There are few communities whose patterns, rhythms, and rituals are more cyclical, more familiar, and more predictable than those of a school. Yet, as in so many aspects of our lives during these last six months in a pandemic, much of what we have come to rely on about school has been uprooted and turned on its head. Whether learning online from home or on campus with safety protocols, school will look--and feel--very different this fall. And that kind of upheaval can be unsettling and disorienting.
As we anticipate a first day of school that will look like no other, it is important to make explicit something we all probably feel in our bones: the loss of predictability is the experience of loss, and a natural response to loss is sadness. The loss of a “normal” back-to-school season is the latest in a cascading sequence of losses we have experienced individually and collectively over the spring and summer. Some of us have lost a sense of normalcy and routine. Some of us have lost a sense of safety. Some of us have lost a sense of connection with others. Some of us have lost sleep, lost energy, lost inspiration or faith, lost our way. Some of us have lost our health. Some of us have lost our jobs and our livelihood. And some of us have lost loved ones.
Just as it is important for us to take stock of what has been lost, it is also important as we begin the new school year to consider what has not been lost, and indeed what is to be gained--even uniquely gained--not in spite of but because of the adversity we have experienced. Journalist and social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam reminds us:
When the world is uncertain and the ground under our feet feels unsteady, that’s often the time we discover new things about ourselves. Periods of disruption invariably lead to invention and reinvention….When chaos strikes, we all become tourists in our own lives. We start to see with fresh eyes, and when we do, we realize the world really does have endless possibilities.
Many of us are feeling that our world feels uncertain and that the ground under our feet feels unsteady; our once-familiar lives can seem strange, distant, and even eerie. It is a very natural response to want to make it just go away, to want to “wait it out” until we can try to get back to our normal routine, order, and sense of stability and security that many (though not all) of us were fortunate enough to experience before the pandemic. But the reality is that we are living through what can only be described as a before-and-after moment in history, and it is therefore unreasonable to expect our future personal and professional lives to look unchanged from our lives before the pandemic. Given the reality before us, we have a choice: either we can look at this time as a momentary period of adjustment until such time that we can revert to the way things were, or we can look at this time as a pivotal moment and opportunity to rethink the old ways and do things even better than we did them before.
Let us choose the latter.
When we look back at this time to try to make sense of this extraordinary moment, what do we hope to have seen with fresh eyes? How do we hope to have grown? What do we hope to have built? The Irish poet William Butler Yeats writes: “All things fall and are built again, / And those that build them again are gay.” Buildings, organizations, empires, movements, and cities fall. Chaos strikes. Tragedy and loss are an unavoidable part of life. It is how we respond to tragedy and loss that determines how our story unfolds. This is true for individuals as well as institutions.
As we begin our historic 100th year in a moment of uncertainty and loss, my greatest hope for The Hewitt School is that we seize this watershed moment and commit to the joyful act of forging a better future. In so doing, we will ensure that the loss, the adversity, the exhaustion, and the experience of being knocked off course will have been painful but ultimately necessary experiences to help us see with fresh eyes the endless possibilities to realign our priorities, focus our efforts, and build an even better world.
This historic moment compels us to fix our sights on the future, and Hewitt is uniquely positioned to play a key role in forging that future. As many have noted these past few months, Hewitt’s strategic vision is even more urgent and relevant today than it was when we announced it in early March just one week before the pandemic forced us to close our campus. Our mission to inspire girls and young women to become game changers and ethical leaders who forge an equitable, sustainable, and joyous future is a mission for these times. Our bold strategic vision explicitly calls for girls and young women to immerse themselves in some of the most pressing, transdisciplinary real-world problems right here in New York City. In the months and years ahead, Hewitt students will build their leadership capacity and sense of purpose as they participate in the rebuilding of our beloved city and world in a time of great and urgent need.
In this exciting next chapter of Hewitt’s history, we can look forward to Hewitt girls and young women engaging in hands-on learning and projects that build a more equitable, sustainable, and joyous future for their city and their world--addressing air and water quality, public transportation, mental health, poverty, homelessness, sustainable urban design, and systemic racism. Hewitt’s differentiated and highly innovative program will ask students to look at their city and their world with empathy, compassion, and fresh eyes in order to be able to design solutions to wicked problems. In the end, the measure of Hewitt’s success will be determined by the depth and breadth of our transformative positive impact not only on our girls but also on our world.
In this historic moment for our country, our city, and our school, let us accept that there has been loss, but let us also dig deep and redouble our efforts to bring our timely and important mission into the world. Describing what it feels like to solve real-world problems at school, one Hewitt fourth grader said: “Most of us feel like we’re mini engineers, and we’re helping people, and we’re solving their problems, and we get to build stuff.” The road ahead will be our hardest and most complicated yet, but as one Hewitt educator recently reminded me, it is some of the most rewarding, urgent, and purposeful work of our lives. As the saying goes, nothing worthwhile comes easy, and it is often when we are tired that a sense of purpose gives us access to deep reserves of untapped energy, inspiration, and focus. There is no denying it: this is an extraordinary time. Let us also see that this is our time, and that our mission is a mission for this moment. Let us build anew for our girls and young women, for ourselves, for our city, and for our future. Now, let’s go build some stuff.