forward to as our Board of Trustees undertakes strategic planning and looks to build on this school’s strengths, looking forward. It’s a great time to be at St. Paul’s School. I wanted to offer some thoughts on one of the ideas the students are promoting this year – the idea of authenticity, first presented to me in an August e-mail from the four elected school officers. This wonderful e-mail offered up this goal of authenticity as (and I quote) “authenticity from the student body in its beliefs and wishes, authenticity from faculty members and administrators seeking to promote positive growth and standards, and accountability all around when we stray from our School’s values and beliefs.” Those ideas are eloquent and powerful in the context of this community in which, yes, change has been a big factor over the past several years. As I’ve thought about this idea of “authenticity,” I’ve found a number of good working definitions – the quality of being real or true, genuine, legitimate because of alignment with fact and truth. It’s the absence of pretension, the quality that makes something not false or copied or phony. Authenticity is a hot buzzword these days in a variety of contexts, but it’s a wise choice for a high school as a topic for discussion and reflection. Authenticity is the opposite of airbrushing or photoshopping; it takes on the illusions promoted by REAL Instagrams and FAKE Instagrams, “rinstas” and “instas,” Snapchat, and streaks. It’s the “real real” as opposed to images that are curated, perfected for show, buffed to a high gloss, designed to impress and get approval and notoriety from strangers as well as from followers and friends.
This topic is a wise choice for us in 2019 because never in the history of humanity has there been more pressure on teenagers to project as perfect or less reason for teenagers to trust the truth of what they are told – by the media, by their teachers, by their parents. Every adult here can probably remember a particularly excruciating moment when, as a teenager, just coming into an understanding of the world, we felt acutely the gap between how we wanted the world to see us and what we were afraid the world might find about who we actually were. Those moments are the stuff of legend, those cringe-worthy moments that, in hindsight, maybe aren’t so bad, but when we were experiencing them felt searing. Coming into awareness of ourselves as independent actors in a complicated and not entirely friendly world is, in itself, a definitional “wake up” moment, but then there are those questions – who am I, what am I supposed to be and do, and how am I going to live up to it? – that accost most teenagers in a variety of ways, but perhaps, most acutely in how they feel measured by others. Grades and test scores have been obvious metrics and frankly have been a little over-vilified in that role, but in the lives of our students, there are many, many others, some of which are based on objective data, but most of which are subject to manipulation. And those metrics – the data on how am I fitting in, how am I standing out, do people like me – have gripped our collective attention in revolutionary ways.
In 2019, the prevalence of screens in teenagers’ lives brings the entire world to their fingertips 24/7/365 – it’s wonderful, awe-inspiring, and terrifying. When I was in high school and in my early days of teaching, getting a teenager to read the newspaper or watch television news was a hard sell – we constantly had to be told that the outside world deserved our attention and that we needed to stop being so narcissistic. Look outward, not inward, we were advised – and wow, has technology solved that problem for us. The world is with us at all times – perhaps, in the words of the poet William Wordsworth, “the world is too much with us, late and soon.” A young person can’t ignore that world now without deliberate and sustained effort, and most don’t. Our teenagers are knowledgeable, well-versed in what is current, attuned to people and ideas from around the world; they are responsible in the ways they pay attention, and they prioritize being good citizens. AND they are also hooked on crisis, controversy, and gossip; they have to work hard to discern real facts from alternative facts, and their lives on social media are at the mercy of the almighty “like.” In previous generations, perhaps the almighty dollar was the target when we “raged against the man.” In 2019, it’s the “like,” the desire to get positive feedback on your post, your image, your tweet, regardless of its truth, its value, or its authenticity. It’s hard to figure out the value of a “like,” but its emotional punch is very clear, and those “likes” have become very relevant to teenagers as they address those big questions of identity and relationships. Teenagers consider the effects of their expression on “likes” and “followers” in ways that are eerily analogous to the ways politicians read polling data – and we know, from the current controversies about foreign interference in social media to alter polling and election results, how powerful information and misinformation around likes and followers can be. In that context, I find it remarkable and admirable that our students want to work on authenticity and promote the “real real,” and I find it really remarkable that they articulate that “accountability all around to our School’s values and beliefs” as part of that authenticity package. In fact, I find it inspirational.
