Fall Convocation 2020

Rector Kathy Giles commences the School's 165th session with a theme of resilience.
Before I begin my remarks this morning, I’d like us to take a moment to reflect and offer our thoughts and prayers to Jacob Blake and his family and the people of Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the people of Portland, Oregon; 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 would also like to take this opportunity to welcome all of our new students, our new faculty, and our new staff members. On behalf of all of us, I welcome Reverend Wynder and Mr. Lovett to the community and to this space, to lead us in spirit and help us focus on being and becoming – and, as Mr. Lovett commented to me earlier this week, remembering that those words are verbs – the active work of being and becoming – as well as nouns.
 
Welcome back. I have been waiting months to say those words. So much has changed in the six months you’ve been away – so much about the ways we have been used to doing things has changed – but as we get right down to it, we are back. We are masked and distanced and zoned and sanitized and re-scheduled and de-densified and in-person and remote – and we are back. We are doing the great work of teaching and learning, of being and becoming, of learning to do hard things well – and whether this is your first or second day as part of this school community, or whether it is your forty-sixth year, you are back, and we are back in school. We have spent hundreds of hours during these past months planning, planning, planning, and it is impossible to offer enough thanks to our administrators and faculty and staff members who have been at this work since you left last February 29, many of whom took no time off this summer, to think and work together on how to bring us back to be the school we know and love. On behalf of all of us, I offer our deep, most sincere thanks, and I hope that over the coming days, we will find ways to offer our personal thanks and our gratitude to these people who really have worked tirelessly these past six months. And despite all of that work, we know that there will be many unforeseen situations for which there are no scripts or playbooks. But there are a couple of very simple principles that will carry us a long way this year. I’d like to spend a moment on a few of them this morning.
 
The first is one of life’s best rules. A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to talk with the Sixth Form, and it was a really straightforward message: don’t cheat. If you want to be here, on the grounds, in person – don’t cheat on the mask, the distance, the sanitizing, the zones, the staying-on-campus, the whole thing. If you want to play sports this year – and that is going to depend on the health of our whole community, not just our athletes – don’t cheat. If you want to sing, or play in the orchestra, or act in a play – don’t cheat. And this year, please help other people not to cheat –because their cheat could cost us all the chance to be the school we want to be, and could send us home again. The stakes are high, and the message is simple and, ironically, the same as it always is: don’t cheat. Every year, in my opening-of-school remarks, I talk about following the school rules as the baseline agreement rather than as the goal of our community compact, the trust we need to have to live together, and that is true – if school life is like a highway, the school rules are like the guardrails. Stay away from them and mind speed limits, the no-passing zones, and the warning rumble strips. If you run into the guardrails at high speed, there will be damage, but hopefully, they keep you out of ditches. But this year, you have signed on for more. As Mrs. Ellinwood says, we each and all of us have a duty to protect the flock. You’ve signed that “social compact” that outlines expectations in this time of COVID-19 that are above and beyond what we usually ask of our students. You can do it, and we can do it. We need to be patient; we need to be flexible; we need to be resilient.
 
The second idea is also pretty straightforward. 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 learn from mistakes, 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 know – to spring back into shape, even if that requires us to create a new shape. These past few months have held a wide variety of experiences for us, in terms of what each of us and our families has experienced during this pandemic – and it is not over yet. This community theme of resilience gives us wonderful opportunities to work together as we navigate the upcoming weeks, 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. Everyone wants to move forward, and each one of us will help everyone else by adding our optimism and resilience to the community. Forward 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. 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 call us to do more than admire. In the words of Drs. Rob Evans and Michael Thompson, school psychologists who worked with our faculty last week, each of us needs to find our courage. Courage fuels resilience.
 
