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Be Kind, Be Present

Be Kind, Be Present
Andy Webster

Good morning!  Welcome to the first day of school.  I hope you have had a summer of delight and relaxation, with some different kinds of learning and growth.  We are here together for the very first time, with about a quarter of you here for only a few minutes.  Those who are returning do not know the new students, and the new students know essentially none of us.  And yet here we are, and every one of you, from near and far, are equally part of the WE, the community of Wardlaw+Hartridge.  Together, we need to live our ideals of community, to lean on and learn from each other, to hold each other up and bring out the best in each other.  In that work, we are all equally valuable, equally deserving to be heard and honored.

Today, we mark our new beginning by gathering together, which is the literal meaning of convocation – to call together.  Let’s take a moment and appreciate the beauty of the day and be thankful to be here with one another, even as we pay attention to our speakers.

Today, we will hear from Dr. Ayesha Sitlani, a parent in the school and also the President of our Board of Trustees, which is a group that is responsible for the long-term well-being of the school.  We’ve been a school for 140 years, and we aim to be here far longer.    We will then hear from Annie Gu, our student body President.  In my eyes, I can see her as she was when she was in Lower School, much smaller of course but already an accomplished student and musician.

I have been here at W+H as Head of School for as long as the seniors have been alive, but still each school year seems fresh, filled with opportunity.  Let’s take a moment to reflect on that opportunity, which you should never take for granted.  By any world standards, you are tremendously fortunate.  The simple fact that you are in a school that cares deeply about you as individuals and strives to create a community in which you will thrive makes you fortunate.  You will have a wide range of opportunities in which you can participate and excel, and it is up to you to make the most of them.  My wish for you is that you will do so with a sense of joy, gratitude, and kindness.  

Kindness does not always get enough attention.  If we ask parents in our community what their goals are for enrolling their students, how many would begin their answer by saying “I want my child to learn to be kind, to show empathy and care?”  We tend to focus on achievements, preparation for college and careers, markers of success, but maybe not as much on kindness.  And yet right from the moment of birth, we rely on others for kindness.  Affection, honesty, truth, and justice all flow from it.  Others benefit from our kindness toward them, but equally we benefit from our own kindness.  The things that worry us most about our society stem from an absence of kindness.  And if society suffers, we will end up suffering as well.  How many of you know others, or have seen others in society, express ill will toward others?  Do you think they make themselves happy through these actions?

In a community where kindness is common, and unkindness is the exception, we are able to be our fullest selves, without feeling we need to hide aspects of who we are for fear of disapproval.  If we can be more open to people, we can relate to them better, and we will find less fear, self-doubt, and insecurity.  We will feel more trust, a greater sense of belonging, and a sense of ease.    

These days, there’s much more concern and attention given to the mental wellness and happiness of young people, and even of teachers.   A culture of kindness and compassion produces greater mental health.  Kindness, writes Piero Ferrucci in his book The Power of Kindness, “saves us much energy that we might otherwise waste in suspicion, worry, resentment, manipulation, or unnecessary defense. It is an attitude that…brings us back to the simplicity of being.”

This all seems rather logical and obvious.  And yet there are many ways in which our lives undermine kindness and connection.  In some ways, social media connects us, but in practice it creates only superficial connection and in fact is designed to promote insecurity, division, controversy, conflict and in truth it has done far more to make people feel isolated and demeaned more than connected and valued.  I am among the vast number of people who spends too much time online, allowing my attention to become too fractured, and feeling the need to respond to too many people, issues, conflicts; when I do manage to step away from it, I am calmer, more content, more able to attend to those closest to me.  Human warmth and genuine presence are among the greatest gifts we can give, and giving them is as powerful as receiving them.  How many of you have parents who spend too much time online, check their phones at all hours, and are rarely truly, completely with you?  We all need to do better.  Maybe you can make an agreement with them to accomplish that.

I’d like to close with a story, called The Three Questions.  The version I share with you today is based on a parable written by the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy.  It has lovely pictures which I am afraid I cannot share with you at this moment, but I hope you will find it interesting and worth thinking about.  

(For those who wish to hear the story, you can find it on this YouTube page.)

This year let us try harder than ever to be careful of each other, to be kind.  As you go through your days, as you sit close to your friends, as you hear about their concerns, and you learn about what might be going on in their lives where they need some help, you are the important one who can help them and they are the most important one to you.  I encourage you to lean on each other, to help each other, to support each other, and to help us all create the culture of kindness that makes us shine as a school.