What We Do With Our Wild and Precious Lives

December 17, 2021

Head of School Allison Gaines Pell speaks from the podium at the 2021 Holiday Festival.
The following are Head of School Allison Gaines Pell’s remarks at the 2021 Holiday Festival.

Good morning!

Before we begin, I want to say a few thank yous. Thank you to the Performing Arts faculty and staff, and to the Wheeler Broadcasting and Technology Teams. When we started talking about how to bring back the best and safest Holiday Festival possible, they immediately jumped in with various versions and have been willing to flex and adapt as our conditions have changed. Thank you to our whole faculty and staff who continue to guide our students through times both hard and joyful, despite it all. Thank you to our families for your patience, your support, and your partnership. And thank you to our students, for being just who you are, for challenging us, making us smile, and giving us purpose.

I am so happy to be standing here once again looking out at a sea of faces. Time has been speeding by and I cannot believe that Holiday Festival is here already, so let’s start by taking a big deep breath together.


We are here.

This time has been filled with uneasy imbalance. For almost two years, we have wrestled with new normals, setbacks, and worries. Some of us have known each other before this began, and some of us have only just met. We miss each others’ faces and embraces, and we long for a time before. And also, because the pandemic has been such a seismic shift, it has allowed us to surface vital questions, about who we are, who we care for, what we hope for, what we want.

As we begin today, I want to talk about small moments. There are few who put this to words quite so well as a favorite poet of mine, Mary Oliver. One of her most well-known poems is called “A Summer Day,” and it describes a small moment in the summertime.

A Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

It is befitting that, like our own founder Mary C. Wheeler who asks us to learn our powers and be answerable for their use, Mary Oliver asks a similar question: what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? As you consider this, consider for today moments the size of this observation of the grasshopper: moments of contemplation, of gratitude, empathy, and goodness.

Here is a collection of what I see here:

Here is a kindergartener running up to her friend to grab her hand to walk into school together.
Here is a colleague who jumps in to help when a teacher has to be out unexpectedly.
Here is an 8th-grader, who gathers an empowerment group to help girls navigate COVID together.
Here is a colleague who painstakingly builds dozens of plexiglass screens and just as carefully dismantles them a year later.
Here is an 11th-grader, who stops the world when the trumpet meets his lips.
Here is a 4th-grader, who shares his opinions with The Rhode Island House Education Committee.
Here is a group of families who band together to help when another Wheeler community member becomes ill.
Here is a dining staff member who makes the extra effort to make a chicken salad that she knows a colleague will enjoy.
Here is a family long connected to Miss Wheeler, who sends holly to the faculty and staff at Wheeler each year.
Here is an 8th-grader, who stops to thank her teachers.
Here is a Lower School parent who creates an opportunity to connect parents and guardians by taking walks together.
Here is a nurse who cheers for a student when she reports she’s on the mend.
Here is a 4th-grader, who finds her voice on the stage and in song.
Here is a senior, who is a mentor for others because someone else signed up to be that person for him when he started at Wheeler.
Here is a 10th-grader, who stirs and spurs our thinking with her poetry.
Here is our own Mark Harris, who decided 50 years ago that his car breaking down upon leaving College Hill would result in a life used to give young people the chance to explore their curiosity.

What we do with our wild and precious lives in the big scheme of things matters, of course, but it is made up of a very long chain of small choices and miniscule moments as well. Oftentimes, we have thoughts of what we should be or wish we were or want to be. Over these next few weeks, consider what we have and where we are today, the friends sitting by your side, the colleagues and family members who are carrying us through this time. Notice and expand the goodness of the small things and experiences.

And on that note, today’s Holiday Festival, as modified as it is, represents an important step forward. Today, as we watch our youngest performers and some of our eldest, we can collectively witness the impact of hard work, of creativity, of the power of music to lift us up. Yesterday, as we ended our rehearsal performances, we all walked to the courtyard where we joined together for our favorite “Take Up the Song,” an experience we created together to build the “collective effervescence” – the shared energy, joy and purpose – that we all need more of in our lives. I wish for all of you that you find ways this holiday season to create and indulge in as many of these moments of collective joy as possible.

From all of us to all of you, have a wonderful and peaceful break, happy holidays, and a healthy and peaceful new year. Let’s begin.

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