Each September as the new school year begins, academic faculty and staff re-energize and reflect on the challenges ahead. We are pleased to share messages from area school division heads — they provide inspiration and perspective on educating our kids.
Michelle Holland is the lower school principal at Friends School. She delivered the following speech to parents and faculty at lower school “Back to School” night on September 16, 2011.
How many of you remember the 1976 television show Wonder Woman? Linda Carter wore that red, white and blue power suit with the golden lasso of truth, had on her wide gold bracelets and could run any distance in those three-inch heel red and white boots. How about Lee Majors as the Six Million Dollar Man? Come on some of you remember the opening lines, “We have the capability to build the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.” They were the superheroes of my childhood. I still think it’s pretty cool that Wonder Woman had that invisible airplane, but I’m way more impressed that she could run 10 miles in those go-go boots and her hair never got out of place and she never broke out in a sweat!
Tonight I want to share a short story of something that I experienced one fall day in 1986. It took place deep in the forest on a cool, but sunny day – just after a refreshing rain. That day I had on a belt similar to this one. It was a utility belt and on it I had my canteen, my poncho, my shovel, and any other small tools I may have needed for the assignment I was given. When I went into the forest, this belt and my uniform gave me a sense of security, kind of like the Wonder Woman belt and lasso or the Six Million Dollar Man’s bionic left eye.
For a few moments, imagine with me that we all have on invisible belts similar to this one. Let’s call it the “Belt of Nurture.” On it are the various tools we use when parenting and teaching. They are similar tools, just used in slightly different ways depending on the child and the situation.
William Oats, a well-known Quaker educator, suggests that the word education comes from the word educare, which means to nourish or nurture someone. He says, “To nurture someone in learning is not only to provide information and ideas which might be instructive, it is also to encourage habits of study and habits of thought which enable one to think critically, independently and creatively. The process of encouragement and nurture is the teaching-learning process.” Our work as educators and as parents is to use the tools on our “Belts of Nurture” to help develop the habits which bring nourishment and that allow all of our children to grow ever stronger and truer to themselves.
On this October day many years ago, I was in the woods with about 20 other ROTC cadets and we were on a land navigation training expedition. We were assigned coordinates and each of us walked off into the woods alone to locate them using our compass and map. After a couple of hours of walking and finding my coordinates, I came to a swampy area and there for the first time since we started our journey, I saw a couple of cadets. One in particular caught my eye. Her name was Andrea and she was ducking behind a large tree. I went over to her and asked, “Why are you doing that?”
She was visibly shaken and replied in a low, almost whispering voice, “A turkey is chasing me.” I looked around, surveying the area for any undercover gobblers and responded, “Andrea, there are no turkeys here. You aren’t being chased.”
She stood up, with the look of fear on her face, peeked around the tree, and said firmly, “Yes, there was and it was chasing me through the forest. I’ve been trying to hide from it.”
I saw another cadet and we told Andrea to come with us. We all walked across a fallen log and went to the other side of the swamp. After we crossed, she seemed relieved and calmer so we all went on our separate ways. I found a couple more coordinates and decided to have lunch. While sitting on a log eating my sandwich, I began to chuckle thinking about Andrea saying a turkey was chasing her. How odd. Clearly she had imagined it. That Andrea!
I put away my things and looked around seeing a deer in the distance. It was really peaceful and quiet here. I started on my journey again and after a while I began to hear a noise. I stopped, looked around and saw nothing, so began to walk slowly again. Each time I walked I could hear something moving behind me. My heart began to race. I sped up and it sped up. I slowed down and it slowed down. Oh my goodness, oh no! Andrea was right – now a turkey was chasing me I began to run and it ran. The faster I ran, the faster it ran. I was in full-blown fear mode. I was running like a maniac through the woods, yelling, “Help me! A turkey is chasing me, a turkey is chasing me!” I ran and I ran, zigzagging through the woods, hoping to lose its trail, but it didn’t work. It kept following me. “Help!” I cried, “Help!” and then finally, I saw it, the opening in the tree line that meant I was coming to a clearing. My way of escape and rescue were only a few steps in front of me.
I ran out of the woods frantically, and saw Sergeant Major Simpkin’s green beret. Surely this decorated master sergeant would save me from the grip of this turkey. “Sgt. Major, help! A turkey is chasing me!” I cried. Sgt. Major took one look at me and burst out laughing. I don’t mean a small chuckle. I’m talking about a bend over at the waist, side shaking like Jello, kind of laugh from deep within. His laughter made me stop. What in the world could be so funny? Was he being amused by my distress? Just then I heard, “Cadet, Cadet! Stop and turn around.” As suddenly as it had come, Fear left and Understanding walked in. It wasn’t a turkey at all. It was simply my poncho dragging the ground.
That day I learned to slow down, to turn and to notice – to allow the process of continuing revelation to take place.
There is a well-loved Shaker song called “Simple Gifts” that we sing at each Thanksgiving Convocation and a portion of it says,
When true simplicity is gain’d, To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.
I believe that it’s in the turning, in the talking, in the collaborating, in the partnering, that we’ll come round right, Truth will step forth, and Understanding will hold our hands.
I was recently listening to an inspirational speaker and he said, “It matters where you plant yourself. A special blessing can rest on you as you abide in particular places. During my 16 years here at Friends School, working with this wonderful faculty and the many, many dedicated parents, I can say for me that this place has been an extraordinary blessing in my life. As in any relationship, growth takes place and we experience seasons of change from time to time. With change, with newness, sometimes that old tag-along wanna-be companion– Fear – will seek to attach itself to us and will attempt to rob us of our blessing.
Fear will arise and say loudly, “Don’t look, keep worrying, and be anxious!”
Blessing will softly respond, “Look closer, listen more intently, and stay calm.”
Fear will stamp its foot and seek to uproot and divide.
Blessing will build a bridge, collaborate, and connect.
Fear will run away and attempt to create static and reactive noise.
Blessing will walk with its head held high, noticing its surroundings, embracing the silence, and responding to the proactive noise.
During this year of reflection, resilience, and renewal, let’s say farewell, so long, and good-bye to Fear and say hello and welcome Blessing with open arms.
As parents and educators, let’s join forces like the unforgettable Super Friends duo, The Wonder Twins and watch our collective powers activate the habits of mind and heart that allows our children to grow to new levels of curiosity, creativity and knowledge.
Let’s become the women of wonder and the million dollar men that our children need and expect us to be in order for them to fully do what the world needs and craves for them to do. Together, for our children, we have a high and divine calling.
So Fear? or Blessing?
Hmm? Let me reflect on that for a moment. My choice is easy: “Hello Friends, Welcome Blessings!”
Parents and Teachers, we have the capability. Our children will be resilient and grow stronger. Enjoy your time getting to know each other tonight and in the days to come.
Michelle Holland is the lower school head at Friends School.