And courage and resilience are important parts of our spiritual selves and the challenges coming at us beyond COVID. All around campus, in signs and in the LINC curriculum conversations, we say we prioritize the value of “living honorably.” We are called, in the fall of 2020, each of us, to re-commit to living honorably, with courage and resiliency, and to prioritize our ethical and spiritual integrity. In this reading from the Gospel of St. Luke just now, we know that the priest and the Levite were citizens of proud, principled, exclusive communities – communities that lived righteously, with zero tolerance for differences because they knew right – elite communities, or so they thought. But what did the priest and the Levite think when they saw the injured man lying on the side of the road? Maybe something like the following: “I don’t recognize him; he doesn’t look like me; he is not my people; I didn’t do it to him, so I am not responsible; from the looks of him, must be his own fault; glad it’s not me; he is different from me, so he does not believe what I believe, so he is not my friend and not my problem, and I can walk away and move forward.” Maybe they even thought, “it’s so awful that these roads aren’t safe, these days – somebody needs to do something about that.” We’ve heard this kind of thinking in bits and pieces and protests and soundbites and tweets through these past few months as injustice and racism and the pain and injury they create every day have ripped through the fabrics of our communities and through our community, as well, in Black@SPS. This Gospel reading is not about the politics of being a priest or a Levite or a Samaritan or the victim; it is about the core values of how we live, and it is about all of us, together, here and now. This story is about the people we want to be in the world in which we want to live, and therefore the world we need to build. What do we do when we see something that is not right, something that is wrong, something that hurt someone – a comment, an action, an image – something that would be so much easier not to deal with, as if it were not our problem? The Samaritan – the one from Samaria, the outsider clan despised as the enemy, the inferior, the lesser – the Samaritan stopped because he was moved – because he felt, with empathy, that what had happened was wrong, that the suffering could be his own but for luck or time or place or circumstance. The Samaritan knew, finding his courage, that he had to act. He believed, with faith and humility, that it was his duty to act because he would want to be treated with mercy, with respect, with empathy, with courage, with care, with justice, should he find himself in need, regardless of fault or reason. It wasn’t easy, and it was right. He crossed over; he spent his own time and money not only to help but to care. He took some risks and summoned his courage in the service of decency and humanity. It cost him something, and what he gained in justice, in respect, in dignity has made him immortal. Among all different faith traditions, everyone knows what it means to be honored as a Good Samaritan. As we work through the issues of racism and injustice and suffering in our community and in our country over the coming weeks, we start from this essential premise: it takes courage and resiliency to love your neighbor as ourselves, and everyone is our neighbor. Black lives matter as a matter of fundamental human dignity and respect. Within this community, our community, we want to build the school in which everyone feels welcome and safe and at home. While St. Paul’s School is in our care and keeping, while we are part-owners, we want to make sure that with humility and integrity, we love God in all forms and traditions; that we honor the divine spark we can so easily see in each other if we look for it; and that we treat each other always how we hope to be treated ourselves – with kindness, empathy, dignity, and respect. These are the fundamental spiritual truths on which this chapel, and all houses and temples of God, rest. This fall and the upcoming election will test our political system, but it is up to all of us to make sure that it does not test our integrity as people who love our neighbors as ourselves. Courage fuels resilience.
 
We know that the rules in New Hampshire have changed and will continue to change – and we can adjust as necessary. We know we will have positive test results and cases of COVID because we have been there and done that – and if we stick to the priority of safety and health, if we don’t cheat and keep each other honest, everything will fall into place if we just keep working at it. We know that in a time of a lot of uncertainty and anxiety, it can be really hard to focus on being here and doing our jobs – really hard perhaps, if one is a new student away from home and friends, in a new place with new people with a huge rush of information and emotion – really hard, friends, and I hope you will lean on us over the coming days to steady and strengthen you. For those of you new to the community, last spring, we used the saying, “show up, lean in, and
shine on” to describe the ways we managed the spring away from each other and the grounds. Perhaps this fall, we adjust that mantra to “show up, lean in, lean on, and shine.” We can build a better school this fall if we work together, help each other, hold each other accountable, and let our courage fuel our resilience.  
 
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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