A New Year

Rector Kathy Giles' remarks at the annual faculty and staff chapel service set the tone for a new year.
Before I begin my remarks this morning, I’d like to welcome Chuck Wynder and Sam Lovett to leadership in our community and to this chapel.
 
Let us take a moment to reflect and offer our thoughts and prayers to Jacob Blake and his family and the people of Kenosha; to everyone affected by Hurricane Laura; and to the people we know who are in need of our understanding, our love, and our support.
 
I think we can agree that it has been an unusual summer. We each and all have experienced what it means to live with grave, serious uncertainty. Most of us structure our lives to avoid uncertainty – it is most unwelcome, and we struggle against it. I want to be in charge; I want to be in control of my choices. So, we create schedules and plans and “to-do” lists; we work hard to “get ahead of” potential problems or issues; we make the good choices that should lead to security, to safety, to well-being. We live healthily, we protect our families, we design the futures we want – and then uncertainty strikes. It strikes in many forms known to us – illness and injury; conflict, even with people we love; loss – a disaster, a death, a denial, a refusal, a disappointment. Most of us, as adults, have built up the resilience we need to deal with what griefs, large and small, we know life holds – maybe not every moment of every day, but most days.  
 
Our Sixth Formers have chosen “resilience” as the community’s theme for this year, and they have chosen wisely. The first definitions of resilience that come to mind include toughness – the capacity to rebound, to recover quickly from difficulties; they include the concept of elasticity, the ability to absorb the hit and spring back into shape. The American Psychological Association offers a definition of resilience that includes adapting to ever-changing situations and emerging even stronger than before. And there are, of course, huge numbers of self-help books touting so-called pillars of resilience, or essentials skills of resilience, as well as “the blessings of a skinned knee” – all encouraging us to persevere, to keep the faith and grow against the resistance, even just to hang in there until whatever it is passes until we find our way or make our way back to what we knew before – to spring back into the shape we knew and maybe took for granted before uncertainty struck. This community theme of resilience will give us wonderful opportunities to work with the young people entrusted to us, first-time callers to this brave, new world, as we navigate the upcoming weeks together, figuring out how to work with our masks, how to keep the right distance in addition to the right boundaries, how to manage this new COVID reality while continuing to be the school we love and to move forward.  The kids want to move forward, and their momentum will help us all. Resilience will help us deal with uncertainty, keeping our focus and balance, and exercising our emotional and psychological muscles to meet the demands of every day. These skills are crucial, and our students are ready to learn them – and we can all be good teachers. We know people in this community who are all-pro at resilience, and while on good days, we can step back and admire them, these days – these days of uncertainty – call us to do more than admire. In the words of Drs. Rob Evans and Michael Thompson, psychologists who worked with our faculty this past Monday, we each of us need to find our courage. Courage fuels resilience. And as we’ve seen over these past few weeks, courage inspires confidence, and courage can be contagious. As I’ve watched our community respond to the demands of the past few months, as we have re-imagined and re-created just about every aspect of our lives and work together, and as we prepare to welcome our students to this school year – not back to school, this year, but to a new way of doing school, this year and maybe longer – we’re finding our courage from our new routines, from the reassurance we get from each other as we do it together, from coming together. While I wish we were all together this morning here in this chapel, we are more than all right – because we have found other ways to be together and work together over these past few months, and we will continue to find new ways in the weeks ahead. Dr. Thompson offered us a great quote from the writer EB White last week – “It is very important that you know the sources of your own strength and return to them.” The sources of our strength, as a school community, are many, and they can be easily seen in our relationships and the work we do together – the work of bringing forth what is best in young people to prepare them for lives of scholarship, spirituality, and citizenship in service to a greater good.
 
As we think about the sources of our strength, this reading from Hymns to an Unknown God speaks to me about how we find our strengths and our courage in the face of such massive uncertainties. Resilience carries with it an expectation of sorts that if we persevere, we will return to what we knew and loved – we will bend but not break; we will be stronger after the crises have passed; we will overcome and get to the better place. All may be true ­­– yet we as adults know that no one can make those promises about where we are today. Uncertainty creates anxiety, huge anxiety. What if the vaccine never arrives or doesn’t work? What if we can’t go back to the ways of life we enjoyed, basically taking for granted our community good health, the prosperity that allowed us leisure and choices and a sense that we could indulge ourselves and still attend to the basics of our families’ and our children’s needs, the freedom to travel with little apparent risk, the ability to walk down a street and breathe the air. So much has happened to show us that this way of life is neither universal nor basic; that so many people around us, near and far, do not enjoy the same choices and freedoms and privileges as we do, here; and that the work we do together can be just that, work, unless there is, in the words of Mr. Keen that Sam Lovett just read, something more powerful in the source of our strength, something that binds us together in our resilience, some common beliefs that help us be optimists and builders, not just copers and survivors. In the words of Mr. Keen, “What impels a man or woman on this great venture is not the expectation of arrival but a sense of vocation. Something calls my name and demands I respond.”  
 
So, in August of 2020, at the end of a summer of turmoil and the beginning of a fall of unpredictability, I ask us to think about who or what is calling our name and how we can we hear it above the tweeting and the shouting. While I can’t answer that question for anyone else, over these past few months, I have seen, and I have heard. In watching my colleagues work non-stop since mid-February on salvaging the spring for our students and building a sustainable fall so they can continue their growth, and so that others can gain confidence and hope from our commitment and success, I have seen people who build – our people who build walls and install HEPA filters and move fitness equipment and Harkness tables and clean and cook and tend and take care of others; our people who build new schedules, new courses, new faculties, new ways of teaching, new programs, in response to the community’s and our students’ needs; our people who are doing the work to build all of our understanding of justice and equity and create that compassionate community that is a just, safe place of belonging for all of us.  Yes, there is more work to be done.  And we are builders who are resilient, and even more so, who are optimists – who believe in a future that does work, that can work better for everyone, even if it is not what we thought was our “desired direction” – optimists and builders, each in our own ways, with our own skills, with our own compassion, with our own commitment to meeting the needs of others that we see and feel around us, far and near – optimists and builders whose spiritual selves, across our many faith traditions, hear the call to use our varied gifts to serve the good, the greater good. Something calls our name and demands that we respond. Even as this year poses perhaps unprecedented challenges, they highlight the ways we lean on each other and inspire each other and find our courage together as we turn our hands and hearts to building a better school that builds better people for a world in need.
 
I am grateful, grateful, grateful for our optimism, our faith, and our hope together as we undertake this new school year.
 

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