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Head of School Reflection — Election 2020

Kelly Slonaker

October 6, 2020

Today marks four weeks until the 2020 presidential election.  I began pulling my thoughts together for this reflection with the September 29 presidential debate in the background, listening in search of inspiration, insight, or even clear thinking.

Instead, the discourse displayed that evening served as a sharp reminder that our job as educators and parents this October is to help our students and children navigate a loud, divisive, confusing, and disappointing election, on top of what has already been an unsettling, fractured seven months.  I appreciate that some adolescents would prefer to distract themselves from the debates, campaign ads, and overall unrest—particularly those teens who cannot vote—but our role in helping them distill the issues, commentary, history, and relevance to their present and future is perhaps more important than during any previous presidential election.

As educators, our focus is to inspire our students to seek more information.  To dig far deeper than an Instagram post.  To understand the historical context of issues like health care, Supreme Court appointments, immigration policies, and gun laws, not to mention the economic, environmental, physical, and emotional health of our country.

Fair warning . . . I do not have that playbook in hand.  But I do think an honest and realistic starting point is acknowledging some fundamental truths that shape each of our opinions and direct our actions.  From there, we have a good chance to shepherd our students through the next four weeks (and well beyond).

1. We are all deeply influenced by our families, friends, and experiences as children and young adults.
My perspective was shaped by parents who were working on their college senior projects when President John F. Kennedy Jr. was shot, who were teenagers in the 1950s, and who were raising a young family in the 1970s.  My father, a Protestant minister, helped to found his divinity school’s Association of Black Seminarians and was in Atlanta for Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral.  My mother, a public school teacher, served as a voice of compassion for those less fortunate and lived to see the professional world allow for far greater opportunities for her two daughters than she encountered.  I remember learning what an “Independent” was in 1980 (Congressman Anderson) and observing my parents scour the newspaper and listen to morning radio broadcasts for political updates.

I will never forget standing in line on Yale’s Old Campus for hours, waiting to vote in my first presidential election as a junior in college in 1992.  Clinton vs. Bush.  It was exhilarating to be old enough to vote and to feel like I was making an impact.  My political perspective was then impacted by the 24-year stretch of Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama.

Now, as I seek ways to help my own children and students in 2020, I must first recognize what lies at the foundation of my own opinions.  I ask the same of my Canterbury colleagues as well as our Canterbury parents.

2. We can only know what another person values, believes, and stands for by listening to their personal narrative, not someone else’s interpretation of their story let alone that of social media, speculation, or politically-motivated headlines.
When Sherley Arias-Pimentel ʼ19 envisioned and launched our Saints on the Hill program, she reminded me that diversity is both a celebration of what differentiates us and of what binds us: the human experience.  Joy, pain, loss, heartache, laughter, love.  Why do we so often choose to assume our different pathways lead to separation or disagreement?  Why do we hesitate to ask, listen, and learn from the perspective of others when we are so quick to make judgements and assumptions?  We can do better, and we can ask Generation Z (and one another) to do better, too. 

3. There are moments and issues that demand each and every one of us to say: I need more information before I can truly have an informed opinion on that issue.
Perhaps I should have placed this “fundamental truth” first.  Basic, rational, logical...yet powerful.  
I need more information before I can truly have an informed opinion on that issue.

4. Human Rights issues are about people not politics.
Every single one of us has been or is connected to someone who has been marginalized, taken for granted, leveraged, or cast aside.  Every one of us.  Those injustices may reflect racist, sexist, xenophobic, or homophobic thinking.  Those acts of inequality may have been redressed over time, or they may have become embedded in our systemic approach to how people experience their lives in our country: how laws are enforced, how real estate is distributed, how schools are funded.  And this, of course, is how human rights issues “become” political issues.  But can’t we do better than that?  Can’t we agree that the only way to tackle COVID-19 is to provide access to health care and rely on sound public health practices?  People not politics.  Can’t we agree that the Black Lives Matter movement is about justice and equality, and about friends, colleagues, and family members we respect and love?  And, can’t we acknowledge that if we do not work in collaboration to heal these divisions, our children’s lives as adults will not be what we hope and pray for them to be?

I realize some may think I am being too hopeful, or too superficial, or too unrealistic.  Maybe.  But what is the alternative?  Let’s start back at the top: Human Rights issues are about people not politics.

5. The Canterbury community matters enough to all of us to make navigating the weeks ahead together a clear priority.
Regardless of where we each “stand” politically, which candidate we plan to support, or which issue carries the greatest weight in our minds, we have a responsibility to the shared values of our community.  We have each accepted our role as members of the Canterbury family and each acknowledged the privilege we carry to live and learn on this hilltop.  The concept of moral leadership affirmed in Canterbury’s mission and so often referenced in our daily lives together demands that we act with mutual respect, engage in civil discourse, and inspire (not insist) that we consider the opinions of others.  When I seek examples of this, I am reminded that it was Canterbury’s student leaders (supported by adults) who decided that inclusion and belonging must serve as our foundation each new year, each day, each conversation.  This commitment is now deeply rooted in and overwhelmingly present on our campus.

And so . . . what I wish for, and ask of, all of us is that we recognize what this generation of teenagers must confront.  Long gone are the days when you took your cues from your parents and eventually debated, molded, and developed opinions of your own.  No, our children and students digest rapidly changing headlines and witness disrespectful, insulting, derogatory language.  They do not benefit from a media cycle that values rational, balanced, informed thinking.  They live in a polarizing world.  And they cannot understand why we attempt to explain and model civil discourse when they do not see it on any virtual platform.

Indeed, the path “through” the election begins in our classrooms, dormitories, and all the spaces in between.  And while the path will not be straight, our students will be glad to have us with them. 

 

Gratefully,

Rachel E. Stone, P ’23, ’24