Mr. Matthews, parents, colleagues, students and especially members of the Class of 2021, it is my prerogative on this occasion of Convocation to formally announce the beginning the 2020-2021 academic year at Gill St. Bernard’s. By now, you have heard me mention several times how this year has been unlike any other. Consider for a moment, that NHL and NBA teams are only now in postseason play and there weren’t any preseason NFL games. Professional hockey in August/September? That just feels so odd. I won’t comment on Major League Baseball, as my favorite team is not very good right now, and that may be the case for a long time. New movies? Bill and Ted might consider permanent retirement. Going to concerts? Not really happening, and how many of us ended up on Netflix watching things like Tiger King and The Last Dance? BTW, I’m beginning to think that Carole Baskin might be guilty.

In fact, there are a number of things that are different, even uncomfortable in our lives because of Covid 19. Going to the grocery store, a restaurant, even to the dentist; everything in our lives has been affected. We still feel awkward with face coverings, standing 6 feet away from each other, and washing our hands repeatedly, like Lady MacBeth. Yet several things have actually changed for the better. Certainly, the pace of life has slowed and for many, the opportunity for more family time has been a blessing. More chances to exercise, too. And definitely, things have never been cleaner.

I am grateful that we have the opportunity to be back on campus for the start of another academic year, to be here together in this special place. The challenges we faced in developing the new protocols, changes to the buildings, purchasing masks and other protective supplies, renting tents, and more was daunting. I am so thankful for all of my colleagues who worked tirelessly throughout the summer to make this possible. Under the leadership of our CFO, Ms. Garnes; the nurses, our trainer, Director of Security, the operations team and others spent countless hours planning for re-entry to the campus. There was not a single day this summer when there weren’t people here working on behalf of all of you. Further, these efforts were complicated by frequent changes in the guidance from the state, and latest updates about how the virus spreads. Teachers too, spent the summer studying and preparing for you to be here both in person, and remotely.

Like everything else, this ceremony today is different, dramatically scaled back for reasons of health and safety. Last year, we were in the athletic center—students, teachers, and some senior’s parents—to celebrate the class of 2020. Now, it is just seniors and those involved in the ceremony, with everyone else watching from another location. It all seems so strange, so different from what we have been used to for all of our lives and one of the biggest risks is a potential adverse impact on our school culture.

The late scientist, Stephen Jay Gould once observed that “human beings are pattern seeking creatures.” We crave predictability and find comfort in our regular routines. In addition, we are primarily social in nature, not solitary. Let’s face it, Covid 19 has made us really uncomfortable. Further, the discomfort inevitably impacts many areas of our lives, especially our relationships with each other. For several months much of our communication has been online or through Zoom, email, Instagram, FaceTime and other platforms. While often helpful, these tools have their limitations and can actually be harmful at times. One way in which this has been manifested is online shaming, now referred to as “cancel culture.” How might we swim against the tide of this trend? At least, when we are in person, we have the opportunity to see reactions, take responsibility for our own and interact in a more meaningful way. We see each other. It is just not the same online. In addition, all of this disruption in patterns and disconnection with our friends and other people has sent our stress levels rocketing up. Yet we carry on, trying to adjust to the new normal and perform as if we are fine.  

This stress has led to what some Psychologists have called “High Functioning Anxiety.”  Though not an official diagnosis, the symptoms include racing thoughts, insomnia, over-thinking, mental and physical fatigue or extreme worry that is disproportionate to the actual consequences.  Their prescription focuses on finding healthy ways to work through our anxiety, in order to achieve a better balance in our lives. Yes, balance matters. Assembling a basic set of coping tools is  the place to start. Further, it is always a good thing if you are feeling overwhelmed to speak with a professionally trained counselor. We are fortunate to have two of them here at the school that can help.

This year, we will all be faced with problems of many kinds. Right now, it is dealing with new check-in procedures, lunch, car line, disappointment over the lack of free time or trying to navigate the college process. There are more, of course, some quite serious.  Indeed, it is those seemingly unsolvable problems that, by their nature, prove to be most difficult and frustrating.

