Summer Reading, part three: Quiet by Susan Cain

Last year at registration, as I met my new students and their families, I heard over and over, “She’ll be quiet in class but don’t let that fool you – she’s a deep thinker.” As someone who had myself been quiet in class as a student, I completely understood that silence does not mean absence of thought. However, by lunchtime, I’ll confess I was beginning to wonder just who would speak up in class – or, more to the point, how I would manage the class so that everyone was contributing if introversion was such a dominant dynamic. I ended up using a greater percentage of small group work for certain kinds of discussions than I might in a typical year, and things went well – indeed, this class achieved an extraordinary and deeply moving level of trust and honesty by the end of the year, and also helped cement and expand our reputation as a feminist school.

So when Sally, our Head of School, announced that this year’s summer reading book would be Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, I had high hopes. Yet, beginning right from page one where I highlighted the question, “How could you be shy and courageous?” and noted, “These are not mutually exclusive by any stretch of the imagination,” I developed a complicated relationship with the book. Nonetheless, I definitely found take-aways that can help me in my work, and of course I look forward to discussing it when teachers return in August.

One of the themes Ms. Cain develops is the concept of finding your sweet spot, a way of being where you find the best possible balance of introversion and extroversion for yourself and work to spend as much time there as you can. However, she recognizes that sometimes we are all called on to leave our sweet spot, raising the question, “When should you act more extroverted than you really are?” (p.205) The corollary, of course, would be “When should you act more introverted than you really are?” and as a school where we work to support each student in becoming her own best self, part of our mission could indeed be helping our students learn where their sweet spots are, how to recognize when it might be best if they acted more introverted or extroverted than they normally would, and techniques to help them handle the discomfort caused by leaving their sweet spot. I would love to know what my colleagues think about that and discuss how we might best go about supporting our students in this way.

Ms. Cain also writes about the effects of different cultures, looking in particular at the Asian-American community in Cupertino, CA. While one might argue that she overlooks the effects of economic privilege (Cupertino’s median household income was $128,487 in 2012, vs. $51,371 nationally), she does make a sincere effort to avoid what she calls “rigid national or ethnic typecasting.” She notes, “Though Eastern relationship-honoring is admirable and beautiful, so is Western respect for individual freedom, self-expression, and personal destiny. The point is not that one is superior to the other, but that a profound difference in cultural values has a powerful impact on the personality styles favored by each culture.” (p.190) If we are to be a true global community, I believe, we need to ensure we recognize and embrace the different ways of being our students bring with them, supporting and learning from each other and becoming comfortable with navigating within these different frames of reference.

That is not to play down the importance of our mission to help girls and women develop and use their unique voices, of course. Voice may spring from within oneself but it is also shaped by and emerges into specific cultural influences. There are risks there, of course, but possibilities too. As my 2012-2013 Humanities 7 class once observed, “But even if we are being shaped by our families and the world around us without our knowing it, is that necessarily a bad thing if we are comfortable with who we are now?”

With that in mind, I continue to believe that Quiet suffers to some degree from the influence of patriarchy. For one example, a friend of the author’s, Alex, is noted for having learned pretend-extroversion as a seventh grader by studying social dynamics “especially male dominance poses” and by leveraging his strengths. “I learned,” he says, “that boys basically do only one thing: they chase girls. They get them, they lose them, they talk about them. I was like, ‘That’s completely circuitous. I really like girls.’ That’s where intimacy comes from. So rather than sitting around and talking about girls, I got to know them. I used having relationships with girls, plus being good at sports, to have the guys in my pocket.” And when that wasn’t enough, “Every once in a while, you have to punch people. I did that too.” (p.210) Far from viewing Alex as an exemplar of learning how to live outside one’s sweet spot, I viewed him as someone who was fundamentally manipulative and who both bought into and exploited stereotypes to further his own ends. As a gender activist and girls school educator, I was appalled by such behavior. I do recognize, though, that if I got to know Alex better as the multidimensional person he is today, it would probably shift my thinking from where it stands now.

At any rate, I do have the ability to filter the book through my own lens, and pull out from it the parts I find genuinely useful. And there’s no question that there are many important lessons here, especially for introverts of course but also for extroverts. I can even see how valuing and empowering introversion, as Ms. Cain advocates, could help undermine patriarchy. Ms. Cain herself notes, “Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world.” (p.4) So I’m looking forward to our discussion of the book in August and finding out where it takes us next.

