It would be 36 years before women could vote. Forty-five years would pass before the first television was put to market. And in 73 years, a vaccine for polio would be introduced, which would save millions of young lives.
The year was 1882, and the world was a very different place. In that year, Thomas Edison formed the Edison Electric Company and soon life for millions of homes and businesses would be forever changed. In Plainfield, New Jersey, a school for boys opened; it would become The Wardlaw School. Soon after, and in the same city, a school for girls opened, which would become The Hartridge School. The two schools prepared their students for lives so utterly different from those of our students today.
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And yet, some aspects of that preparation are still foundational for young people today. For example, we remain committed to preparing students for leadership and advanced scholarship at the university level. We also still rely upon community as our bedrock, and it is the thread that is woven through W+H, connecting past to present. Like a quilt made of many fabrics and designs, our wonderfully diverse school is representative of our broader community. This is our treasure. It is also our responsibility to care for our community quilt, ensuring it is passed from generation to generation, mending tears in the fabric and sharing the stories and traditions that have built Wardlaw+Hartridge over 14 decades.
As school begins anew, I think about what it must have been like to be a young person 140 years ago. They, too, lived with great uncertainty. Students likely thought deeply about their world and their place in it. A parochial view of the world in the 1880’s has given way to an understanding that students today must possess a global mindset in order to lead and succeed at the highest levels.
Our school embodies both the resources and the challenges that characterize the 21st century. The challenges include the effects of climate change on a scale never before seen. Technology is, and will continue to, present us with new opportunities in dizzying succession, each one necessitating its own set of decisions about its deployment. Thus, the challenge for Wardlaw+Hartridge is to prepare students to thrive in a world we ourselves cannot know. It is not enough to get them ready to do what we do. We must prepare them to do what we cannot yet imagine by inculcating in them a deep reservoir of skills and habits of mind that will be highly advantageous regardless of future careers: critical and analytical thought in the face of myriad competing funnels of information, creative and collaborative problem solving, eagerness and openness to continuing to learn and even to change one’s mind, clarity and nuance in written expression, and empathy for one another.
In addition to the tools our era requires, we must provide our students with the intellectual flexibility to see quickly what a situation requires and respond to it. We must teach them to see beyond what is to glimpse what will be, and then to plot a course toward it. We must help them to become people who do not fear new things but rather expect to learn from them, and to learn from people very different from themselves.
When I consider how we can learn from others, I am reminded of two prominent women who were once strangers to each other but whose partnership helped each to grow and learn, and in the process, impact their world. Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt were young girls in the late 1800’s. Bethune, the child of freed slaves, was born in South Carolina in 1875. Eleanor Roosevelt, born in 1884 and orphaned by 1894, enjoyed great wealth, privilege, and access to power.
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Bethune and Roosevelt came together before and during the presidential administration of Eleanor’s husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to champion efforts in areas relating to education and child welfare. Bethune was a true pioneer, the first African American to lead a federal agency, and is credited with creating hundreds of thousands of jobs for young people during the Great Depression.
Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McCleod Bethune are perhaps best known today for their close partnership to intervene when American contralto Marian Anderson was denied permission to sing at Constitution Hall in 1939. Roosevelt resigned in protest from the Daughters of the American Revolution, which was sponsoring the event. Bethune and Roosevelt worked together to quickly arrange for Anderson to perform at the Lincoln Memorial instead, an event that would receive worldwide coverage and propel the cause of civil rights forward, setting the stage for the now famous “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963.
Bethune and Roosevelt show us how much is possible when individuals come together with a common purpose. These two women, inspired by each other and motivated by the challenges of their time, exhibited the traits and habits of mind that we instill in students at Wardlaw+Hartridge: tenacity, perseverance, creative approaches to problem solving, and embracing a highly collaborative spirit. As we begin our 140th year as a learning community, let us all be inspired and energized by the vast potential present in each student and the profound responsibility we each have as the adults in their lives to nurture their growth. Onward!