As I wrestle with these things myself, I have found it helpful to think about our school mission and core values. Both serve to create, inform and sustain the culture of our school community and may be found on our website, in publications and are posted in many places around the campus. Our mission is “To provide a balanced, diverse and secure community that prepares students academically, socially, and ethically for college and a meaningful life. 21 words. That is why we are here. Our core values are courage, integrity, compassion, respect and excellence. Five more. These are our guiding principles, and we endeavor to make sure that our actions reflect these values.

What Do You Do With A Problem by Kobi Yamada, offers us some insight in how a boy discovers how to cope with a problem. My thanks to Laura Howard, who took on the challenge of reading it. Speaking in public and with the possibility of tech issues ever present, it was well done. Thank you, Laura, for agreeing to do this.

What do you do with a problem? Like many of us, it took the main character time to finally deal with it. Now this was not easy, as he needed to first overcome his fears. Yet through this process, he discovers that problems we face don’t always turn out to be the ones we think they are. Furthermore, some only come along once.  But if we can find the opportunity for good that lies within, there is a chance for us to learn and grow. You just have to look for it, and it requires courage to do so. Courage, one of our core values.

This summer the faculty staff read Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt’s book, Biased. It is an insightful account of her own life journey and successful work with the Oakland Police Department. Near the end she wrote “We all have the capacity to make change within ourselves, in the world, and in our own relationship to the world…So many people among us are probing, reaching, searching to do good and to be good in the best way they know how. And there is hope in the sheer act of reflection. This is where the power lies and how the process starts.”

Dr. Eberhardt’s work as a consultant was (and still is) intensely challenging, and intensely personal, as a mother. Her integrity in assembling and utilizing her research in an objective way, further supports the reality that all of us struggle with biases about race that impact how we interact with others. However, if we acknowledge, recognize and commit to change; we all will benefit. Her work also presents a standard of excellence for us to strive for. Integrity and excellence are also core values at Gill St. Bernard’s.

One of the things I shared with the Class of 2020 just weeks ago, remains relevant for the Class of 2021. I was referring to the incredibly challenging times we are living in right now and the importance of reflection for all of us. While there may be issues that we view differently, I believe that there are many more that we agree upon. The opportunity within the problems we face lies in coming together to see each other, share our thoughts and listen.

Most of you know my admiration for Abraham Lincoln. In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, Goodwin explored the experiences that shaped Lincoln and helped him become perhaps, our greatest president. One thing many people don’t know is that when Lincoln was 9, his mother died, and his father left both him and his older sister at the family log cabin in Indiana and travelled to Kentucky to find a new wife. He returned 7 months later, an astonishing thing to do, leave two young children to fend for themselves in the early 19th century in an area still considered wilderness. When his father returned with his stepmother, you can only imagine what their condition was. It was fascinating to learn how he was able to overcome this and so much more in his life to become one of our country’s greatest leaders. His second inaugural address was one of his last speeches and is etched on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial. The words he wrote spoke of the causes of the Civil War, the nature of the war itself, its cost in human terms and offered a way forward for the nation.

Although I will share only the final paragraph, I encourage everyone to read the speech in its entirety, which shouldn’t be too hard as it is only 6 paragraphs. This gives it the added distinction of being the shortest inaugural address ever given.

“…With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have born the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

The compassion and respect Lincoln felt for others is readily apparent in his address to our nation more than 150 years later. Lincoln’s way forward established the goal for the United States to “…achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Sadly, that did not come to pass and with his death and the end of Reconstruction in 1877; the struggle for social justice and equality for all people still continues in our nation today. Certainly, the compassion and respect that he felt for others could have made a powerful difference in the years after the war, and now. Compassion and respect are also core values at our school.

As we look to the year ahead, I hope and pray that we may coalesce around our mission and be guided by our core values. It is my hope and prayer, that led by the members of the Class of 2021, we might join in making our school the kind of community that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sought to create, what he envisioned as a “beloved community.” To accomplish this he said “will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”

If we can face our problems, and look for the good that lies within, we may find that there is an opportunity to realize that beloved community. Thank you for your time and consideration of these ideas and hopes.

Congratulations to the Class of 2021 and best wishes to everyone for a successful academic year.