Leave a comment

Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, The Faculty Perspective

Summer Reading, part two: This is Not a Test by José Vilson

I don’t ordinarily make a habit of ordering books before their release date, but I made an exception for This is Not a Test by José Vilson. I knew the strength, power, and scope of his writing through various publications in forums such as Huffington Post, his blog, and Twitter. Mr. Vilson can put a book’s worth of thinking into 140 characters, so I couldn’t wait to see what he could say in 220 pages. The subtitle, “A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education” is apt. In the book, José has woven together memories, commentary, and calls to action in a way that compels readers to think honestly about the educational landscape in our country, the cultural context that helps create it, and what our own role is and should be in shaping it in the future.

When the book came, I decided to set it aside until the summer came so that I could savor it with little else to distract me. When I finally opened it, I fairly flew through “Part One” which takes us through his childhood and ends with his decision to become a teacher as his college graduation date approached. One moment particularly stuck out to me, when he describes giving a correct answer (“D”) in class only to have the teacher respond, “What?” He gave the answer again, and again the teacher responded, “What? I didn’t hear that.” He startled the class by shouting the answer, at which point the teacher dismissed him with a “Well, you don’t know anything, so I’ll move on.” The teacher called on another student, who gave the exact same answer and earned the teacher’s praise. (p.47) “How could this happen?” I asked myself, feeling sick and knowing the answer in my heart, knowing the same general dynamic plays itself out over and over, if not always that overtly, when people of privilege have power over the historically oppressed.

For the rest of the book, then, I slowed way down. I’d read a page and stare out into space, or finish a section and put the book down altogether for several days. What he was saying was too important to risk missing part of it, and as someone who identifies as anti-racist and yet who knows I still (and probably will always) have work to do to uncover and eradicate the ways that systemic racism unconsciously influences me, I knew I needed to listen carefully to everything he had to say. Some stories, I already knew, such as the influence of Renee Moore “who spoke about her teaching as rooted in the histories of black people across generations, not as a solitary act of kindness,” (p.180) or how Chris Lehmann was willing to force EduCon participants to confront their privilege by explicitly noting the importance of race, class, and gender, and how he worked rapidly and effectively to have the conference become progressively more inclusive to a diversity of voices (pp.143-150). I mentally highlighted Mr. Vilson’s assertion that “Inquiry-based education only for the ones society felt could handle it wasn’t good enough.” (p.146) and I thought long and hard on themes Mr. Vilson continues to develop on the challenge and necessity of deeply and truly understanding and embracing diversity, most recently in the blog piece “Teachers of Color Caught on the Windmill (On Real Equity).”

In the penultimate essay of his book, “Why Teach,” (pp.209-215), Mr. Vilson talks about how “When we teach, we don’t just teach them the subjects, we implicitly teach them customs, rituals, and character traits that they either emulate or admire in their own right.” (p.212) He notes, “Teaching and learning are amorphous, but when they’re happening the symbiosis is undeniable.” (p.213) In his powerful Afterword, Dr. Pedro Noguera adds “This book and José Vilson’s ongoing work remind us that, just as education can be used to dominate, control, and oppress, it can also be used to provoke and liberate.” (p.223)

As someone who believes deeply in the importance of working for social justice, I feel it is long past time for those of us who live in this country to move past the illusion that we are living in a post-racial society. As a teacher who came through an exemplary M.A.T. program but who hears of many programs that fall far short of my own experience, I feel we as a country need carefully examine what is working and what needs improvement in our system of teacher preparation. To my thinking, This Is Not a Test should be required reading for all future teachers, and can and should be a spark to the kinds of hard, honest conversations all those of us within and who care about education need to be having.

Mr. Noguera ends his “Afterword” with the “hope that other educators are able to see the power and potential of their voices and join in the struggle to save our schools and our fragile democracy.” (p.223) Mr. Vilson ends his “Why Teach” essay with the charge, “Go hard or go home.” (p.215)

I’m all over that.

Leave a comment

Filed under In the Classroom, On Education

Why I Support the ACLU’s Suit Against Single-Sex Schools

You know I love this school and deeply believe in what we are doing. So when I saw an article in Slate entitled “‘Busy Boys, Little Ladies’: This Is What Single-Sex Education Is Really Like,” my blood boiled. I really have completely and totally had it with the continually regenerated perspective that single-gender education (a term I prefer to “single-sex education” as it focuses on the social construct of gender rather than the biological concept of sex) only serves to perpetuate stereotypes and a feeling of inferiority and how research is often misapplied and misinterpreted to back up that point of view. Yet, for some reason, I read the article. As I predicted, I became even more appalled as I read. But not for the reasons I expected.

