As members of the community prepare to come back together, Rector Kathy Giles invited everyone to inspire and be inspired this Spring
Good morning, good afternoon, good evening, wherever you are, and I hope today finds you well.
As I was thinking about today’s convocation, I could not help but think back to last year’s spring convocation, when we were in week 3 or 4 of the pandemic and could not possibly have imagined what the weeks and months ahead would be like. I know that I was worried, non-stop 24/7, about when we could bring students back to the grounds, how we would keep everyone employed during a shutdown, and how we would do everything we do in the spring, including graduation and Anniversary. On top of these worries, I was getting a lot of unsolicited advice on how we should move forward and constant questions – whether I was being too conservative, too fearful, too unwilling-to-take risks in planning and decision-making in ways that would be bad for our students, our people, and the School, or whether I was in denial and Armageddon was actually upon us. This COVID virus is just like a bad cold – don’t teach the kids to be wimpy, some people told me, while other people told me it was unsafe for anyone to step outdoors. Don’t be so precious, some people told me, don’t teach the kids to be afraid, while other people insisted that we were reckless in not canceling everything immediately. As the days wore on and the pandemic rippled and cascaded throughout the world and the lives of 7.8 billion humans, it became clear that while our worries at SPS were real, the world was actually in real trouble.
One year ago, in March 2020, I offered these words during this convocation talk:
The uncertainty around us can sap our energies and our spirits, and without good facts, it is easy to succumb to fear. Here’s where we make our contribution to the greater good – we don’t succumb to fear. We’re cautious; we follow directions for safety and health – and we don’t succumb to fear. We don’t look at other people with suspicion; we acknowledge them; we smile and nod, just as we do here on the paths – whether they appreciate us or not. We help as we can, however we can – and we look for ways to make life for the people around us easier. Serving the greater good here means being part of the solution rather than the problem – and the solution lies in courage and hope, not in fear. Hope spans a broad horizon – hope that the virus curve will indeed be flattened; hope that we can, acting as a society, protect the most vulnerable among us by taking basic safety measures that inconvenience but do not disable us; hope that we can, through our efforts and outreach and support, help and encourage those we know who are very hard hit by illness or loss of jobs or separation from loved ones; and yes, hope that May finds us gathering in the chapel, together again, preparing to finish the year in the time-honored and beloved traditions of St. Paul's School.
One year, 26.8 million COVID-related deaths, and extraordinary scientific breakthroughs later, we are a lot closer to hope now than we were last March. By the end of next month, April 2021, all SPS adults will have been able to become fully vaccinated, and by May 1, all students who qualify by age will have the chance to sign up, even if actually getting vaccinated stretches on for some time to come. This May 2021 will find us gathering in chapel, and we are already working on in-person end-of-year and graduation events that we will adjust, as necessary, as we “prepare to finish the year in the time-honored and beloved traditions of St. Paul’s School.” There is a way to go, but we are going to come out the other side of this pandemic.
And a lot, a lot has happened in this year to all of us. There is loss across the entire range and scale of human experience, from the loss of loved ones to the loss of jobs and homes to the loss of school for months – now being referred to as "learning loss," all the way to the loss of a sports season, a vacation, an annual party, and everything in between. Fear has flourished in the confusion and won out, on way too many occasions. We, as a people, have looked at each other with worse than suspicion and have reacted with violence of spirit, word, and deed. The foundations of many things that we thought were safe, givens, have been shaken, from the processes of our democracy to choices available in the grocery store to our desire to see our society as a fair, equitable place. Perhaps we’ve all been required to experience what it feels like to be uncertain and fearful and vulnerable and not safe, feelings that are new to some of us but not new to many of us. The truths have been challenged, and alternative facts have been fabricated and accepted and promoted by many people around us, even people we trusted to know better. The message of respect and dignity for all people – while always aspirational, and not yet fact – was challenged by nature, by politics, and by the simple truth that in our confusion, we failed over and over again to protect those among us most vulnerable to the virus, to injustice, to hunger, to violence, to nature, to human nature.
