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Head of School Reflections – November 2016

Kelly Slonaker

When I decided to write a monthly blog, I assumed my springboard topic would stem from reflections on my first semester here, or perhaps a look into the latest pedagogical trends.  However, as I sat down to pull my thoughts together, this month’s election took center stage.  And so, we shall start here.
I thought I had a broad and deep understanding of the world, having been raised by a minister father and public-school-educator mother, who impressed upon me the importance of understanding the perspective of others, of keeping an open mind and of holding close the invaluable role of community and service.  I was aware that the people with whom we cross paths hailed from an unlimited assortment of backgrounds, and that we each “came with” certain traditions, beliefs, biases, passions and commitments.  Yes, I thought I understood the complexities of the world around me and that I could appreciate the viewpoints of others.

Fast forward to college.  I lived in a suite of five women my sophomore and junior years; we all happened to be science majors, and my four roommates are now successful physicians having graduated from the medical schools of Emory, Chicago, Yale and Navy.  (How I ended up in education is a story for another blog!)  Our family and high school stories were varied indeed, and once again, I believed I understood our differences as well as our shared interests and our common bond of college.  It was not until one roommate returned to our suite, bursting into tears, that I was forced to reassess: she had left her keys in the dorm and so asked a fellow student to unlock the gated entrance, only to be dismissed as someone who surely could not be an undergraduate based on the color of her skin and the clothes she had chosen to wear that day.

The time had arrived for my simple and naive understanding of the world to crumble and be rebuilt.  I had to come to terms with the reality that, while I appreciated the diversity of the world around me, I did not truly understand it.  I could not assume that by gathering the fundamental “data” of someone else’s life -- where they grew up, the kind of work their family did, their religion, their ethnicity, etc. -- that I could also understand what it felt like to live their life.  And that is the gap we are staring at as a country today.

Irvin Scott, Senior Lecturer on Education at Harvard School of Education, recently wrote:  “We have been hearing that many people voted the way they did out of feelings of fear and frustration, and it is apparent that at the heart of the issue is the fact that we don’t understand each other well….We cannot just surround ourselves with those who are like-minded, or like-opinionated.  What if, for example, there was a space where people felt comfortable sharing together why they voted for Donald Trump, or vice versa?  That safe space is not likely to be on social media, but perhaps our schools and communities could facilitate those bridges.  If could go a long way in helping us understand one another.  We have to start somewhere, and that place is in connecting with each other.”

And so that is where this school must continue to focus.  We are one small community connected in countless ways to myriad other communities, and our students must have the perspective and skills to manage difficult conversations, lean into better appreciating the perspective of others, and acknowledge their own biases, fears and questions.  If we start with self-awareness and respect, we can build that bridge that leads to mutual understanding, our ability to agree to disagree, and if we are fortunate enough, less anger and more grace.

As we approach Thanksgiving, let us be thankful for what we have on this hilltop, humbled by what we have yet to learn and understand, and optimistic about what we can achieve collectively. 


Rachel Stone
Head of School