In the article, Amanda Marcotte describe some practices cited by the ACLU in their suit against the Hillsborough County school district in Florida and also discovered in reporting by Dana Liebelson in Mother Jones. Boys (i.e. not girls) are encouraged to exercise before class. As a reward for doing well, boys are allowed to play with electronics while girls are given perfume. Teachers of boys are encouraged to engage them in higher level debate and discourse while teachers of girls are encouraged to connect with them – as if kids of all genders wouldn’t profit from both practices.

In short, single gender education in HIllsborough County as presented in this article appears to build on and reinforce stereotypes, taking genuine tendencies and treating them as general truths for all, or even taking as truth attitudes and practices that have been (or should have been) thoroughly discredited years ago. At which point, I have to say, “You go, ACLU!”

However, the article goes on to say, “Proponents of single-sex education may claim to be all about maximizing children’s potential, but this ACLU complaint suggests the opposite—that the real result is stifling any children who dare buck gender stereotypes.” (Marcotte) And this is where I part company with Ms. Marcotte (the ACLU itself, in Ms. Liebelson’s words, “is worried that other schools will emulate the program in Hillsborough County,” implying they may not be condemning single-gender education entirely.) Unless I learn something radically new and totally unexpected, I’m not likely to ever support what Hillsborough County is doing. But to extend a condemnation of one district’s specific practices to condemning single-gender education in general is pushing it too far.

A friend recently asked what it even means to teach in a girls school these days. The 80-20 rule tells us that 20% of girls have brains wired the same way as 80% of boys (and vice versa). Moreover, brain research increasingly suggests that male-wired and female-wired brains aren’t all that different at birth. We now differentiate sex from gender. And the very concept of gender is being stretched and expanded, moving beyond a simple binary and adding in the potential element of fluidity. So – what does it mean to teach girls today? I told my friend that at this point in time, I no longer “teach girls” but rather teach the unique and individual students I have in front of me. But I do so in a girl-positive environment created within a school whose mission is built on feminist ideals.

Our students talk about the gender prejudice they’ve experienced in other contexts. And they say attending this school gives them a place to talk about what it means to be a girl in the world today in a way that they never could in their previous schools. My seventh graders affirm that being a girl simply means being yourself if you identify as a girl, and they see older students as role models promoting feminism as well as adults who are ready and willing to engage in these ideas and to work for a better world.

And research backs this up – graduates of girls schools and women’s colleges are more likely to speak up and more likely to actively work for social justice. Among other advantages.

So to my thinking, the fight should not be against single-gender education. The fight should be against patriarchy. I’m happy to call out single-gender schools whose practices are suspect. But I’m not happy about giving multi-gender schools a free pass. To my thinking, both single-gender and multi-gender schools are welcome to join the fight against patriarchy. Indeed, to my thinking, it’s imperative that they do so.

Leave a comment

Filed under Gender, On Education

Don’t Abolish Middle Schools – Reinvent Them

“You clearly have a passion for middle school.” I’ve heard this time and time again, often after one of the Open House presentations we give several times a year. And in point of fact, I do, and have ever since my very first month working with this age group. Their own passion and energy, excitement at discoveries and possibilities, outrage at injustice, and desire to be known and loved and understood endear them to me. And by understanding them and their needs, and learning how best to meet those needs, you can help make middle school an amazing experience. You can’t entirely do away with setbacks and heartaches, of course, because those are a given part of life, and the nature of early adolescence is that such moments loom large. But with proper support, students can learn to work through those moments, and the nature of early adolescence is also that each day is truly a fresh start.

So when a friend of mine on Facebook shared a link to the article “Why Middle School Should Be Abolished” by David C. Banks, it most decidedly caught my attention. My initial reaction was, essentially, “Oh, I don’t think so!” and as I began reading the article, I prepared myself for what our debate teams call “the clash.” It turns out that Mr. Banks begins with a very common misconception, and hopefully clearing that up will start us down the right path.

A popular myth has arisen that stand-alone middle schools are doomed to be wastelands, and should be fixed, in Mr. Banks’s words, “either by combining them with the guidance and nurturing that children find in elementary school, or with the focus on adult success that we expect from our high schools.” The only problem is that a wealth of research says building configuration has zero effect on results, that it’s what’s going on within the classroom that matters. And along with what the research says, that makes intuitive sense.