So, what does authenticity look like here? What about accountability? And how can we, parents and teachers, help and support? It’s a good topic for Family Weekend, as you review progress reports and early grades and college application plans and essays and watch performances and games and try to figure out how to encourage your student’s growth. One place we look for authenticity is the work we do in this chapel every day and the values encapsulated in the School Prayer we will offer together in a few minutes – kindness, unselfishness, consideration, and compassion – and how we work with those values in the teaching, learning, and living together that we do. Those are great ground rules for our community life, and I hope you see them in action certainly today, in your student’s interactions and experiences, and yes, in the young adult character your student is building. Articulating values AND holding each other accountable to them take many different forms, and they are an important part of learning to do hard things well, the common denominator of all of our efforts together. The social science writer David Brooks several years ago wrote about the difference between resume virtues and eulogy virtues, and the temptation to push resume virtues right now is strong for our students – and we, as parents and teachers, have to remind them and yes, model for them, that their character matters so much more than their transcript. The real real is the strength of the person each one of these young people becomes and what that strength will offer to a world in need, and while that’s an ambitious idea to contemplate at age 14, 15, and 16, we can help our students see both the bigger picture and the important steps along the way as they begin to design not only successful but also meaningful and worthy lives.
Authenticity in our relationships in another important place to look. Psychological research has shown for years that teenagers are happiest when they feel known and needed by their communities, connected with people who love them, and when they feel strong in themselves – centered, capable, resilient, optimistic, and determined. Authentic relationships with parents and teachers that love what is AND promote growth and a growth mindset prove infinitely more valuable to young people that the sense that they are not good enough in themselves, that they can’t solve problems independently, that there is artifice to their achievement or that somehow it got done for them and they didn’t earn it. While the urge is strong to think that we can prepare the path for the child, rather than prepare the child for the path, our adult lives are replete with proof that unless our plan allows for flexibility and reassessment and redirection, the path we assiduously prepare ends at the proverbial bridge to nowhere.
Authenticity requires that we acknowledge that our plan might not be THE plan, that reassessment and redirection will by necessity happen to all of us and can be terrific, and that we prioritize outcome over process at our peril. There are so many invitations to us, as parents and teachers, to drive towards the prize, whether that be grades or test scores or the polished resume or the recruiting attention or the internship or the right college acceptance – so many opportunities to miss the mark and send the wrong message about expecting our children to meet our definitions of success, no matter how worthy the definition might seem, sending the wrong messages just the way that the quest for “likes” can – the wrong message that the perfect look and the perfect resume are worth sacrificing what is true and important and life-giving. It’s a good opportunity, this weekend, for us all to applaud process over outcome, to celebrate growth rather than just achievement, and when the need arises, to remind ourselves – all of us – that growth comes in the stretch, the effort, the courage to lean in, the wrestling, the re-write, the extra help, the grades that improve through hard work and focus, the growth that happens when the young person takes responsibility for him or herself – everything that goes into the authentic process of learning and growing and becoming for each of us as individuals, messy and unpredictable and challenging as it can be. There’s such beauty in being together in the middle of growth, and parents and teachers, it is up to us to remind our students that we love them in their imperfection, just as they come to see and know us and, hopefully, still love us in ours, as well.
But just as this concept of authenticity is not about airbrushed perfection, neither is it about compromise or managing expectations. It’s about embracing the messiness, the unpredictability, the challenge, AND owning it, and recognizing the strength we gain as we work and grow with it and through it and beyond it. On Wednesday last week, one of our Sixth Formers spoke here about her experience with scoliosis and the intense medical care and uncertainty that were omnipresent in her childhood and made her feel, as she put it, “self-conscious and scared to be myself” as she hid the big back brace and the uncertainty and learned to cope – and to grow. The metaphor offered by her story was amazing in that all of our students here are facing many such challenges as they take hold of their identity and figure out who they are in a world that challenges them to make choices constantly, not only about how much time to spend on that hard math homework but on how to be as an ethical young human. Miniya Greene told us about her experiences with scoliosis as a young person who could have defined herself as someone who looks different, who ”can’t do” athletics, who carries with her limitations – but instead, she chooses to define herself as growing into an understanding of her own “real real” and seeing not only the challenges but also the possibilities and opportunities, choosing not to sit stuck within limits imposed by her back brace but to grow out beyond them. She told us, “with being poked and prodded comes the ability to identify issues that you may have and to come up with a productive solution. While being molded, you learn how to express individuality in other ways … while my curve might have gone from 46 to 25 degrees, the other 21 degrees are still present, reminding me to be who I am on the inside, and that eventually will be reflected on the outside.” That statement of confidence, belief, faith – that’s resilience and courage and optimism and exactly what we, as parents and teachers, want to help our young people develop. I think the kids are onto something important and wise in putting forward this paradigm of genuineness and truth and accountability in this vibrant, thriving, powerful community. We, the adults, play many important roles, from cheerleader to mentor to coach to confidante to teacher, but we know we can’t do it for them. It’s a wonderful moment, in this time together this Family Weekend, to understand their world, their opportunities, and their challenges; to make clear that we believe their character to be so much more important than their achievement; to remind them and ourselves that we love them and who they are on the inside, as well as what they express on the outside. The “real real” is all we need.