Before I share some thoughts with you this morning, I would like to ask for a moment of silence to remember those who lost those who lost their lives at the Tree of Life synagogue outside of Pittsburgh on Saturday, and the two people shot in Kentucky at a Kroger store last Wednesday. The former were murdered because of their religion; the latter, their race.
It is self-evident that the last few days have been difficult ones in our country. In addition to these events, several pipe bombs were sent last week to some major political figures. Fortunately, they were intercepted by the authorities and no one was hurt. Prior to the awful school shooting at Sandy Hook, the last time I had reached out to our families about such terrible violence was the day after September 11, a period of 12 years. Unfortunately, in the past five, I have written so many similar letters to our school community that I now have a file for them. At moments such as this, my sadness deepens and the search for hope becomes even more difficult.
Where, we ask, does such hatred come from? Why do people commit such unspeakable acts of inhumanity?
Over the weekend, I once again found myself reading the words of the poet, Wendell Berry. His poem The Peace of Wild Things
has brought me moments of comfort since I first heard it, back on September 11, 2001.
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
Waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
While it helps me to think of these words, I realize that they may not offer you the same comfort. How do we find peace in these moments? Is it even possible? Yet, we need to take the time to pause, settle ourselves and think lest we act in haste and risk doing further damage to our relationships and the communities that we are a part of.
Ignorance, fear and hatred have always been present in the world, but now they are openly stoked and amplified online. Worse, the divisions exposed by these events are everywhere, and regretfully are present in our own community. However, it would be a mistake to think that they are new, or that by holding those accountable for the most egregious transgressions such problems disappear. They have always existed, just below the surface.
We see it every day in small ways, even when it tries to hide in plain sight. The indignities and injustice that people of color experience on a regular basis defy any reasonable explanation or ability to understand. Although the #MeToo movement may have shined a spotlight on a number of individuals guilty of sexual assault, misogynistic behavior continues in many types of interactions, social and otherwise. Furthermore, the often-casual use of language in popular culture has in many ways robbed particular words of their deeper meaning, blinding us to the suffering and hurt behind them. Because of this, we delude ourselves into thinking that only bad people do bad things.
What comes next?
How do we respond to these things, as individuals and as a community?
We cannot and should not remain silent. Elie Weisel, author, death camp survivor and Nobel Laureate, once observed, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
We have a lot of work to do, both in our country and in our school community. It will not be easy.
First, we must remember to listen. It is difficult to have a conversation of any kind unless all involved have the opportunity to speak and be heard. However, all too often in the effort to share our story, we fail to listen intently to those of others. In so doing, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to learn and deceive ourselves into thinking that we are in the right and others wrong. As you take part in what I hope will be an ongoing dialogue in our school community about issues of race, misogyny, xenophobia, antisemitism or homophobia, it would help to seek first to understand, then to be understood. Last week, thanks to a parent and Ms. Barrett, I was reminded of these words from Dr. King: “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.” In order to communicate, first we must listen and hear.
Second, we have to be willing to look honestly at ourselves, not just our words, but also our actions, on and off campus. Yes, I said that: on and off campus. Although the things that take place off campus may not directly fall under the purview of the school, they absolutely impact our lives here. Have you ever said or done something to someone in a social setting that was unkind? Hurtful? Have you ever used a racial epithet, said or sung something vulgar or demeaning? Words can hurt and often lead to actions that bring pain. Fortunately, words can also heal.
Third, we need to be open to learning. I know that sounds a little obvious, as we are in a school. Yet it is so important that we are open to new and different viewpoints as well as the opportunities for growth that they present. Our mission does not solely focus on preparation for college; we also want to do our best to prepare you for a meaningful life. This happens in many ways and it is not indoctrination, it is education.
Finally, and unfortunately, we need to come to terms with the fact that all of us are biased. It is inescapable, and genetically hard-wired into our very being, originally simply to insure our survival. However, we need to take a step back now and reflect on how our biases impact our relationships with others. Many exist deep in our subconscious minds, others right on the surface. It is troubling to me as a Head of School that the current political environment seems to have made it easier for some to more openly share a decidedly negative bias, causing conflict and further division. Pointing fingers and laying blame does not solve anything. It is often difficult to discern intent; therefore we must focus on the impact of words and deeds. Good people do bad things too.
Consider, also, your virtual lives. The images and comments you post online never go away, regardless of what app you might use. They may be seen by your parents, the school, the police, even college admissions officers or future employers. Is this who you really are, or want to be?
At Convocation, I asked Anna to read a children’s book, Only One You. Linda Kranz wrote a very simple story, about parents’ advice to their child. I suspect most of you have forgotten it, but the last part is worth repeating: “There is only one you in this great big world; make it a better place.”
None of us can undo the past, although we can consciously try to change in the present and create a better future for ourselves. Listen, reflect and be open to learning about others and the world. Consider the core values of our community and ask yourself if they truly reflect who you are, given the inherent biases that we all carry with us.
Last, be a part of the effort and conversations that will follow our time together today. Choose to make this “great big world”, the world that is our classroom, better.