Mr. Banks does mention a counterexample, a 2012 study performed at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In the article “Do Middle Schools Make Sense” by Mary Tamer, Assistant Professor Martin West states, “This suggests that it may be harder to create an effective middle school than an effective K–8 school, and that part of the challenge is simply that middle school grade configurations require an additional school transition.” That, I’ll concede, also makes intuitive sense. So how does one go about building an effective middle school program, whatever the building configuration?

Intriguingly, Ms. Tamer’s article was on the right track – but inadvertently veered off onto a siding. Ms. Tamer writes that “A 2001 article “Reinventing the Middle School,” published in the Middle School Journal, spoke of the “arrested development” of this once-promising educational model.” But far from indicting the middle school model itself, the author, Thomas Dickinson, was arguing that few schools were actually implementing the model in its entirety, for example cutting out advisory programs due to budget constraints, and that this persistently incomplete application is what inevitably led to arrested development. The problem, I believe, not only persists to this day but has actually been exacerbated by No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and other perhaps well-intentioned but ill-conceived initiatives. This incomplete application, unfortunately, has also led to a muddying of what “the middle school model” even means.

When we designed our own new middle school program in 2004, we took Professor Dickinson’s article (and the book on which it was based) seriously; our intention was to “do it right, right from the start.” We applied the principles of This We Believe, the position paper of the Association of Middle Level Education, we worked with a consultant, Chris Toy, to help us reflect on how well we were doing in adhering to the holistic model, and we have continued to refer to those principles throughout the ten years we have been in existence. And what are the results?

Late last spring, I was driving Sophie, one of our rising 9th graders, to her last day of middle school service at the Food Bank in Hatfield. Immersed in that peculiar combination of nostalgia, a sense of achievement and completion, and nervous anticipation that characterizes that time of year for middle schoolers about to move up, she reflected thoughtfully on what her class had been like for these two years, what their time in the middle school had meant to them, and their feelings as they prepared to transition to the high school. At one point, she observed, “I think it was exactly what we needed. We felt cared for and supported, and we’re nervous about moving up to the high school but we also feel we’re ready.” Similarly, Jake Steward, who came in this past year as our new English Department Chair, told me last fall, shaking his head with appreciation, “Whatever you’re doing in that middle school, it’s working.”

So I sympathize with Mr. Bank’s notion that we need to take a look at our middle schools. But I also think the solution is right in front of our faces. Ask Sophie. She’ll tell you.

P.S. Todd Bloch has written an excellent response to Mr. Bank’s article which I highly recommend.

Leave a comment

Filed under On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uncategorized

Summer Reading, part one

Ah, summer. That magical time when teachers get to sit by the pool sipping drinks in tall glasses filled to the brim with ice and muse on…

… all the things they want to do differently next year.

And in my case, that musing needs to start with an excellent book I finished months ago, Whole Novels for the Whole Class by Ariel Sacks. It’s the sort of book where your respect for the author deepens with every chapter, where you want to highlight far more than the 25% you know is recommended, where you want to run right out and start implementing what the author suggests – and where you know you and your students will be far better off if you wait and take your time and do it right. Late June and early July is the perfect time to read this book, when you can pause and reflect at will, pool or no pool, and so here I am returning to it.

At its simplest, the whole novel approach is a way of enabling students to optimally benefit from the books that they share together as a class in part by holding off on discussions until they have finished reading. Ms. Sacks recognizes the fundamentally important role that independent, self-selected reading can play in a good reading program, citing in particular the excellent work of Donalyn Miller (The Book Whisperer). She notes the additional importance of a shared experience both in building skllls and in building community. And she urges that we rethink how we approach teaching novels so that the experience no longer resembles being caught in stop and go traffic but rather feels like looking back and reflecting on a just-completed trip. Her methods, developed along with Madeleine Ray of Bank Street College of Education, are deeply grounded in research and experience.

Chapter by chapter, we see her make a case for the practice and then talk about selecting books, teaching note-taking, holding discussions, and connecting the book to writing. In the second part, she talks about how to prepare students for whole novel study and set expectations, develop their critical reading and comprehension skills, ensure you are accounting for the full range of diversity in your classroom, and analyzing the results to make changes in the future. As I read, I tried to imagine how my students would react to whole novel studies.