AND yes, hope spans a broad horizon. We're not yet on the other side of COVID, but we can see a way to getting there IF we can maintain our focus and discipline. Mr. Lovett brought an interesting public health campaign to my attention – Boston University is urging its community to "Make it 'til May" – involving hands (wash them), masks (use them), and hearts (stay committed). We definitely need to Make it ‘til May – ‘til May 23, to be precise – so yes, please quarantine hard now and come back healthy. We’ll move from Red Zone to Yellow Zone as fast as we safely can; we’ll use the masks until the very end; we’ll keep following the advice and keep saliva testing and bubbling and everything else, until we get better facts and advice that tell us that we can adjust, safely, and do things differently. AND in making it until May, we’ll enjoy some of the most beautiful mornings in the world this spring, as we walk to class, and some of the loveliest sunsets on the ponds. We will hear beautiful music performed and watch astonishing dance. We will get to play this spring and to be in plays, this spring. We will write; we will sing; we will design; we will hang out; we will compete; we will pray; we will give thanks together. There will be golden evenings on the chapel lawn. At the heart of our school, even for those finishing the year in distance learning, we will be together in classes, learning to do hard things well, learning to be thinkers and scholars and collaborators and teammates. We will be invited to ask ourselves the big questions that our spirits still insist that we wrestle with – who am I, why am I here, how should I live, and what should I do? – and we will do that wrestling against this backdrop of nature and human community the School offers each of us. We will be invited to be inspired by each other.
Hope spans a broad horizon, and probably the thing that gives me the greatest hope is that despite our many failings, we have proven to be optimists and builders; we have not succumbed to fear, and we have learned that we are brave. It takes courage to do what we have done this year, to leave homes and families and venture across COVID, states, regions, countries, indeed the world, to be away from the people we love most and come together to do our jobs, to work on the very hard and challenging conversations about race and justice and belonging, to be all right in the bubble, even when we feel lonely and miss family and friends and what we used to like to do. We come together again, as the people of this school have done here for more than the past 150 years, to learn and grow together into people who individually and collectively are building lives of purpose in service to greater goods. Perhaps our part, these past few months, has been small. We've been doing the work of being a good school, while other people on the front lines have been working to save sick and dying people and resolve enormous, "unprecedented" world challenges. But perhaps, these past few months, our part has been to grow the scientists who will have to conquer the next great global health crisis; to grow the activists and statemen and politicians of all political beliefs, who collectively will never let violence and lies threaten this democracy on their watch; to grow the doctors, nurses, teachers, clergy, social workers who will know how to care for everyone so much better for living through this experience; to grow the artists, the business people, the engineers, the diplomats, the people who bring so much talent to the needs of others – because, during this past year, we haven’t stopped growing and most importantly, you students have not stopped growing. You’ve grown in critical ways – in resilience, in stamina, in courage – in addition to what you know and can think and do. As we finish this school year, that growth gets to continue. That is an enormous privilege, an enormous blessing, and our community’s service to the greater good. We’re not done yet.
We will be reckoning with this past year for a long time. We get to mourn the little losses for a little while, and we choose to focus on the good work in front of us. The same people who needed our help still need it, and particularly in the ways that we support each other every day. We need to double down on our efforts, here on the grounds, to stay healthy; to make sure that we train ourselves and require ourselves to acknowledge each other with absolute respect; to hold ourselves accountable to honesty and the truth, even when it hurts; to grant each other the grace and generosity and even forgiveness we hope others will grant us in our inevitable moments of weakness and failure, and to hold ourselves to the ethics and accountability of kindness and not just the pretense of being nice. We need to re-commit ourselves, for these 9.5 weeks remaining, to making every day of these 67 days matter and doing our jobs – learning and teaching and growing in service to those greater goods that call each of us. Courage and hope have gotten us a long way, and while there is still a ways to go, because we are optimists and builders, I expect us to do better than “Make it ‘til May.” In the words of Reverend Going that Caleb just read, let’s be open to the miracle of every day, let’s breathe the best of each day, and let’s live these days aware, open, listening, breathing, alive.
Ultimately, the invitation this spring to each of us is to inspire and to be inspired.