And I’ll be honest – I think their first reaction would be to resist the approach because they truly adore talking to each other. But I can envision myself telling them that they are already read to every day and so already get to talk about books every day. I can point out we would still be doing group activities as we build to the days we discuss the book. I can quote some of Ms. Sacks’s own ideas in making the case. And I am 99.999% sure I can get them excited about note-taking.

Yes, you read that right. Ms. Sacks works with her students to teach them about literal thinking vs. inferential thinking vs. critical thinking, and uses notetaking as a vehicle not just to help them think about the book itself and prepare for discussions but also to think about their own thinking. My kids love having their thinking stretched, understanding how their minds work, and being able to clearly see progress they are making; by following Ms. Sacks’s example, I would be able to facilitate all of this for them. I think they would also appreciate having additional lenses through which to self-reflect, as we frequently ask them to do.

When you consider this is just one short section of the book, you begin to get the sense of how comprehensive it is and why I see this as a resource that all secondary-level reading teachers should have. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to my (non-existent) pool with my (also non-existent) (for the moment) drink to keep thinking about how I might integrate these ideas into my own students’ learning next year.

Leave a comment

Filed under On Education, The Faculty Perspective

Student Driven Classrooms: Keeping the Faith

Thanks to John Norton and MiddleWeb for granting us permission to repost and link to this piece originally published on their website!

Twice a year, our independent school invites the families of boarding and day students to Family Weekend – a busy, enjoyable time when visitors can attend classes as well as various talks, performances, presentations and athletic events. This year the spring weekend came along just as my Humanities 7 course was finishing up their self-designed unit on “judging” and was not quite ready to dive fully into the next (poetry).

This left me somewhat at a loss for what to do during our special weekend class – on precisely one of those days where you want the students (and yourself) to be at their best.

I eventually decided to hold an official poetry unit kickoff. Olivia asked me right before we started if she could read one of her poems. Her beautiful and powerful reading opened the class perfectly. I then told the kids I was about to give them their one writing prompt for the entire unit, and asked them to take out their iPads and write a poem entitled “Poetry Is.”

Read more here

Leave a comment

Filed under In the Classroom, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Guest Post: “Believe the Bird” Commencement Address by Anna Schuleit Haber

This year’s Commencement speaker, chosen by the graduating class of 2014, was visual artist and MacArthur Felllow Anna Schuleit Haber. Ms. Haber has graciously given us permission to post her full speech here. “Believe the Bird” was delivered at Stoneleigh-Burnham School’s 2014 Commencement Ceremony on Friday, June 6th in Greenfield, Massachusetts.

 

BELIEVE THE BIRD

Anna Schuleit Haber delivers the 2014 Stoneleigh-Burnham Commencement Address.A squirrel appears on a lawn and sees a nut lying out in the open. Carefully, it looks around and assesses its surroundings. When it feels ready and safe, it moves into the open, aiming for the nut. It reaches it, scoops it up and hurries back to safety. In his book on the brain, “The Master and His Emissary”, Ian McGilchrist describes the kind of attention the squirrel uses here as “open attention”.

Later, when the squirrel sits down with the nut, to crack and break it down, it uses an entirely different attention, a kind of attention that can be understood as “narrow attention”. Both are needed to navigate through this world; both are indicators of the interactions between the two hemispheres of our brains: left and right. The right brain hemisphere is connected to open attention: our skill of taking in an entire scene and making sense of it. The left brain hemisphere is responsible for breaking things down and categorizing everything.

Dear graduating seniors, dear parents, trustees, faculty members, families, and friends — I am honored to be here with you today and to celebrate your graduation. For the past few days, I was sitting in the garden of a friend, thinking about this special day and about you, and I decided that I would speak to you about attention, and types of attention, intuition, about the time during and after high school, and—most generally—about happiness in life.

Walking across a campus like this reminds me of being a student like you. When I was in boarding school, an ocean away from my family and childhood friends, my days seemed to be made of nothing but school matters: assignments, books, late night studies, basketball practice, bakery duty, stacks of vocabulary cards, so many words that I didn’t know. High school in a boarding school, away from home, equaled more than high school had ever meant to me up to that point: it was a sense of school as pure possibility. An opening of the self. It was, to me, the highest version of high school: higher than any place I’d known before, a place of higher learning, higher knowledge, and high growth.

In boarding school I finally became a curious student. And you, too, might have been feeling this same progression in you: that over time you have become, in fact, the kind of student for whom this place was originally created, for whom it had been made ideal. For whom all these buildings had been built and for whom the curriculum had been developed. Each of you is a young woman with a full-fledged story from where you come, who your people are. A story with details, and details with facets of humanity, each one of you different from the next. This place was created for bringing life stories like yours together and making more layered, more evolved, more deliberate stories out of each of you, stories of conscious growth. A place for a community of girls, a place for you who graduate today.

When I was here last October and met so many of you, I felt that this was a special place. I loved your energy. It made me think that high school is truly a place that puts the student at the center of the universe and surrounds him or her with the possibilities of life and knowledge, a place for you to learn to embody the personal and to then to head out to touch the world with and through your life —your lives.

After today most of you will go on to college, and you might think it’s similar, but it’s not. College is bigger, less intimate, more speedy, more layered, crowded, and complicated. Somehow, as you move from high school towards the next step in your journey, you become a more public person. Your career starts. High school is the necessity on which everything gets built, but it isn’t your outward career yet. It is your private career, your chance to learn who you are. You’ve had a most exquisite chance here on this campus, of learning more than the basics. Now things will speed up, and speed you into the lanes of adulthood, which are speedier, riskier, and less neat.

And so I want you to pause here for just a moment longer, pause and celebrate inwardly and with each other, and then take the best of what you’ve been building and making here at this school, during this time, as an investment into the self that you are poised to become: take all these treasures with you as you start your career as an adult student, an adult woman, and a citizen of this world. Once you’re out there in the world, with your treasures of high school under your skin, all the details of your education thus far, I encourage you to make passionate choices that honor this foundation that you have created for yourselves. Choices of schools, friends, majors, direction, and — style. Why do I mention style? I don’t mean the way you dress, I mean the style of self: what kind of woman are you evolving into, what kind of mind are you cultivating, what type of personality are you beginning to be? Whatever the answer, whatever your style and your direction, your very own arc of a journey, I am happy to say that ALL of you will be needed.

That there is a place for each and every one of you out there in the world.

As you graduate here today, you are freer than you have ever been in your life before. More free to make your own choices. After today, you will be seen as adults in almost every sense. You will be expected to be responsible and mature, as people will rely on you. Strangers might ask for your help when you don’t expect it, more than before. The world will simply assume that you have gained the basic tools to navigate through this life, which is not basic at all, but complex.

As graduating seniors, your schedules had already became as full as you thought they could possibly be, and you made it through, and here we are. you have all been “big sisters” to younger students at the same time, you have been mature and responsible for and with others around you, as you grew to be the oldest. Now you will leave here and feel young all over again, in college, or in whichever job you pursue. You might realize that you’re the youngest again, actually. And life might suddenly appear quite large and vast and disorganized around you.

And it is.

So—when you find yourself in a tight spot or crisis, which sooner or later you will, I would like you to try something: try to practice a sense of open calmness before zooming in. Try to first collect and balance your mind and body for a moment, like the squirrel taking in the wider context. Locate yourself within yourself. Then step forth.

When, on the other hand, you find yourself hungry or tired, too tired to be glowing or helpful, don’t be ashamed to withdraw and recuperate. And to do so, you will have to learn to be clear: first with yourself, then with others around you. Clear about your needs, and then kindly straightforward. Learn to take efficient, simple care of yourself. Nobody will be better at this task than you.

And when, perhaps, you find yourself feeling lonely, try this: reach out to someone without expectation, rather than waiting to be reached for. Sit down and write a letter by hand. Go for a walk along a babbling creek, off the beaten path, without your phone. Notice your loneliness with that same open attention, and treasure it. That sounds very hard and strange, but it’s the truth: it, too, is one of your treasures.

When you find yourself bored, ever, try this: be curious about something outside of yourself. Pick something beyond your usual horizon and marvel at it. Divert your attention and let something unlikely into your mind, something to re-arrange your thought patterns and your mind’s habits. The writer Samuel Beckett pushed the boundaries of language, concept, composition in his writings. And he did so by positioning himself in a beginner’s spot: he wrote many of his works in French, rather than in his native English — and he attributed this to his “need to be ill-equipped.” Having been ill-quipped many times in my life as an artist, I can tell you that this is true: if you’re not quite certain of how to do something, but if you commit yourself to the process of it, you will, wonderfully inevitably, make discoveries. And making discoveries is a fundamental ingredient of creativity.

When I was a painting student at RISD I discovered that I enjoy the stretch of time that passes between having an idea, a plan, and realizing it. That the uncertainty of the journey of creating something, the lag between first motivation and later outcome, can be enjoyable, even thrilling. If you are on the path to becoming an artist, too, or any other creative job, I invite you to watch how other artists and makers, older than you, manage to stay true to themselves through that creative uncertainty, i.e. the interaction between right brain open attention and left brain focus and analysis. Look for smart people who know more than you, watch them and see how they work, how they move through the world.

And when something you’re witnessing is great, truly great, when the hair on your neck stands up in admiration for something or someone, make sure to take notice. Learning to pay compliments if inspired, is as important as learning to give honest feedback if asked. Try to become an athlete in your own field, however un-athletic it may be, and by that I mean dedicate yourself to practicing your stuff, over and over and over. When you need help, look around—ASK. Then offer your help back to others who cross your path needing help. They will. There will undoubtedly be times to give back, and it’s rarely to those who once gave to you, but usually to others, in other ways.

Three and four generations ago, our women ancestors in this country, and many countries around the world, began to fight for their right to vote and didn’t give up, a struggle that is hard for us to imagine today. We take for granted their then newly-won right to participate as equals in governments and society, and our natural inheritance of it. As women we all have been given the fruits of women’s struggles of the past, so I would like to ask you graduating girls particularly, to never miss an election: to go out and vote for what you believe in, who you root for, who represents you. Like so many other female writers and artists, Virginia Woolf struggled to shake off her sense of the confinement of her imagination, her creativity, asking herself: “What IS a woman? I do not know… I do not believe anybody knows until she has expressed herself in all the arts and professions open to human skill.”

Along those lines I want to invite you, in your lives, too—to go, if necessary, against the tide. The women who fought for our rights in the past, for us to vote and to be equals in the arts and all other professions, went against the tide. Conditions would never have changed if they had waited for someone powerful to make the changes for them. So don’t miss a chance to engage in dialogue about difficult things — and that’s usually not when difficult things are easy, but when they are difficult to discuss. Point out and pause for injustice whenever you come across it in your lives.

If necessary, go against the tide.

But truly, and most of all, and in all of this: I would like to invite you to be infectious with a good, open attitude. Having a good attitude is not a minor secret skill, something hidden under the surface of your personality, but it is completely and utterly visible to anyone who comes anywhere near you. If you don’t know how to do it, watch those who have mastered this art, and then practice it like the French Horn, or third level dressage. You can actually, really truly learn how to light up a room, and not miss a chance to be genuinely curious. A good attitude goes hand in hand with curiosity, with openness, and with a flexibility of one’s ego.

And even if you’re as considerate and humble and kind a person as you can possibly be—for as long as you can—you might still encounter incredible obstacles for long inexplicable stretches. Then I want you to trust: to trust that none of what you invest your heart and energies in will be in vain. The trick is to shape your destiny with your intentions but to expect nothing directly back—except to be surprised. In Buddhism this is called “the light of the world”: that the karmic fruits of your being will keep arising. But it is your responsibility to see the world with your best, open attention, as the squirrel does before it narrows its focus on the outcome of the nut. To learn to see the choices that you will make.

What lies ahead for you is a road of gains and losses, between which you will make your home. This making of a home will most likely be the most creative and individual act of your lives. Why creative? Because there is not realIy any kind of guidance for it other than your own, so you must use your intuition, intention, and practice. John J. Audubon, in the preface to his guide to birds in America, reminds us that “If the bird and the book disagree, believe the bird.” Use your own inner light to shine your way, to stand straight, to stand right up, and stand light and firm on the ground you’re claiming for yourself, the self you are becoming. Take IN the whole scene of your life, as it unfolds. And, “I urge you” said the writer Kurt Vonnegut, “to please notice when you are happy.” Which means, to actually notice when all is well for the moment, when the air is clear.

It is my honor to remind you today, and to remind you to remind yourselves in the weeks and years to come, wherever you may be, that each and every instant is, in fact, a rare moment of creation. That sense of your journey can be, and I hope that it will be, your very own sense of happiness. As if he had known about the squirrel, and maybe he did, wonderful E. E. Cummings put it best:

“(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)”

Congratulations, dear Seniors.

- Anna Schuleit Haber
June 6, 2014

Leave a comment

Filed under Graduation, School Happenings, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School